Reporting the Retreat: War Correspondents in Burma by Philip Woods, London, Hurst & Co., 2016, 206 Pages, ISBN: 9781849047173

Giulia Garbagni reviews a nuanced account of the challenges and contradictions of wartime journalism.

Even though Burma was a crucial theater of the Second World War, the unfolding of the conflict in the country has earned the moniker the ‘forgotten war’— overshadowed at the time by more pressing concerns of the British Empire, and later by historians, who have long treated Burma as a mere appendage of India. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that many important details of the war in Burma have been neglected in mainstream historiography. One of them is certainly the history of the war correspondents that were dispatched to Burma to report the conflict.

This is why Philip Woods’ Reporting the Retreat: War Correspondents in Burma comes as a welcome addition to the growing military historiography of Southeast Asia. The book tracks the personal experiences of two dozen Western correspondents, British, American, Australian and South African, who arrived in Yangon in the early months of 1942, a few weeks before the Japanese invasion. Not long after their arrival in Burma, they witnessed the retreat of the Allied forces from the country— in what has been described as one of the most chaotic and humiliating military operations of the war in Asia.

Reporting the Retreat does not aim merely to provide a general overview of media reporting during the war. Instead, it takes a particularistic approach to the topic by looking at the individual experiences of these reporters, dedicating each chapter to the common experiences and challenges that they faced in war-time Burma. Interestingly, Woods also adds a further layer of analysis, contrasting and comparing the memoirs and books that the reporters published after the war with their wartime reporting. The thematic arrangement of the books allows Woods to draw poignant portraits of the individual reporters and of the conditions in which they had to work.

Among the most memorable characters presented in the book is Leland Stowe, correspondent for the Chicago Daily News, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who had previously reported from Nazi Germany. His fierce critique of the mismanagement of the Burma Road— the route connecting Lashio in Northeastern Burma to Kunming, China, which served as the main supply channel from the Allies to the nationalist forces led by Chiang Kai Shek— stands out as one of the few uncensored pieces coming out of Burma at the time, which ended up having a tangible impact on the management policy of the route.

However, Stowe’s experience was remarkably atypical in a context where reporters faced multiple hurdles in producing thoroughly researched and impartial reporting. The severe control of the colonial authorities represented the biggest obstacle to the work of the correspondents, even though self-censorship also justified the reporters’ reluctance in covering any story that could undermine the Allied war effort. Exploring the censorship of the reporters’ work, however, leads Woods down some fascinating byways. For example, as no journalist was able to report the British attempt to recover the town of Shwegyin, on 11 March 1942, a few hours later, the Army willingly reenacted the battle for the sake of propaganda. This allowed George Rodger, photojournalist for Life magazine, and Alec Tozer, newsreel cameraman for British Movietone News, to photograph and film one of the rare British victories in Burma. As Woods notes, the fact that the army wasted time and resources staging a battle is not only indicative of how journalistic reports were deemed a crucial part of the war effort, but also truly startling, considering that Yangon had already been occupied by the Japanese troops days earlier, on 7 March.

The fall of Yangon was the most dramatic moment of the war in Burma, and the first-hand accounts of the journalists provide invaluable testimony to its tragic consequences for the civilian population. As the reporters were forced to flee Yangon, either via sea or via land through northwestern Burma, they found themselves joining the large waves of refugees that were escaping the Japanese occupation towards India.

While the reporters had little to no knowledge of either Burmese society or of the British colonial administration prior to being dispatched there, it was the direct experience of the retreat that provided them with unprecedented insights into Burmese society, as well as the local attitudes towards the colonial administration and its most tangible demographic byproduct – the large Indian community of Yangon. While their story often goes unnoticed in mainstream historiography, Indians made up almost the entirety of all the evacuees who left Burma in 1942, and their departure dramatically changed the socio-economic landscape of the then-capital. Alec Tozer and George Rodger were appalled by the treatment reserved for the Indian refugees, who were regularly harassed by the Burmese. Tozer even held a Burmese policeman at gunpoint in order to allow a group of refugees to continue their journey.

Crucially, the experience of the retreat was fundamental in shaping the reporters’ unanimous critical assessment of Burma’s Governor, Sir Reginald Dorman Smith. Indeed, they did not spare criticism for his handling of the civilian evacuation of Yangon, which was planned inadequately and executed chaotically. Woods is particularly keen on offering the reader a more sympathetic view of the Governor, dedicating the entirety of Chapter 2 to his defense. Personally, I doubt that Woods will succeed in persuading readers that Dorman Smith’s enthusiasm for ‘tutelary democracy’ was born of genuine respect for the Burmese colonial officers, rather than from self-serving colonial paternalism. Rather, Woods’ analysis of the reporters’ negative bias against Dorman Smith runs the risk of being perceived as an attempt at sanitizing the Governor’s legacy, without adding real value to the purpose of the book.

Nonetheless, Woods’ book is remarkable as it capably intertwines the individual perspectives of talented reporters, using their personal experiences of the war to offer a fresh portrayal of events that have been long neglected in the historiography of World War II in Asia. However, after reading Reporting the Retreat, one is left to sympathize with the traditional skepticism of mainstream historians, who have conventionally treated journalistic accounts of the war with caution. Indeed, Woods’ meticulous descriptions of the censorship apparatus, paired with the very limited exposure that the reporters had to actual military operations and their lack of Burma-specific knowledge, unwittingly reinforce this reluctance.

While the book will perhaps not provide the definitive evidence that journalistic accounts deserve to be treated as equally valuable tools as official diplomatic and military sources, it certainly provides an enhanced awareness of the war reporters’ modus operandi – and of their limits. After all, this might be the key for appreciating their usefulness to mainstream war historiography as ‘the first draft of  history’.

Giulia Garbagni (garbagni.giulia@gmail.com) is a recent graduate from the MSc in Modern Japanese Studies (Distinction) at the University of Oxford, St. Antony’s College. Her research mainly focuses on Japanese foreign and aid policy towards Southeast Asia, in particular Myanmar.