Tarak Barkawi, "Soldiers of Empire: Indian and British Armies in World War II" (Cambridge UP, 2017)


Tarak Barkawi, a Reader in International Relations at the London School of Economics, has written an important book that will cause many of us to rethink the way we understand the relationships between armies and societies. In Soldiers of Empire: Indian and British Armies in World War II (Cambridge University Press, 2017), Barkawi argues that many scholars of Western armies tend to overstate the degree to which motivation and fighting spirit as well as the urge to commit atrocity derive from the characteristics, strengths or weaknesses of the societies the solders come from. Studying the British Indian Army in Burma during World War II, Barkawi sees instead the way that ritual, drill, and constructed traditions that are more internal to the army itself do more to explain how that army fought so relatively effectively. The Indian peasants who filled the ranks of the British Army shared little socially, politically or otherwise with the United States Marines who fought the Japanese on Guadalcanal. And yet they fought equally hard and with equal brutality against their foe—on behalf of their colonial overlords. Barkawi attends not only to larger political context of British India and to the recruitment and training of the British Army in India, he also describes in considerable detail specific engagements in Burma that make clear how group solidarity and the will to combat are constructed even in an army for whom the normal Western markers of belonging (patriotism, religion, ethnic heritage, even a common language) are absent.

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