Tag Archives: Burma

A slog across northern Burma ad majorem gloria of US Army generals

If ever there was a unit that needed a nickname it was the “5307th Composite Unit (Provisional)”! If Brigadier General Frank D. Merrill (1903-55) was as hands-on slogging through the jungles and over the mountains of Burma as Jeff Chandler (1918-61) portrays him in the 1962 Warner Brothers celebration “Merrill’s Marauders,” that moniker was apt. ((The “provisional” indicates that the unit is formed for a special mission or operation and will be disbanded after its completion… and there were only 103 soldiers of the original three battalions of 3000 volunteers left to be reassigned.)


Merrill trained them and led them on a 90-day trek behind enemy (Japanese) lines to attack the Japanese after which they were to be relieved by British troops (and disbanded). Gen. “Vinegar Joe” Sitwell, commander of the relatively minor US forces in the western front of the war with Japan flies in and orders the exhausted and malaria-riddled 5307th on to attack Myitkyina in the far northeast of Burma (the Kachin state) a railroad hub as well as a hub for the road by which the Japanese planned to attack India. (In the movie, Merrill’s Marauders take Myitkyina by themselves in one swoop, though in reality there was a prolonged siege by Chinese (Kuomintang) and the British-Indian “chindits” were also involved.)

Director Sam Fuller had been an infantryman in Europe during World War II and wanted to film his own platoon’s story. He had already written the script for what many (18) years later would be “The Big Red One,” and made two of the best Korean War movies (Steel Helmet, Fixed Bayonets) and was not interested in making the jungle attrition movie in the Philippines. Though US Army officials had been very unhappy with the portrayal of US soldiers killing prisoners in “Steel Helmet,” Warner Brothers  received co-operation from both the US and Filipino armies in making  “Merrill’s Marauders.” (The US Army was displeased by the well-documented disregard for the health of the marauders and the failure to supply them with adequate rations, and succeeded in getting showing GIs shooting other GIs in the Shaduzup maze deleted.)

Gritty for its time, the movie shows Merrill’s determination and refusal to heed his attending physician’s (Andew Duggan) judgment that (he and) the men were not fit for combat. His protégé Lt. Stock (Ty Hardin) is in Merrill’s view too close to his men, though Stock soldiers on after Merrill refuses to relieve him of command of his vanguard platoon. Chandler was not just acting being in pain (Merrill had a second heart attack while on the mission) but was in pain from a back injury. Surgery (malpractice) on that killed him before the release of the movie.

In comparison to the two Korean War movies, I thought there was little characterization of the fragile cogs in the war machine. In common with many American war movies, it is a puzzlement that Japan conquered so much territory, including driving Merrill’s regular army unit out of Burma in the first place. Every direct encounter results in Japanese soldiers being killed with relative ease. There is only one in which the outcome is close (it involves a second American bayoneting the Japanese solider in the back). And on the scale larger than hand-to-hand combat, the Japanese flee from every attack. Even the Japanese snipers are easily picked off by a single US sharpshooter’s shot.

The movie incorporated battle footage from “Battle Cry.” Other than the censored Shaduzup maze (tank trap) sequence, there was nothing of particular visual note. On the other hand, there are none of the lapses of basic moviemaking competence that occur in most other Fuller movies. I don’t blame him for the music (Howard Jackson gets that), because I don’t think he had final cut authority. I’d like to think he wasn’t responsible for the epilogue, either.

There is one touch of Fuller black humor: Gen. Merrill is visiting the outdoor field hospital. The soldier being worked on opens his eyes and belligerently asks: “Who are you?” Merrill responds:”Merrill, who are you?” The feverish soldier asks “Did Lewinsky make it?” (I don’t remember his name and it isn’t in the credits.” He then drops back dead. Merrill a repeats the now-dead man’s question. The surgeon replies “He was Lewinsky.”

The movie provides no background on the politics that made Gen. Joe Stillwell to need an American contingent fighting in northern Burma. A British group passes through, but there is no indication that the British were involved in taking the rail depot at Shaduzup or that the marauders were not the main attack force at Myitkyna air field (that was the Chinese Expeditionary Force) on 15 March 1944 or that the the Japanese held on to the town of Myitkyna until 3 August (when 800 Japanese retreated from the town) long after the surviving marauders had been flown out. British troops were also involved at Myitkyna. The failure to show that there was anyone by marauders at Mytikyna is more than typical American ethnocentrism but part of a larger effort to valorize only the US military in winning World War II. It seems likely that the Mytikyna air field would have been taken if the exhausted marauders had not undertaken the arduous march across the Muzon mountains (the movie shows this being mostly swamps, though some Philipinne mountains do appear) and ended their expedition back at Shaduzup. They were exhausted, but Stillwell needed some Americans at the climactic battle (Myitkyna). Eighteen years later, Warner Brothers made it look like the remnants of the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional)”! took Myitkyna. (That they were sacrificed for the ego of Gen. Stillwell and jockeying among Allied commanders does not detract from the heroism of the infantrymen who went on long past the point of exhaustion.)

Merrills-Marauders (1).jpg

The epilogue celebrates the Special Forces marching on (actually the rows looked ragged to me!) is jingoism at its worst, encouraging the hubris of increasing US military involvement in Southeast Asia, first with the Special Forces who were particularly doted on by President John Kennedy (who, among other things, encouraged wearing of green berets, which had been banned, and began their combat involvement in Vietnam). Though the movie shows exhaustion and sickness felling US soldiers in droves, the end stresses a sense of omnipotence that encouraged more military adventures (even under the shadow of the stalemate in Korea).

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

A beautifully written Burmese Odyssey

From the Land of Green Ghosts, a memoir by a member of a Padaung — a small Burmese hill tribe best known for the elongated necks and neck rings of its “giraffe” women until recently — is extraordinary not only in content but in its writing. As did the painfully moving Catfish and Mandala, it won the Kiriyama Prize for nonfiction.* I’ve been rereading two of the most generally recognized great novels of the twentieth century (Invisible Man, The Master and Margarita, both focusing on pressures (of American racism and the Stalinist state apparatus) on sensitive souls. I did not feel any less mastery of form or language in reading Pascal Khoo Thwe‘s memoir and would be prepared to argue that it has no superfluous material, unlike both of those canonized classics.


One resemblance to those other two books is that From the Land of Green Ghosts seems to contain several books. First, there is a “native ethnography” in which Thwe recalls growing up the grandson of a Padaung headman/chief. Their village, Phekhon, converted to Catholicism in 1930, though continuing to revere Lord Buddha, to fear nature spirits (nats) and ghosts, and maintaining many animistic and shamanistic beliefs and practices. For instance, the rite of baptism does not occur until various traditional ways of warding off evil spirits are invoked. Thwe, born in 1967, is a devout Catholic who vividly illustrates from his own and his family’s experience a syncretism of beliefs. For instance, the gratitude to him of owls (for one of their number he saved as a child) is expressed in warnings from owls at several critical junctures.

There are many critical junctures. Despite all the catastrophes of “the Burmese way to socialism” (a road that led from Burma being one of the most prosperous parts of Asia to impoverishment like that of North Korea) and the repression of the military government of Ne Win and his successors, Khoo Thwe led a charmed life of sorts. After the 1988 student demonstrations (in which he participated as a University of Mandalay student), the love of his life was disappeared (after earlier serial rape as part of her interrogation). He returned home and made speeches against the repression, barely escaping one set of assassins by fleeing his childhood home, and another that crossed the border into Thailand to eliminate his voice (after it had been broadcast on BBC). In between, a group of students of which he was a part was lost in the jungle, and he was under heavy fire in several battles between the Burmese army and the Karen State “rebels” who took in the refugee students. He was struck by several bullets, He also survived a poisonous snake bites and severe malaria, which he matter-of-factly describes.

After the relatively idyllic tribal childhood (eating wasps, breaking cobras’ spines, etc.), Thwe descended to the plains where the ethnic majority (Burman, considered “green ghosts” by the Padaung) lived. Semi-educated martinets professed government propaganda, but knew little about their supposed subject and the students had little material to study. (Khoo Thwe wanted to study English literature, inspired by reading James Joyce’s Dubliners. Hundreds of students shared one copy each of two books in English: The Old Man and the Sea and Good-bye, Mr. Chips.) Students had to take down everything teachers said, memorize what was often nonsense, and never question or debate whatever authorities (including teachers) said.

A fervent quest for education is one important strand of the story. Khoo Thwe becomes the first Padaung to study English at a university and eventually becomes the first student from Burma to earn a degree in English literature from Cambridge University. His grandfather much preferred British to Japanese or Burman masters, and Khoo Thwe reflects that “perhaps those of us who were from the minority peoples had a special desire to take a subject that helped us escape from Burman domination” (in addition to providing a possible key to unlock the mysteries of the West).

It was as a sub-waiter in a Mandalay Chinese restaurant that his interest in Joyce was discovered by some foreign visitors, who related this oddity to Cambridge don Dr. John Casey, who searched out the restaurant and eventually sponsored Khoo Thwe out of Thailand and into the rigorous Cambridge program. (Casey also managed to get Thwe installed in the British Embassy in Bangkok while arrangements were made. This provides a particularly comic interval. Khoo Thwe has a keen eye for absurdity amid harrowing dangers but also for absurdities amidst unaccustomed luxury.)

As desperate as Thwe was for education and access to literature, he had considerable survivor guilt along with much anguish at abandoning his friends fighting with the Karen against the State Law and Order Restoration Council’s army (which nullified the 1991 election in which the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, who was and remained for another decade under house arrest, won 80 percent of the contested seats in a parliamentary election in 1991). He chides himself for a “terrible egotism” in leaving (though by writing this book of testimony and work with Prospect Burma, he continues to contribute to the fight for democracy in Burma).

While living and fighting with the Karen soldiers, Thwe was reading Portrait of a Lady and poetry that, among other things, made him wonder what a daffodil must be like. Despite being descended from a paramount leader of his people who was a ferocious critic of the follies of New Win’s crackpot policies, and although eventually turning out to be an effective orator, Thwe tried to avoid “politics.” Seeing demonstrators shot, his girlfriend disappeared, and the universities shut down by rulers who have destroyed the economy and impoverished most of its people, Khoo Thwe was forced to speak out and then to flee.

Having reached England, Thwe found the idea of individuals on different sides of a question arguing diverse positions exhilarating, joining such debate was difficult for someone trained to submit unquestioningly to authority. At a conclave of student leader before he left, he already “realised how hard it was to escape the psychology, the pathology of the regime we detested.” An education requiring him constantly to formulate what he thought about literary texts was daunting, quite beyond having to do so in another language (other than his mother-tongue, Padaung, and other than the language of his education, Burmese).

From the Land of Green Ghosts is a moving tribute to the Padaung and to the martyrs of the misrule of Burma. In contrast to another writer enamored of English literature who got to England, V. S. Naipaul, Thwe loves the land and people he left behind and celebrates them and their struggle rather than laughing at them from the perspective of the British. Whereas Naipaul is sardonic about everyone and everything in Trinidad (and, indeed, everywhere except rural England), Thwe is sometimes bemused, but more often elegiac, feeling sympathy even for the young soldiers sent to kill him. Naipaul has produced a large body of work, whereas this memoir is the first book by Khoo Thwe, but for largeness of spirit, Naipaul could not compete with Pascal Khoo Thwe.


The book contains drawings by the author, some maps, and a number of photos, all of which help readers get bearings on a particularly exotic people. The Padaung were missionized in 1930 (when a priest won a wrestling match with Thwe’s grandfather), and his family members avidly listened to BBC International (which the regime had not figured how to jam before Thwe fled). Though the military dictators tried to disappear the whole country from contact with the rest of the world, I found it wryly amusing that one of the Burman soldiers proclaimed an identification with Rambo, and one of the Karen soldiers hummed the Bee Gee’s “Staying Alive” as he rescued a stranded group of student soldiers.

P.S. Pascal Khoo Thwe provides a useful perspective on another of the wars declared by the US directed at places and peoples little (or not!) understood by US strategists, the “war on drugs”:

“Government officials soon realised that they could enrich themselves by becoming unofficial agents for opium warlords, and so would destroy only a few token fields. The weapons supplied by the West were turned instead on internal enemies of the regime. The alleged fight against drugs became an excuse to attack ethnic rebels and even villagers who showed any opposition toward the government. As a result, the opium trade boomed as never before.” (p. 57)


©2003, 2017, Stephen O. Murray


* I’m a bit puzzled at how Burma (or Cambridge) can be considered “Pacific Rim,” in that Burma borders the Andaman Sea, though another earlier winner of the prize was Michael Ondatjee’s Anil’s Ghost, set in the Indian rather than Pacific Ocean.