John Chynoweth has written a fascinating insight into an unusual career path in an unusual part of the world. Of course as a National Serviceman in the early 1950s he did not have much choice in what his destiny would be, but I am pretty sure that during his grammar school days he would not have anticipated crawling through the jungles of South East Asia. In many ways, this book does help illustrate just how vast the empire had been and how all sorts of opportunities and responsibilities were available in even the twilight years of The British Empire.
From 1948 to 1960 Malaya was embrolied in a nasty guerilla war. The use of the term Emergency was a euphemism designed to help protect insurance policies of settlers whose properties were not covered by damage caused in acts of war. the term Emergency also shows that spin and manipulation of the English language is anything but a new art form! I doubt that many of the thousands of the victims of the Emergency thought that it was anything other than a full scale war. As a junior commander in the army, the author had a unique view on this rather warm part of the Cold War.
The book is written in a very crisp and clear manner, in fact it reminded me very much of the writings of a military man in that it is curt, direct and very much to the point. He wastes little energy on extrenuous details. He does not beat about the bush and certainly does not hide his views behind flowery language. It is a stronger book for its honesty - even if you do not always agree with the author's conclusions.
Having said all that, the organisation of the book is not as straight-forward as his writing is. The core of the book are the letters home to his parents. He selects cuttings from these letters from his time in the National Service and adds comments or further explanation to them as the case requires. It is this section that is undoubtedly the strongest part of the book. These three chapters reveal life in the army as the author undergoes basic training and is then selected as a National Service Officer which in itself was unusual. Then, to make it more unusual still, he is posted to Malaya during its Communist Insurgency and he is given command of a platoon in the Malay Regiment. His alternative title for the book 'A Conscript in the Native Infantry' would perhaps give a more accurate, if condescending, description of his posting.
For a grammar school boy to end up leading some 40 Malays through the jungle looking for Communist Terrorists is both strange in its peculiar setting and yet also strangely familiar as international terrorism raises its spectre once more at the beginning of the 21st Century - although not in its Communist manifestation. I caught myself time and again extrapolating the author's experiences and insights and comparing them to the intelligence and counter-terrorist activities of the modern day. Who says history is irrelevant?
The book is also valuable as a primary source document in that it puts the author's experiences into the context of the day. It is easy to forget that this campaign was not fought in isolation. The Insurrection was anything but a simple nationalist movement for independence. The Communists were primarily drawn from the ethnic Chinese minority of the Malay peninsula. The indigenous Malays and the Indian minority stayed firmly against the Communist insurrectionists. The Chinese had of course been inspired by the Chinese Revolution of 1949 but it is interesting for the author to point out the wider strategic concerns of his day as they consider the war in Korea or the French defeat in Vietnam at Dien Bien Phu. It is interesting to read that so many of the officers in the British and Malay armies were from the recently disbanded Indian Army or the Palestinian Frontier Force. From a book concerned with events in a specific corner of the Malay Jungle, you can get a feel for a very different world as it was in 1953 and 1954.
Another interesting aspect of the book is that you can also see how an individual can change over time. As the author is commenting on letters written some 50 years ago, he can provide a sort of before and after view of himself. Of course, he can agree with or explain most of his actions from half a century ago, but every now and then he winces at his own behaviour or views from that period of history. The easiest example to give of this is his desire in the 1950s to indiscriminately slaughter much of the wildlife he came into contact with. We could probably all agree on removing the threat from scorpions or snakes, but the author of 1953/4 also wants to kill wildlife posing little threat to him - even to the extent of wishing to shoot a tiger so that he might have a rug to bring home as a trophy. This is a good illustration of how most of us can be moulded by the ideals of an era more than we would like to admit. Mid-twentieth British society revelled in the ideals of the hunt. Half a century later and with various species facing extinction (including the Tiger in Malaysia) we are less happy to excuse the indiscriminate killing of animals because we can. In the author's defence, he does recognise this particular change in his own moral values.
It is his descriptions of the jungle that makes its strongest mark. The author of 50 years ago wants to be sympathetic to his new experiences in this unusual setting, but the sheer uncomfortableness of the heat, humidity, dirt and drudgery of the ordeals of patrolling the jungles near the equator does take its toll on his enthusiasm. Falling down elephant footprints in swamps, extracting leeches from anywhere and everywhere on the human body can start to wear you down and that is even before you remember that there are hostile terrorists out there who want to kill you if given half the chance. These descriptions are fascinating although his brevity and crisp writing can be frustrating in places - I would have liked this section to have been much longer than it was.
The rest of the book is not quite as satisfying. The author does try to give wider historical context into why the insurrection started and what mistakes were made by the commanders and there is an odd final chapter where he reviews comments by Chin Peng, the leader of the Terrorists for 12 years. Unfortunately, a combination of his curt and direct style of writing and his obvious sympathies for the Malays and against the Communists means that this is an unfulfilling section of the book. If either of the problems could have been addressed, this book would be a more complete endeavour. Either he needed to go into far more detail and have offered a far more comprehensive description of the origins, direction and conclusion of the insurrection; Or, if he was more even handed with his treatment of his foes. I would have been far more interested to read about the motivations and grievances of the Chinese terrorists and of the very large section of the Chinese community that supported them. Whether he agreed with them or not, it would have been helpful to have supplied more information along these lines. Also, he tends to treat Communist sources critically and yet rarely challenges the accuracy of British sources. A classic example of this is when he uses the quote that perhaps 100 innocent peasants had been mistakenly killed by the security forces. This was over a 12 year period where over 10,000 people had been killed. Given the messy nature of guerilla war, I find this figure to be rather on the conservative side. The author may be right in using this figure, but he should at least demonstrate an equal scepticism to the figures on both sides of the conflict.
Would I recommend this book? Unquestioningly, Yes. Does it have flaws? Yes, but which book doesn't? If you want to read about the experiences of a subaltern serving in the field in a conflict that was a fascinating cross between guerilla warfare, imperial withdrawal and cold war politics then this is a book for you. If you are more interested in the causes, course and consequences of the conflict in its entirety, then you might find your appetite whettened by this book, but you may want to go on to a fuller course after.
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