An estimated 14 million to 20 million Chinese died during this epic struggle of resistance against Japanese aggression in a war that produced a staggering 80 million to 100 million refugees. Despite the prolonged onslaught of Japan’s modern military machine for eight long years, a divided China, mostly on its own, put up a heroic fight against steep odds, pinning down 600,000 of its troops and playing a crucial role in weakening Japan by inflicting heavy casualties on forces that were better armed, supplied and trained. The official death toll for Japanese soldiers killed in China between 1937 and 1945 is 480,000.

CHINA’S WAR WITH JAPAN, 1937-45: The Struggle for Survival, by Rana Mitter. Allen Lane, 2013, 458 pp., £25 (hardcover)

China was a quagmire that forced Japan to squander vast amounts of resources that put it on a collision course with the Allied powers and undermined its Pacific War effort. To secure the resources it needed to win the war in China, Japan attacked resource-rich Western colonies in Southeast Asia and fatefully, the U.S. at Pearl Harbor.

Historian Rana Mitter points out that China’s key role in World War II is often overlooked, usually portrayed as a sideshow. Here we are given a magnificent rendering of these horrific years and a sense of the terrible price the Japanese exacted before their ultimate surrender.

The Sino-Japanese War began in July 1937, somewhat haphazardly in the vicinity of Beijing at the Marco Polo Bridge. After deadly skirmishing, local commanders had arranged a cease-fire and it seemed unlikely that the incident would flare into all out war, but Tokyo wanted to settle matters.

Mitter draws on a wide array of sources to give us a flavor of war in all its merciless manifestations. He presents a relatively sympathetic account of the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, the generalissimo who led Chinese resistance, pointing out that his forces did much more of the fighting than Mao Zedong’s Communists. But in 1949 Mao won the civil war against Chiang and thus the victor’s history that has prevailed until recently in China greatly inflates the role of the Communists while the far more crucial role of the Nationalists has been marginalized. Here they get their due, perhaps overly so.

In a war that was marked by awful atrocities inflicted by the Japanese marauders, the myth that Tokyo was out to liberate Asia is a cruel joke in China.

Perhaps one of the most devastating episodes was when Chiang ordered the breaching of dikes that held back the Yellow River. The deliberate flooding of vast stretches of Henan, Anhui and Jiangsu in 1938 was aimed at slowing the Japanese advance and was done without warning to preserve the element of surprise. Some half a million Chinese died in the deluge and another 4 million were displaced from their homes. It was a ghastly price to pay, but is emblematic of the determination and sacrifices that enabled the Chinese to prevail. True, Chinese battlefield victories were few, but by trading space for time and avoiding decisive defeat, Japan’s proud warriors were worn down by a nation that would not surrender.

The devastating impact of the war has shaped modern China in profound ways. It marked a huge setback for China’s nascent modernization, scarred society by inflicting humiliation and privation on an extraordinary scale and provided the template for the mass mobilization and ruthless suppression that marred Mao’s China. Mitter also points out that the wartime demands of the state intensified — grain requisitioning, forced labor, conscription — and as a result people came to expect more from the state.

Amidst a savage war, he argues that the Nationalists laid the foundations for a modern welfare state by providing food for millions of refugees while improving health care and sanitation. Yet the constant air raids on Free China’s capitol at Chongqing and the generalized scourge of war hampered such efforts.

Moreover, the needs of the peasant farmers clashed with those of the Nationalist troops who conscripted their sons and eventually seized their grain as “tax.” In Henan Province this lead to famine in 1942-43 that claimed 4 million lives, an avoidable tragedy that exposed incompetence and corruption among the Nationalists. This led to a bitter backlash in 1944 when peasants surrounded Nationalist troops sent to counter a Japanese offensive in the region, beating and killing officers while stripping soldiers of their weapons.

Chiang never had good relations with Roosevelt, Churchill or Stalin and resented that China was never accorded the respect or gratitude he felt it deserved. But during the first years of the war, it was Soviet military assistance that helped keep China in the war. In 1942 the U.S. sent Gen. “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell to advise Chiang, but their relationship proved disastrous, souring bilateral relations and undermining China’s war effort. Here we learn that Stilwell was an incompetent “know-it-all” officer with no command experience who recklessly gambled on disastrous forays into Burma.

In the first campaign he deserted his Chinese troops and fled to India and thereafter sought redemption in a second debacle during which 80 percent of his troops, some of China’s best, suffered casualties. Stilwell was obsessed with his media image and always backstabbing Chiang to divert attention from his own ineptitude. Mitter makes a compelling case that Stilwell’s foolish actions made Chiang’s battle to survive Japanese onslaughts even harder.

Chiang may have won the war, but Nationalist corruption and depredations alienated the war-weary Chinese and thereby facilitated Mao’s victory in the civil war. Because the Japanese had caused so much damage, a poor country became even more afflicted while the Nationalist troops bore the brunt of Japanese attacks. In this sense, Mitter concludes, Japan was handmaiden to Mao’s China and all the horrors that unfolded.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan Campus.

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