Friday, June 09, 2006

Between the Covers

Fraser’s account of the British campaign in Burma is a vividly remembered time capsule, and also a sobering reminder of the mind-set men shift into when they are asked to kill other men. Just nineteen years old when the book’s events occur, Fraser details the daily lives of his beloved Nine Section (The "Black Cats"), both in the swirl of fierce and bloody battle, and the quiet down moments.

Modern readers may be put off by Fraser’s seemingly casual racism towards the Japanese. He admits to it, and is refreshingly honest about its roots. His thoughts on the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are telling – He is stridently unapologetic, yet can also write, "If it was not barbaric, then the word has no meaning."

The opening lines:

"The first time I smelt Jap was in a deep dry-river bed in the Dry Belt, somewhere near Meiktila. I can no more describe the smell than I could describe a colour, but it was heavy and pungent and compounded of stale cooked rice and sweat and human waste and ….Jap. Quite unlike the clean acrid wood-smoke of an Indian village or the rather exotic and faintly decayed odour of the bashas in which the Burmese lived – and certainly nothing like the cooking smells of the Baluch hillmen and Gurkhas of our brigade, or our own British aromas. It was outside my experience of Oriental stenches – so how could I know it was a Jap? Because we were deep inside enemy-held territory, and who else would have dug the three bunkers facing me in the high bank, as I stood, felling extremely lonely, with a gallon tin of fruit balanced precariously on one shoulder and my rifle at the trail in my other hand."

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