Friday, August 10, 2012

Environment and Warfare in the South Pacific

I am just finishing Eric Bergerud’s excellent Touched with Fire: The Land War in the South Pacific. This analysis focuses on the men, conditions, and structures of the opposing armies much more than on the generals and their plans. One of the best parts of this book is a chapter devoted to the unique environment of Papua/New Guinea, which was an active participant in the war as much as any other factor. Although small, there is a growing interest in examining the cross section between military history and the environment. My one big take away item for the role of the environment is that neither the Japanese nor the Americans/Australians were fully prepared for jungle warfare. It was an unfamiliar environment for both sides. Malaria and jungle rot (sounds like real horrible stuff) affected both sides. The torrential downpours and omnipresent mud tormented the combatants without discrimination. In fact, the allies were a little better prepared for it both logistically and medically than were the Japanese, although movement of supplies, including quinine, was slow in the miserable conditions. What made the Japanese soldier appear to be such better jungle fighters can be attributed to their intense indoctrination in the code of Bushido that they received in their training, not from some inherent predisposition to the terrain. This was an orchestrated effort by the army to counter the fact that their men were poorly equipped and supplied compared to their contemporaries (the navy definitely got the gravy in imperial Japan). Bergerud also discusses the native peoples of the region who wanted the war to go away. Australian Coast Watchers could survive in isolated regions, but the individual Japanese soldier and small patrols ran the risk of natives picking them off if they got the chance.

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