Another entry in a growing genre: outdoor-action writers (e.g., Hampton Sides, McKay Jenkins) turning to the Big Outside of WWII for material.
Former Outside editor Webster has his wilderness skills down, useful knowledge for discovering traces in the South Asian jungle of what veterans assured him wouldn’t be there: the Burma Road. Getting to those traces was no easy matter, thanks to vigilant border guards in India and Burma, who apparently take a dim view of camera-toting adventurers; one bureaucratic encounter too many prompts Webster to remark, “. . . frustrated near my limit in the morning’s rising heat, I break into a smile. I realize that, more than anyone, Stilwell would understand.” The Stilwell in question is, of course, the legendary American general dubbed “Vinegar Joe” by his admiring troops, who cobbled together a formidable fighting force out of ragtag elements of various units and then, more difficult, forged an alliance with Kachins and other tribespeople and even with the British, who had very different ideas of how to fight the Japanese. Faced with a tough enemy army and—as Webster reveals—battling cancer all the while, Stilwell did nearly the impossible, establishing a backcountry link from India to China by which, over land and air, Chinese forces could be supplied. Those forces were variously Communist and Nationalist, another source of complication; then there were the bizarre demands of Chang Kai-shek (who once ordered Stilwell to provide one watermelon for every four Chinese soldiers stationed in Burma); then there were the monsoons, pythons, and assorted other inconveniences and dangers. Combing the archives and interviewing survivors, Webster crafts a lucid narrative that wrestles with any number of legends (Merrill’s Marauders, the Chindits, the bridge-builders over the River Kwai) and celebrates Stilwell’s remarkable accomplishments in the field.
In all this, Webster doesn’t add much to the standard histories, but he brings a light hand and solid storytelling skills to his task.