Baker on Barkawi, 'Soldiers of Empire: Indian and British Armies in World War II'

Tarak Barkawi
Elizabeth Baker

Tarak Barkawi. Soldiers of Empire: Indian and British Armies in World War II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. xvii + 321 pp. $24.99 (paper), ISBN 978-1-316-62065-6

Reviewed by Elizabeth Baker (Notre Dame) Published on H-War (August, 2020) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version:

Tarak Barkawi’s Soldiers of Empire takes on two of the central questions of sociological military history: How are soldiers made? And how do they fight? Barkawi uses a heady mix of classic military sociology, postcolonial theory, cultural studies, and compelling narrative to convincingly argue that soldiers are made and remade during war to suit the exigencies of localized fighting. Furthermore, and more central to Barkawi’s contribution to the field, these soldiers fight as a cosmopolitan unified force. Throughout Barkawi’s answers to these central questions runs his explicit insistence that Eurocentric models of military history and sociology cannot accurately interpret a global phenomenon like a so-called imperial army. Soldiers of Empire centers its argument and narrative around the Indian Army as it bore the brunt of the burden fighting Japanese troops in British Asia during World War II, but it also has a much broader purpose—to argue that people go to war similarly across the globe and often, it has nothing to do with the nation-state they supposedly represent.  

Soldiers of Empire is divided into three parts. In part 1, “Colonial Soldiers,” Barkawi demonstrates the ways particular social contexts create specific, yet cosmopolitan, armies. Barkawi cleverly resists the society-versus-army dichotomy and instead insists that “society and army belong to a single analytic field” (p. 17). In fact, in Barkawi’s estimation, society and army are co-constitutive. By unmaking this dichotomy, Barkawi demonstrates how the Indian Army recycled and fashioned anew ethnic identities, cultural resources, and army protocols to create a cohesive and cosmopolitan fighting force. Several scholars, notably Heather Streets-Salter in Martial Races: The Military, Race, and Masculinity in British Imperial Culture, 1857–1914 (2011), have demonstrated how the “martial races” discourse organized, explained, and pathologized Indian troops in the Indian Army while also failing to understand the diversities of Indian soldiers or recognize the ways Indians used the inaccuracies, faulty premises, and prejudices of colonial knowledge against British officers and army recruiters. While much of chapter 1’s analysis of the martial races discourse in the Indian Army is familiar ground, Barkawi takes the existing literature a step further in chapter 2, “Unmaking an Imperial Army,” when he analyzes why the Indian Army could not uphold the elaborate fictions of the martial races in the face of Japanese advancement in British Asia.

In chapter 2, Barkawi also begins to demonstrate another key part of making a successful cosmopolitan army—cultural adaptability without sacrificing fighting spirit or army discipline. For while the martial races organized the Indian Army for several generations, and changed cultures and communities in the process, the onset of World War II and the huge need for more and more troops necessitated that the Indian Army find, and find quickly, a new way to recruit, train, and initiate as many Indians as possible into the rituals and disciplines of the Indian Army. As chapter 3, “Politics and Prisoners in the Indian Army,” discusses, even when confronted with the lure of the pro-Japanese Indian National Army, the arguments of anti-imperial nationalist politics, and the brutality of the Burmese Front, the Indian Army managed to effectively maintain discipline and obedience from Indian soldiers even as their service contradicted the politics of the nation-state. This argument succinctly demonstrates Barkawi’s project to decenter both the nation and nationalist politics from discussions of cosmopolitan armies like the Indian Army in World War II.

In part 2, “Going to War,” Barkawi continues to chart the ways the Indian Army “made” soldiers instead of merely mustering them. Barkawi theorizes and narrates the careful selection and recruitment practices as well as the training practices and rituals that created a cohesive fighting force regardless of “outside political order, a national or ethnic group, or regimental lore” (p. 186). This book section answers both of Soldiers of Empire’s framing questions as Barkawi demonstrates how and why Indian soldiers fought in British Asia on behalf of the British Empire. Especially notable in this section is Barkawi’s constant return to the theme of decentralizing both the nation and the West from sociological military history. His emphasis on the near-universal power of drilling and training (chapter 4: “Defeat, Drill, and Discipline”), cultivation of feelings of belonging within a hierarchy (chapter 5: “Ritual, Solidarity, And Sacrifice”), and the shared othering that occurred on the battlefield (chapter 6: “Battle”) convinces readers to look outside nationalist historiographies and their narrow theories to explain war.

In part 3, “History and Theory,” Barkawi moves away from his two central questions of how and why soldiers fight and instead considers the theoretical consequences of the evidence and ideas animating Soldiers of Empire’s first six chapters. Here, Barkawi makes a powerful case for how reframing “imperial armies” as “cosmopolitan armies” is a fruitful way of not only decentering military history away from Eurocentric narratives but also thinking more about the shared battlefield behavior of armies across geographical and temporal frames. Chapter 7, “The Experience and Representation of Combat,” considers how battlefield experience shapes war-writing and the historical record while chapter 8, “Cosmopolitan Military Histories and Sociologies,” recaps the theoretical contributions of Soldiers of Empire as a conclusion. For the purposes of this review, it is instructive to note that Barkawi highlights three main contributions of Soldiers of Empire in this final chapter. First, Soldiers of Empire demonstrates the importance of reshaping military narratives from the national to the cosmopolitan. Second, highlighting the rituals and traditions present within modern armies helps account for the cohesion and effectiveness of a cosmopolitan army. Last, Barkawi urges his readers to rethink the politics of armies and in the case of the Indian Army, depoliticize it. Barkawi notes, “We are left with the irony that disciplined armed forces, so crucial to politics, relies on elementary forms outside their realm” (p. 258). Soldiers of Empire decenters the nation-state and in so doing it decenters traditional understandings of political motivations of soldiers as well. This last chapter specifically will be of great use to a wide range of researchers.

Throughout its chapters, Soldiers of Empire goes back time and time again to the problem of previous scholarship on the Indian Army—that it was framed in national, not cosmopolitan, terms. This is one of the key reasons Soldiers of Empire is such an important contribution to the field. Its narrative is always tied back to theoretical and historiographical considerations. However, given this virtue, it is odd that the book’s structure attempts to delineate chapters 7 and 8 as the “theoretical chapters” and place them cordoned off in the section entitled “History and Theory.” This distinction seems arbitrary, especially as the author admits that chapter 6, for example, “is more self-consciously theoretic in intent and execution” (p. 161). Perhaps it would have been more helpful for readers to have this scholarship either more integrated with the other theoretical sections of previous chapters or offered at the beginning of the book. However, this is a minor quibble over an impressive piece of scholarship. Soldiers of Empire is a welcome addition for those wishing to know more about the motivations and movements of the Indian Army on the fronts of British Asia during the Second World War or those interested in Barkawi’s theoretical framework and comments on cosmopolitan armies. Soldiers of Empire has applications far and beyond the relatively obscure but fascinating campaigns it examines.


Citation: Elizabeth Baker. Review of Barkawi, Tarak, Soldiers of Empire: Indian and British Armies in World War II. H-War, H-Net Reviews. August, 2020. URL:

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In Memorium:

With a little hesitance, posting upon this volume concerned with the Indian and British Armies during WW II, the subject forwarded, for reference, does not directly indicate the Author's History. Instead, it should be a probable adjunct more directly focused upon at least one example related to the former British Empire history with India.
A more fitting place might be with some United States Marine Corps history. It is a memoria, however to one of the finest men and Professors [as Educator] have ever met and known to some
H. Arthur Steiner Ph.D. and Faculty of UCLA Political Science Dept., in International Relations and Poly Sci, was one of several mentors during graduate school studies. His courses about China played an important part in that time and studies.
The included online reference sets forth Prof. Steiner's invaluable contributions which served to
develop my interests in history, political science and international relations sought during graduate study years and even afterwards.

His military records with the Marines are worthy of mention on this Hwar web as his own experiences brought a more complete knowledge and[in this opinion] command to the subject of China during those years which proceeded our own present history and experiences.

The present volume concerning India and its History seems appropriate for mentioning this American academic, professional and historical record as part to the larger effort from the book indicated on H-war.
Collection Title:Collection Number:Get Items:Finding Aid for the H. Arthur Steiner Papers, 1942-1945629
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Table of contents What's This? Description:: H. Arthur Steiner (1905-1991) was a Marine corps officer during World War II and a professor of international relations and political science at UCLA. His areas of expertise were in India and China. The collection is composed of documents relating to Steiner's service as an operations officer during World War II. Included are U.S. military maps, intelligence photographs, photograph albums documenting Saipan operations, military proclamations and military pamphlets and ephemera, as well as Japanese language material. Background: Professor and World War II Marine corps officer H. Arthur Steiner was born in 1905. Steiner completed his B.A. and M.A. degrees at UCLA in the late 1920s and received his Ph.D. from Berkeley in 1930, specializing in the field of international relations. He taught political science and international law first at the University of Michigan and returned to teach at UCLA in 1931. Apart from his wartime service Steiner stayed in residence at UCLA until his retirement at the end of the 1960s. He was chosen as Political Science Professor of the Year by the Pi Sigma Alpha Honor Society in 1963. Steiner left his position as associate professor at UCLA in 1942 to serve as a captain in the Marine corps. He served in the World War II Marshall and Gilbert islands campaigns, and participated in the fighting on Saipan, Tinian, and Guam. He was attached as operations officer to the staff of Lieutenant General Holland M. Smith, commander of all Marine forces in the Pacific area, and his responsibilities included maintaining front line contacts and conducting aerial reconnaissance of landing beaches. In March of 1945 he was awarded a letter of commendation from Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz for his work collecting and evaluating information of technical value during the Marianas Islands campaign. Steiner also served at Iwo Jima. Steiner first visited India and China as a Marine Corps officer and later made these regions his area of expertise. His authored works include Communist China in the world community (1961), Principles and problems of international relations (1940), Government in fascist Italy (1938), and the lecture series Mussolini's Italy (1936-37). He edited Chinese communism in action (1953), Maoism: a sourcebook; selections from the Writings of Mao Tse-tung (1952), American Academy of Political and Social Science Report on China (1951), Significant Supreme court decisions, 1934-1937 (1937), and edited and translated Constitution of the Chinese Communist Party, adopted by the Seventh National Party Congress, Yenan, June 11, 1945 (c1949). Steiner also contributed to the published works The international position of Communist China, political and ideological directions of foreign policy. Thirteenth conference, Institute of Pacific Relations, Lahore, Pakistan, February, 1958 (1958), and Local government in Europe (c1939). In the late 1950s and in the 1960s Steiner was described as an old China hand. He never mastered the Chinese language, but was selected by his peers to participate in the formation of the Joint Committee on Contemporary China of the Social Science Research Council and the American Council of Learned Societies. Arthur Steiner was married to Lois Steiner; the couple lived in Los Angeles. He was Professor Emeritus at UCLA when he died in 1991.

Extent..3 boxes (1.5 linear ft.) 2 oversize boxes 11 map folders RestrictionsProperty rights to the physical object belong to the UCLA Library, Department of Special Collections. Literary rights, including copyright, are retained by the creators and their heirs. It is the responsibility of the researcher to determine who holds the copyright and pursue the copyright owner or his or her heir for permission to publish where The UC Regents do not hold the copyright. AvailabilityCOLLECTION STORED OFF-SITE AT SRLF: Advance notice required for access.