Listen to the old soldiers' tales while there is still time

Testaments to courage and cruelty, they remind us how easily the world can be led to madness

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Such noise, what crowds, the smog thickening in the lungs. Were it not for the breeze coming off the Indian Ocean, I would count this the most hellish city I've ever visited. Bombay is a boom city, the leading battle-tank in India's economic revolution. Scrambling behind that tank are millions of migrants crowding into the biggest slums in Asia. I have abandoned the search for suitable superlatives; it is too exhausting. I am entirely subdued by the scale of everything.

Such noise, what crowds, the smog thickening in the lungs. Were it not for the breeze coming off the Indian Ocean, I would count this the most hellish city I've ever visited. Bombay is a boom city, the leading battle-tank in India's economic revolution. Scrambling behind that tank are millions of migrants crowding into the biggest slums in Asia. I have abandoned the search for suitable superlatives; it is too exhausting. I am entirely subdued by the scale of everything.

It was nothing like this when 18-year-old John Shipster stepped off the Athlone Castle in 1941. In those days Bombay was the capital of the great Bombay Presidency and was regarded as the gateway to India. Indeed a monument with this very name was erected in 1911 on the harbour - a beacon to servants of the Raj arriving after the long journey from Britain.

John Shipster remembers going into the Taj Mahal - then as now the city's premier hotel - to order a beer. He was regarded with complete disdain by the Europeans in the bar. For Shipster's clothes bore the marks of a long sea journey in cramped quarters. He had just poked his nose into the cloistered, stuffy world of the imperial demi-gods - a young lieutenant heading for the jungles of Burma. In just seven years, the stuffy world John Shipster encountered in the bar of the Taj would be gone; the war against the Japanese would make the continuation of British rule in India a practical and moral impossibility.

John Shipster witnessed the last of the age of white supermen in India. "Our living conditions were far better than anything we'd previously experienced... between the huts were the ablution blocks with cold showers and bucket-type latrines; these were emptied by the sweepers, who patiently waited for the sahibs to deposit their excreta. I remember being asked after arrival if I was a hazri ke pahle wallah or a hazri ke b'ad wallah: that is, did I perform before or after breakfast?"

I met John last winter on a sharp sunny day. I took the train to see him in the west country with his son Michael, a good friend of mine since the days when we both worked in South Africa. Michael is a diplomat with a difference: he plays a mean blues guitar, and for a while we had a band which operated under the unlikely and wholly inaccurate moniker of Total Onslaught. That is another day's story.

Michael's father, now well into his seventies, was writing the story of his experiences of battle, from the Burma campaign against the Japanese to the struggle against the Chinese in Korea. The idea was that I would take a look at the manuscript and offer any writerly suggestions I could. When I read the book I was struck by the clear, descriptive prose - there was little that needed changing.

I have spent some time in battle zones, but until I read John's book ( The Mist on the Rice Fields by John Shipster is published by Pen and Sword Books at £19.95), had little sense of the true horror and fear of close-quarter combat in the jungle. John Shipster knows it all and more, for he fought in the terrible battles of the Arakan, when the Japanese Imperial Army threatened to sweep into India. The Japanese charged in suicide rushes, the opposing armies dug in literally yards from each other. For two terrifying weeks, John Shipster's unit found itself with no radio communications and with Japanese troops in front and behind. The troops - mostly Indian Army soldiers - were exhausted, hungry and disoriented. In one incident he recalls walking up to a fellow officer only to see him killed by a sniper as he began to speak.

Shipster was wounded twice, but never thought of seeking a cushy job somewhere behind the lines. As he writes in his book: "It may seem incredible now, but at the time I considered that leading a company of soldiers and mules on an arduous march into enemy-held country was a perfectly natural thing to do."

The book is full of this kind of understatement. As an account of a soldier's life in the forgotten war of the Burma campaign, The Mist on the Rice Fields is a worthy addition to the body of recorded history. But John Shipster has a humour and a humanity that take it beyond the usual account of military exploits. The sorrow and pity of war are there, and a determination not to indulge in hatred of the enemy after the battle. This will be a controversial book, particularly for the veterans of Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. An advocate of reconciliation, John Shipster has travelled to Japan to meet his old enemies. (He also made the journey to India in his advancing years to meet the men of his old regiment.)

I am an avid reader of world-war memoirs. They are testaments to courage and cruelty, and they serve as vital reminders of how easily the world can be led to madness. Alas, those who can tell and teach us most are dying off. Their stories should be told, and yet we seem determined to telescope the idea of remembering into a brief period every November.

This isn't just true of Britain. Anybody growing up in Ireland in the Sixties, knowing little or nothing of what really happened in the War of Independence and the Civil War, would surely have benefited from hearing the recorded stories of veterans. Thankfully, there is now a greater openness about those years, and television and radio producers have been travelling the country taping the memories of survivors. I wish we'd been able to hear them when I was young.

In Britain, it is not a case of too little memory, but probably a sense that we have heard it all before, that all the stories have been told. Haven't we had endless documentaries, countless films on the Second World War? True, but if we still struggle to analyse the wars of the Napoleonic era, how can we say that we are remotely close to a full appreciation of what happened in a conflict so recent and of such magnitude as the Second World War?

During the Depression, FD Roosevelt's government dispatched writers to travel across the US to record the stories of an entire generation; the pioneers of American expansion whose history would vanish with their deaths. The result was the Federal Writers' Project, a fabulous archive of living history. (You can access it on the Web.) The Imperial War Museum does a good job of recording soldiers' stories. But our educational curriculum pays too little attention to the grit of war, the lived experience of fighting men and women. I'm sure students hear a lot about the big picture, but the stuff that makes a real difference to their understanding - human voices like that of John Shipster - needs to be taken out of the vaults and museums and made a central part of the history syllabus.

Why are war veterans not asked and encouraged to lecture in our schools? The experience of the Second World War defined the country we live in today, and altered forever Britain's standing in the world. Set against the pressing issues of the contemporary political agenda, this will seem like small beer, nothing to get worked up about, a columnist's sentimental whining. But the idea that the voices of those who fought and suffered will go unheard by coming generations seems very wrong.

The author is a BBC special correspondent

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