Sunday, May 29, 2011

On military history and militarism

I suffer from some reservations, and a feeling that I am wasting time, whenever I read military history. This is one reason why I couldn't understand Tolstoy's War and Peace and the second part (titled 'Cosette') of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, which began with the narration of Napolean's final fall at Waterloo. The problem was, firstly, that there seemed to no landscape that I could see things happening in, so when I would be told that a division was cut by another or that one division gained advantage due to being higher than its opponent, I couldn't sum up what it meant. But even when I did pick up the major events and the general course of the battle, I would want this narration to get done with quickly. I didn't see how it added to the story (and haven't realized till today) and wondered why such beautiful and comprehensible, even to a thirteen year old, writing should ruin the simplicity and flow by the addition of such seemingly insignificant but exasperating events.

That was still a piece of literature (the purpose of which one can't dictate nor prescribe beyond practice); in history, military records enjoy a more formidable and already justified position. The object of a military historian's narrations is military strategy; pages and pages are filled with description of the slightest of details of the events and itinerary of battles, tales of courage and cowardice, and as a cherry on the cake, some witticism as to how things would have turned out differently had different things happened. The account simply buzzes through everything else – what happened to the civilians living there, what thoughts went through the minds of those fighting, and such things – unless such observations would help further the narration's cause. Moreover, all are inextricably immersed in the dogma of making believe, by means of the ingenious tool of accounting, that one side gained more than the other, or that the other side was in some way more unjust than this one.

Take for example footnote 78 from chapter 15, India After Gandhi (pg. 815), “In his memoirs, (B N) Kaul argues that Se La was a well positioned and well fortified garrison that could have held out for a week or more; he blames its fall and the flight of troops on the failure of nerve of the man in charge, Maj Gen A S Pathania.” In his choice of words, the lieutenant-general preferred “failure of nerve” rather than, let's say, love and respect for life, or valuing life, or something such. For the military, and the state that seeks refuge in it's force, acquiring arms, displaying them, keeping territory, spreading jingoism, such aims are of worth; concerns of civilians in conflict-wrought areas, individually made decisions of those on the battle-field, non-militaristic approaches to peace, such things are not really of much importance to think about. Moreover, the military could hardly be expected to diagnose the cause of conflict in anything but brute-confrontation, so that even its solutions reflect the same. The case for beneficent militarism is well in place, considering peace keeping missions like the ones during LTTE-Sri Lankan state conflict, Rwanda, Serbia and Bosnia, etc. Or at least the rationale of them. Two issues come to mind: in places that have little media attention, or when such arrangements are made possible, the military is known to indulge in excesses. It is worthy to note Jagmohan's excuses to initiate draconian measures by the Indian Army in Kashmir, citing complete deterioration of law and order, and prevalence of bloodshed (pg. 21, “Everyone Lives In Fear: Patterns Of Impunity In Jammu And Kashmir”, HRW, 2006). Even when the rationale is held sacred, beneficent militarism does little to mitigate the harms of general militaristic doctrine. In fact, never has beneficently motivated military force been used in the first place; the purpose of arms was always to secure gains than to prevent trouble. The argument for beneficent militarism, like beneficent dictatorship, arises as a defense of militarism after its flaws have been pointed out.

It is worthy to direct attention to a few important trends pertaining to the military in its present state. Note, for example, how formidable a class has the military become, not only in national politics, but in the very fabric of society: reservations in education, housing, recreation (these at the expense of taxes), informal sector. Also note cases like the Pune Land Scam and Mumbai Adarsh Society scam, and such others, wherein military men have found to abuse position to gain wrongful ends. One can't help, as always, but wonder, if this is only the tip of the iceberg. Also note that such privileges are reserved only for the upper echelons of the military. This is perhaps also because a military job, at least for a subaltern, does not resemble anything like a standard service: no fixed timings, no well-defined working conditions, no unionization (to think of it, now even other non-military jobs have started to resemble these). Traditional political theory, as far as balance of power is concerned, fails to grasp the autonomy of a military; so that we diagnose a military as a tumour in a nation-state wherein it is seen to exert undue influence, and as a unit leashed to the executive or legislature in states in which it seems sedentary. However, in all societies, it possesses the capability to become autonomous if not appeased. Further, consider the pomp with which one shows one's military technology during national events; accepting that arms may be necessary for territorial defense (as defined, importantly, by political bigwigs, not people), is it any help to display them, just so that another state may take cue and put more economic fuel in procuring ordnance? Which means that even during peace-time, we were busy preparing for a war that would mean increased annihilation. With every Republic Day, we diminish our chances at survival by big measures by showing pride in gadgets meant to destroy.

Real solutions to peace do not lie is the hope that we would exterminate the enemy and prevail when time comes. The fault lies not in beefing up defense, but in ensuring that conditions that cause conflict are confronted non-militarily, on a plane of reason and negotiation. This cannot come to be in a society in which most people are not allowed to speak for themselves. And military history doesn't seem to add to any intelligence upon these matters. I remember stories my grandma told me about the '65 war, how rumours would spread like wild-fire, how homes would have to be made bunkers lest bombs be dropped, how rationing of resources underwent radical change, how people's words and the manner in which these were spoken transformed. Not much military detail or accuracy of events or of strategy; but arguably more consequential knowledge for evaluation and shaping of society.