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.


  1. First of all, this is a fascinating essay. I am something of a military buff myself, not as well read as you, though, but I have my interests.
    Military, or in some cases, the Armed Forces, is something that has always inspired little boys, even to an exaggerated notion of altruism, at times. Therefore, I have always felt that there is something inherent in our cultural systems that ingrain a sense of, say, pride and power in us (of course, justifying them as "right" and "moral") which is exemplified by the Army, or as you use the broader and more apt term, military.
    I think that the military, in any society, is a precarious institution. History will give us several examples, that you and I are well aware of; military coups, military states, militancy terrorism- they somehow connect with the idea of 'use/abuse of power' that you've brilliantly mentioned, which though, ironically enough, is always justified by those who perpetrate violence.

    This brings me to a second important idea, one that wasn't very explicit in your essay; "war".
    The moral purpose of war is a question for philosophers to answer; the fact is, war, or any form of conflict, is for power. The power to place one's ideas higher than that of the others. War, and thus, the agents of warfare (the military, and the martial knowledge) are then pawns in game of power. War, according to those who wage it, is to be used by the righteous to 'defend' their ways of life. This sort of a 'defense paradigm' (if I may use that term) is what gives war (and thus, the agents of warfare) a sanction that goes beyond questioning; I think this becomes a plausible explanation for the ingrained cultural conditioning that I'd mentioned earlier.

    I don't think there can ever be peace, at least not the kind we idealize. The defense paradigm consistently creates a need to defend ourselves, either against an enemy of of our ways, or one who, on our side, questions the need for it; in this case, to be branded an 'enemy of the state'.
    War comes at the cost of peace.

  2. I dunno if you've seen these movies, but they're some of the best when it comes to this discussion that you've started.
    1.'A Few Good Men'- Jack Nicholson as a Marines Colonel, simply brilliant!
    2.'Full Metal Jacket'- one of the best movies on the Vietnam War.
    3.'Crimson Tide'- Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman...another masterpiece.
    4.'Kannathil Mutthamital'- A Tamil movie, by Mani Ratnam; talks of the LTTE war...this, my friend, is a must watch!

  3. Thanks for the movie list.

    War figures in mildly in my essay, but notice that the logic of war begins only when you accept the logic of military or of power. War doesn't come before that. So, most of what is war is preventable much before it. Secondly, when matters of culture are concerned, I would hesitate to accept 'ingrained' as a word describing values. Values (and taboos) are introduced, sustained, or discarded. Never are people being moulded by them in a causative process. Which means, a defense paradigm first needed an offense paradigm to precipitate, take any case. And that is, incidentally or not, also when militarism first rooted itself.

    The argument is succinctly summed up by Captain Jack Sparrow in the latest Pirates: "All of you wish to fight all the rest of you there just because this man here wants to kill that man there?" Militarism could not exist without indoctrination of children, as you said. It's unfortunate that those controlling education are also those who need the military desperately.

    Thanks for the reply.

    1. Very Interesting essay Prateik. I think the things that you have pointed out in your critique of military history are valid concerns that are shared by many in and out of the field of military history. The historian's craft has been reduced in the field of military history to a set of hide bound beliefs that many are unwilling to let go of. That being said it is also true that military history is going through major changes in which concerns like those of your grand mother in '65 are receiving the space that they deserve. Military Historians are increasingly confronting issues that were earlier considered "Social" history and it is hoped that in time the perception of military history will change to one that engages rather than alienates audiences.

      I am not sure however whether you completely understand the concept of militarism. The awareness of militarism seems to be present in some parts of your essay while at others there seems to be a certain confusion of militarism with (normative) military effectiveness which is broadly the measures taken to win wars as opposed to the legitimation of military institutions. There is a very interesting argument that militarism is actually detrimental to military effectiveness.

      The ethical argument you make about republic day and the preferences given to the military is certainly justified. I would go further to argue that the military in India has certainly made strides in the direction of communal exclusivity.

      All in all a very well thought out critique of the ideas tied to military history.

    2. Thanks for the comment. The bit about military effectiveness has got me thinking. Suppose we look at the mandatory following of orders by a subordinate: that seems to me to fall both under military effectiveness, with the purpose of harmonizing military action, hence working with optimum force/cooperation, etc., but also under legitimizing of the superordinate's hold over the subordinate (hence fostering military hierarchy, hegemony of the higher-up, even the decisions about when to use violence and when not to). What I'm saying is that only when one accepts the argument that one must fight, and must institutionalize a body responsible for it, does the argument of efficacy come in. I'll be glad if you point out the cases (in this essay or otherwise) where military effectiveness does not already assume militarism. Also if you could elaborate upon this: "There is a very interesting argument that militarism is actually detrimental to military effectiveness."

      "All in all a very well thought out critique of the ideas tied to military history." Ah, you've been doing those tuts religiously.