War is Not a Joke

When the French statesman Georges Clemenceau, who led his country into the First World War, said that ‘war was too serious a matter to be left to generals’ he wasn’t demeaning his commanders. It meant that active conflict is not a light matter to be trifled with and thus should not be left to people, who due to their training, have a natural propensity towards conflict. Many decades later, John F. Kennedy followed a similar principle in not adhering to advise of his generals in dealing with the Cuban missile crisis.

If wars teach us anything it is that these must be avoided not cherished. Those, who understand the ugliness of war and violence, can appreciate the tyranny of war more than those for whom war is perhaps nothing more than a thrilling videogame.

Thus, it can be appreciated when young Russian, Ukrainian, German and Armenian musicians got together in Berlin in late August this year to participate in the 16th Young Euro Classic Peace Orchestra and played to send a signal of peaceful coexistence and international understanding to their respective governments and other in Europe. The 1500 musicians from 44 countries gently challenged cultural biases of their state and political blocks. This was meaningful in the context of Europe that looks strained due to the West’s attitude towards Russia.

And who understands war and violence more than Europe that experienced years of bitter wars over competing political, religious and power divides. Moreover, people of Europe have lost millions fighting both protracted hot and cold wars. The crowd in Berlin would certainly have been amazed to see India and Pakistan recently celebrate a war rather than peace. War are remembered not because of gains made or loses to the enemy but to remember all precious lives lost due to egos of their leaders or that they couldn’t find a reasonable solution. I remember a recent conversation with the sibling of one of Pakistan’s brave war hero who received the highest military award for laying down his life in 1971 war. The sister so wanted him to be alive today and not dead. She wasn’t ashamed of her brother’s sacrifice but weary of those who use these deaths to market war as worth cherishing. This sister was certainly troubled by the increased jingoism on both sides of the divide.

Such expression of heroism is farcical considering that the way 1965 war was fought by both India and Pakistan. The war at best denotes antics of two 2nd World War veteran militaries that were terribly unimpressive in fighting decisive conventional battles. Conscious of its relative technological superiority, Pakistan started Operation Gibraltar with the intent to provide fillip to a wrongly imagined uprising in the Kashmir valley. The gains made during the battle of Runn of Kutch earlier that year gave Pakistan’s generals a sense that they could outmaneuver Indian army in Kashmir, especially with the help of better American equipment. Not only that the plan, which was based on poor intelligence did not work, it provoked a war across the international boundary. So, those of us, who grew up reading about 1965 as a victory were truly amazed to hear the then army chief, Mirza Aslam Baig admit in 1989/90 that this was not the case. This act of his was considered as army’s version of ‘perestroika’. The urgent image change military needed after General Zia demanded truth as a concession to people.

However, India’s performance during the war was equally unimpressive as it could not manage a decisive victory despite that it had greater numerical potential to snatch tactical initiative from Pakistan. The poor inter-services coordination put it in the same league as Arab militaries that failed to make gains despite crossing the earlier considered impregnable ceasefire line into Israel in 1973 Yom Kipur war.

But then those were comparatively decent wars in which casualties were limited. Apparently, the two enemies lost approximately five thousand people in its three wars. This cannot be said about the present age of ‘mutually assured destruction’ where annihilation could be at an unimaginably larger scale. (I have always believed that Japan should lend its Hiroshima and Nagasaki exhibitions for display for ordinary Indians and Pakistanis). Notwithstanding love for their respective countries, people must at least know what can happen in case of a nuclear war. May be when people actually understand the grave risk of nuclear wars to life and future generations that the idea of using nuclear weapons if a crisis goes out of control may not appear very cute. No one, who has lost a loved one, can dispassionately talk about death.

However, observing young serving officers fight virtual battles and promising to finish the unfinished job of 1965 reminds one of how important it is for a professional military to ensure that its men are seen only in barracks and not on twitter and facebook. The leadership may be willing to defend the nation but that requires for it to harness its men from expressing opinions that could complicate perceptions.

It is equally important for these brave men to be taught that bravado is not synonymous with lack of appreciation of life. Majority of militaries globally have not really fought conventional wars they were initially programmed for which means they have not really had taste of its lethality. The appreciation of how increased dedliness of weapons makes conflicts bloodier than imagined. Wars aught to be the very last resort than the first available option.

The manner in which war is imagined and verbalized indicates a lack of appreciation of the fact that those brave men that we remember did not just die for the sake of dying but so that their future generation could live. The talk of annihilation is anti-life. With a thousand times increase in velocity of destruction caused by nuclear weapons its important that while committed to protecting their nations, military men remain humble about war and death. I will re-iterate that professionalism requires emotions to be kept in check and not influence decisions of leadership.