The Gentlemen Soldiers of Pakistan
Sunday, November 29, 2009 1:38:41 PM
The trilateral talks between the United States, Pakistan and Afghanistan in Washington recently ended with a renewed avowal to obliterate terror networks. Pakistan has shown concrete steps on ground destroying the Taleban headquarters in Swat, a move that should be lauded internationally. The Pakistani Army is fighting one of its toughest internal wars ever. Fighting one’s own people is in no way easier than fighting conventional wars.
There is the unseen specter of civilian casualties to be dealt with. The US drone attacks in many regions of Pakistan have killed more than 700 innocent civilians. Drone attacks bring about visions of a huge disinfectant pump, flying in the air, emotionless and sterile; ruthlessly eliminating colonies of ants and cockroaches below. But people are not insects. In Afghanistan almost 2000 people have perished due to US led attacks last year. The UNHCR has estimated that almost a million civilians are going to be displaced in this operation. To add to this humanitarian crisis, President Obama announced that 20,000 more troops are going to be deployed in Afghanistan. One wonders what happens to the power dynamics of an already disturbed region when such a large number of armed men are further pumped into it. China is one country that has categorically expressed concern over such a large American military presence in the region.
So what would these additional 20,000 troops bring to the region? More death and destruction. War after all is so ugly and sordid.
Imtiaz Dharker, a Pakistan born poet married to an Indian, puts it so beautifully in the poem ‘Battle-line’ from her book ‘Purdah.’ She speaks here of a marriage, though her imagery is that of a war. It could almost be evocative of the mis-marriage India and Pakistan have shared for years:
Did you expect dignity?
All you see is bodies
Crumpled carelessly, and thrown away
The arms and legs are never arranged
….the body becomes a territory
shifting across uneasy sheet….
These two countries lie
Hunched against each other
who have fought bitterly
and turned their backs….
But has India tuned its back? Are we immune to what’s happening there? No. India may be preoccupied with the elections right now but we welcome the proactive measures taken by Pakistan. Better late than never. A safe Pakistan definitely means a safe India and the region. And even though our soldiers have mostly fought against each other, India appreciates what the Pakistani Army is doing today to rid the region and the world of its biggest threat. At the same time, no matter which country they belong to, soldiers are people-human and fallible. I have grown surrounded by soldiers all my life— my father, husband, father-in-law and a maternal uncle are all army officers — and have had the privilege of seeing their loving, nurturing sides. I have known army men who sing, dance and make merry, who cook a mean curry and start spewing poetry after the third drink. Men who are gallant and chivalrous, who open doors and offer chairs to ladies. Men who have cried over a break-up; and wept bitterly the day they got their first ‘kill.’
It is difficult for me to perceive how ruthless these men would have been in battle situations. I have known them as gentlemen. Would they be capable of cold-blooded killing? Would they cease to be chivalrous the moment they enter a ‘war zone?’ Could they gouge another human clinically, not flinching as he lay dead, oozing blood? Of course, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. I am not saying that soldiers should give up their guns and become artists or poets. But I am sure being in touch with their feminine sides, makes better soldiers and gentlemen out of them. I know that ‘courage under fire’ is important. But so is ‘grace under fire.’
One of my most avid readers is Munir Ishrat, a retired Colonel from the Pakistani Army. Here’s something that he once wrote to me.
“I want to share a thought with you because you belong to a family that knows well the pros and cons of wars. I, too, have fought two wars – 1965 and 1971 – as an officer of the Pakistan Army. I would like to tell you that very few of the soldiers who have fought wars really like war. War is not a good thing. This is true. And I am sure even on your side of the fence the hatred against war will be no less. Soldiers fight wars because they have to respond to their call of duty. Defending their country’s honour and sovereignty is their primary job — irrespective of the nation or the country they belong to. But they are human beings, too.
Let me quote an incident of 1965 War. I was a young officer and part of a force that had captured some Indian territory on the night of 6th September following the Indian forces attack in Lahore Sector earlier in the day. We found on the next morning that everyone had left the nearby village, leaving behind three old inmates — two men and a woman. They had somehow survived the shelling and fighting of the previous night and had to stay back due to their old age. You may not believe it but our troops looked after the three old people very properly for the rest of the period of the War. I myself used to fill their buckets with water from a hand pump and carry it to their homes during the lull in shelling. They were to us fellow human beings and not just Indian citizens! No body thought of harming them. The feelings on their faces when they were being handed over to the Indian officials after the ceasefire told a lot about their gratitude.”
I know Munir is a thorough gentleman. I only wish that a majority of the troops deployed in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border are the kind of gentlemen that I have known army men to be. But drones are something else. They are not even in touch with their human sides. Drone attacks are not manned by fathers, brothers, sons and uncles. Drones would not know these things even in a million years.
Shivani Mohan is an India-based writer. She can be reached at email@example.com