New Internationalist

Casualties of war and political games

2013-08-20-flags.jpg [Related Image]
At the Pakistan-India border Navnetmitt under a Creative Commons Licence

Our newspapers recently reported border skirmishes in which Indian soldiers were killed. These confrontations are common, a regular occurrence on the Indo-Pakistan and Indo-China fronts.

Skirmish is such an inappropriate word, trivializing what happens repeatedly at our borders. My stomach twists into a knot when I hear about the soldiers who die fighting for a barren piece of land between the two countries. They freeze, suffer frost-bite and routinely lose fingers and toes in the Siachen glacier between India and China. I think about the widows and orphans – the grieving, heartbroken families of our men who die for their flag and country and I’m overwhelmed by a feeling of déjà vu, of hopelessness and helplessness. It brings back memories of school poems by Wilfred Owen and other war poets that we recited about the pointlessness of war, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, Theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die, Tennyson.

I can’t stand the thought of these young men becoming mere cannon fodder while political leaders play war games. Neither Owen nor Tennyson knew 21st century jargon like ‘collateral damage’. Such an exercise in futility, such a terrible waste of precious lives. And not just here in India. There are tens of thousands of dead soldiers: young Americans, Iraqis, Brits, Afghans… I think in clichés: when will we ever learn? I can see many people scoffing at this blog saying: ‘Silly pacifists, get in touch with the real world. Guns and nukes are necessary evils.’  

Last week, when six Indian soldiers were killed by Pakistani fire, it predictably created a media frenzy, with hysterical TV anchors baying for Pakistan’s blood and screaming for revenge. It’s even worse than normal, because with elections coming up next year, the opposition wants to portray the current government as weak on the ‘war on terror’.

The Hindu, India’s most intelligent newspaper in my view, carried a couple of articles which were more balanced. While the opposition continues its pre-election posturing, journalist Harish Khare reminds us that the party leaders now screaming for revenge were in power when the Mumbai blasts happened. Their leader, then Prime Minister Vajpayee, was a sane statesman who saw the wisdom in carrying on the peace process rather than spewing venom and shrill rhetoric. Khare writes, ‘It has become incumbent upon the Indian political leadership to try to help create and sustain a constituency for peace and sanity in Pakistan.’

The people of India and Pakistan are fed up of war. But the vested interests, Pakistani extremists and Indian fundamentalists, unscrupulous politicians with small minds and short term election goals, constantly hamper the peace process with jingoism and war-mongering hysteria. A comment on The Hindu article from ‘Salman’ sums it up. He writes, ’ the US had its 9/11, India had its Mumbai, we are bearing the brunt 24/7.’

It’s the week after 15 August, our Independence Day. Most celebrations include a minute of silence, remembrance for our freedom fighters and the thousands of Indian soldiers who died fighting for this country. Their deaths should not be trivialized. But to me, going lightly or unnecessarily into war, for dubious, unsavoury reasons can only prove futile in the long run. This means we treat the lives of our soldiers callously, let them die horrible, preventable deaths.

And this applies to all soldiers fighting wars or defending countries around the world. The forces against peace are myriad – well known war-time profiteers in high places, the arms industry, politicians who turn soldiers into cannon fodder. I know this sounds naïve and simplistic but it has to be said: it really is time we gave peace a chance.

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  1. #1 David Cohen 21 Aug 13

    Mari Marcel Thekaekara's comments on language are important. Skirmish sounds like a USA football contest where the player line up in a scrimmage and face each other.

    There is nothing trivial about border incidents because lives are at stake. Having fought politically US wars in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and US policies in Central America I know people who have lost loved ones in these fights.

    I go to Israel or Palestine and there is nobody who doesn't have a
    relative, friend, friend of a friend who has been wounded or killed.

    So language matters lots. I return to George Orwell, filled with
    integrity in his writing - my standards are Homage to Catalonia and The Road to Wigan Pier - who in the middle of World War II - what Western Europeans and North Americans would consider ’the good war’ - reminded us not to abuse language with it zealous patriotism in the cause of the Allied war to rid the world of Hitler.

    Mari Marcel Thekaekara's essay is in the valued tradition of Orwell.

  2. #2 Ajit CHAUDHURI 21 Aug 13

    Sadly, armies themselves are also great proponents of war.

    No army can afford prolonged peace - it leads to cuts in budgets (and more justification requirements in society), it leads to generals who have not seen battles as captains and majors (a disaster for any army), and it leads to a steady decay in an ability to fight, to hone techniques, to upgrade strategies and abilities.

    So we can bleat on about 'poor soldiers' but they need the confrontations as well.


  3. #3 ludwig pesch 21 Aug 13

    Your post is as insightful and thought provoking as ever - thanks Mari!
    I happen to return from a family visit to Germany. In a picturesque mountain village, quite close to my mother's place of retirement, I recently cycled past a humble monument with the dates of two world wars, both started by the German army, engraved: 1914-1918 and 1939-1945.
    As in David's comment on Israel and Palestine, virtually all German families have ’lost’ one or more near and dear ones, be it on the battle field, due to starvation in prisoners' camps or during allied bombing raids at the end of the war. The latter category includes my own grandmother.

    Yet the usual German commemoration of those ’fallen’ for the sake of the homeland (an eerie euphemism for ’being killed in battle’ or not having returned alive devoid of any remorse), was conspicuous by its absence here. Instead I read a more sensible inscription, quite touching in the light of the aforesaid:

    Think of our brother who sank and maintain peace!
    (’Dass der Bruder uns sank / bedenkt es und wahret den Frieden’)

    Confronted with war documentaries from primary school, even more gruesome images of Nazi concentration camp and execution squad victims, encountering countless crippled war veterans (apparently immune to any discussion on state sponsored violence of any kind), I had decided early on to become a conscientious objector like many others of my generation. Ironically an army officer was the person in charge of the commission that decided over the merit of my application. He took offense at my argument as regards irresponsible attempts to again lure youngsters into the German army ’as if it was a sports club’ (i.e. as seen in advertisements then found in major German periodicals). He instantly lost control over himself and went to the extent of falsifying the protocol of my argument. I then compelled him to rewrite right there and then which led the civilians in the commission to the conclusion that I had a point: I ’won’ the case.

    Not much to boast about except that I wish that some of youngsters today had similar choices in the face of violent oppression, torture and paranoid distrust of their fellow human beings. Some may have no other choice than joining some army or militia. Apparently there's so much money to be made by keeping them thus engaged. By contrast, directing their energies towards peaceful, more constructive causes offers little relief in societies bogged down by illiteracy, fanaticism and corruption. Which of course applies to several regions in Europe as well.

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

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