“Dulcē et decōrum est prō patriā mōrī”
This line from the Roman poet Horace was borrowed by Wilfred Owen, the famous British poet of the First World War, to end his poem on the horrors of war. But Owen prefaces the quote with the words “the old Lie,” since this Latin line was used to exhort children to prepare to die for their country. Maria Rashid also ends her own important and detailed study of the “pervasive phenomenon” of militarism in Pakistan with the same line. She is unafraid to tell us where she stands on this issue, trying both to explain and question the manner in which the state handles the tragedy of casualties in the war on terror inside its own borders. Her work reflects not just intellectual rigor but also the human element of the wrenching loss of lives and the socio-economic effects on families of those who gave their all in the seemingly unending war on terror and militancy in Pakistan.
Be forewarned, this is a book that was born in academia so you will have to surmount the obligatory jargon of a dissertation that was transmuted into a book for the Intelligent Layman. It is filled with dense prose about the framework of her research but clear analysis of what she found during her fieldwork. She examines the relationship between militarism personified by the Pakistan Armed Forces and the soldiers and their families that serve it voluntarily, whether out of tradition or the search for economic security. She also covers, though less deeply, the links between the military and the citizenry in the context of the previous relationship. Using her fieldwork, photographs, and data she makes a potentially heavy and opaque topic come alive with trenchant commentary. That is what makes this book a good read for those who want to understand militarism in Pakistan as well as why the military has become the centerpiece of Pakistani society for decades.
Pakistan lost 64,942 persons in the war on terror between October 2001 and October 2008, according to the Watson Institute at Brown University in the United States. Of these, some 8,832 were national military or police, 23,372 were civilians, and 32,490 were “opposition fighters.” The arithmetic of war may come out in favor of the state but the longer-term human costs of this unending conflict have not been subjected to sufficiently rigorous examination within Pakistan. Maria Rashid fills that gap brilliantly, defining the path for other young and fearless scholars to examine how and why Pakistan entered this war on behalf of the United States, and both fought against and cultivated militancy and terror as a weapon in its own arsenal against its hostile neighbors. Today, it is paying the economic and social price for all those actions. Controlling the narrative of this tragedy will not change the underlying realities of loss and grief for those whose children or spouses have given their lives in this struggle.
Rashid examines the military as it “cultivates…relationships with soldiers and their families” to help it fashion the appeal and presence of militarism in Pakistani society. She has focused on a traditionally military recruiting ground, rural Chakwal district, spending time in a village whose name she disguises, and getting to know her subjects (also with concocted names to preserve their privacy) over a period of time. She looks not at officers but at the soldiers, Non-Commissioned Officers, and Junior Commissioned Officers, who lost their lives and are memorialized as “shaheed” or martyrs.
The book examines the heavily orchestrated official ceremonies at the annual Youm-e-Shuhada (Day of the Martyrs) and the treatment of next of kin by military personnel as they choreograph and produce elaborate rituals and audio-visual messages glorifying militarism and sacrifice. Her study spans the period soon after the military, under army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, introduced new standard operating procedures for handling military deaths with proper military honors. He also created a memorial to the martyrs that he often showed off to his American military visitors. For the first seven years of the war, principally in the Western Marcher regions of Pakistan, it was fought without much ceremonial acknowledgement of the loss of lives. Indeed, there were reports that bodies of deceased were brought to villages and parents under cover of darkness and quiet funerals were arranged. Local mullahs sometimes refused to lead prayers, contending that Pakistan was not fighting a Jihad or Holy War since it was battling against its own people, fellow Muslims, on behalf of the United States of America.
In my own discussions around that time with General Kayani (see my The Battle for Pakistan: The Bitter US Friendship and a Tough Neighborhood), I brought up this issue with him. I thought it inappropriate that military casualties were being hidden from view and not being shown due respect. He reacted a few months later by introducing a policy of publicly acknowledging the losses and providing full military honors for those who died for the state. He publicly defined the actions of the militants and insurgents as “shirq,” that is deviating from the true Islamic path. Among other things, this helped him staunch the desertions from the military that had become an issue in the early days of the war. Kayani also made it a point to visit the frontlines frequently, something that surprisingly his predecessor and boss General Pervez Musharraf apparently did not.
Rashid captures vividly the heavily scripted and theatrical production of the Youm-e-Shuhuda ceremonies by the Inter Services Public Relations Directorate, employing often “The figure of the mother on the magnificent stage…offering yet another son as cannon fodder and the overflowing mass of people in the NoK (Next of Kin) enclosure [that] hint at the tragedy of death in war as well as the casualness of life, the apparent ease with it is offered to the military.” She also speaks of the “complicity” of the families of the dead in the messaging and the ceremonies commemorating the military dead.
Away from the glare of the klieg lights and cameras, often the widows and sometimes the mothers of the soldiers express their pain and anguish at the losses and outline the back-room machinations that accompany the distribution of compensation to the widows and the parents of the martyrs. Rashid introduces us to the affecting and painfully sad Punjabi Vaen or sorrowful dirge in memory of the deceased when one mother, Sajjida, wails to her dead son
“You should have died then [as a child]
I would have forgotten you by now.
Why did you not die then?
When I cry, then I ask
Why did you not die then?”
These emotions echo a much earlier series of songs that emerged in the First World War when many Punjabis left to fight for King and Country in Europe and their women bewailed the presence of the railway trains that took their husbands far away to war.
“You separated my husband and I
May you break down!”
And a father laments to Rashid that the cold calculations of compensation payments means that the military has weighed their grief in money. (“Fauj ne to humein paise mein tol diya hai.”)
Rashid maintains that the military tries to keep this compensation system under wraps so that “the dead and their families can continue to act as conduits for extraction of the nation’s support.” The military also wishes to stick to the “strictly regulated image of glorious service and noble sacrifice… [and] also deems it important that the disabled soldier and his family, like the family of the dead soldier, are provided for and not pitied.” She explains the operation of the military as a kinship group whose bonds hold “the soldier class to the institution of the military…on systematic, organized, and generous welfare services for troops and their families.”
Shifting focus from the war against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan on the Afghan frontier, Rashid raises the critical issue of militancy in the hinterland and the sectarian schisms that fuel violent domestic conflicts. Although the current army chief has talked about the monopoly of the state over military power, the emergence of both autonomous and state-sponsored militant groups operating outside Pakistani borders and against armed sectarian and other non-state actors remains a simmering issue for Pakistan today. Rashid pays special attention to the Punjab, drawing a map as it were of the different sectarian groups that dot the Punjab landscape. She also weaves into this narrative the difficulty of a largely Punjabi army fighting against its own people in the heart of the Punjab.
These are complex issues that demand much more thought and study. It should not be reduced to a battle of narratives nor decided by propaganda but by serious examination. Rashid’s book “challenge[s] the foundation of carefully manufactured ‘truth’ that men, women, and sacrifice for the national state go hand-in-hand.”
Even, as the country honors those who gave their lives for their homeland, Pakistan must help create the space for such debate and dissent to strengthen its society and polity as a pluralistic and federal state. That would be an abiding monument for the innocents and the civil and military heroes who have died and continue to die in this unending war.
The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at the South Asia Center of the bi-partisan Atlantic Council in Washington DC. He was the founding Director in 2009 of the South Asia Center. He is the author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within, and most recently The Battle for Pakistan: The Bitter US Friendship and A Tough Neighborhood