Military muscle and myopia

Some generals, even captains, think they can succeed where civilian leaders are perceived or alleged to have failed.  They make short shrift of elected governments for corruption, even failure to make the trains run on time.  Truth is, as the French Prime Minister Georges Benjamin Clemenceau warned during the First World War, even “war is too important to be left to the generals”.

Another military coup has come to grief – the one in Mali, led by Captain Amadou Sanogo.  It will be remembered for its short life and the magnitude of the damage it has inflicted on the country.  Pakistan still holds the distinction of suffering a military coup that inflicted the most damage to a country in the shortest possible time – the coup of 1969 led by General Yahya Khan. Both general and captain marched in, boots banging and proclaiming themselves saviours.  They left tears tumbling and struggling for words.

Whereas Captain Sanogo has surrendered to Tuareg rebels the famed medieval Malian city of Timbuktu, for whose defence he would not trust his elected civilian president, our much-decorated generals led by Yahya Khan had, in 1971, ignominiously surrendered Dhaka, leaving many tens of thousands of their own countrymen dead and 70,000 Pakistani troops as Indian prisoners.

And whereas Captain Sanogo and General Yahya lost territory, another Pakistani coup-king, General Ziaul Haque inflicted such damage to the country’s body politic that, over three decades later, it is still reeling from it.  Most military coups are very good at scoring own goals. They may even be called, to use an expression made famous by George W Bush and Colin Powell, weapons of mass destruction – against their own country!

At about the same time as the unfolding events in Mali, yet another, much older coup – remarkable for its tenure, tenacity, ferocity and destructive power – is in its death throes. Seeing no light at the end of the long, dark tunnel into which they dragged their country over many decades, the Burmese generals are now contemplating an exit strategy that leaves them with a semblance of prestige but substantial power and perks.

Quick to depose civilian governments after blaming them for all manner of dereliction of duty, the military rulers everywhere have beaten a retreat to the barracks after their failed experiments both in governance and war, leaving civilian governments to clean up the mess they leave in their wake.  Public memory being short, they are ready to seize power again posing as the new saviour, like the proverbial tiger which has tasted blood.

Lest we forget, it was a certain Colonel Gamal Nasser who, with much bluster, led Egypt to the disastrous 6-day war against Israel in 1967, much like Field Marshal Ayub Khan (1965), General Yahya Khan (1971) and General Pervez Musharraf (Kargil,1999) led Pakistan into wars against India.  In Argentina, General Leopoldo Galtieri set off in 1982 to seize the Falklands from the British, only to beat a hasty retreat after suffering a humiliating defeat.

It is easy to pose as a nation’s savior but much harder to save a nation.  Left to their own political devices without military interference, nations have the capacity to save themselves.  It is said that the biggest fool can ask questions to which a wise man may not have a ready answer.  But one thing is clear: governance, statesmanship and war are best left to representative civilian leaders who have gained legitimacy and experience through the political process.

Winston Churchill, speaking before the House of Commons in 1947, famously said: “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

In both Pakistan and Bangladesh, where the military are ever-ready to launch a coup, much is made of their “heroism and sacrifice” in coming to the aid of their people in times of natural calamities, such as earthquakes and floods.  But numerous civilian organizations, NGOs, and charities everywhere, and every army in the world, from America to Australia and from Sweden to Swaziland, do the same. 

Apart from their regular peacetime training and the rare occasions when they are mobilized for war or, even more rarely, actually summoned to wage war, natural calamities are the only times when armies are called to action.  They are the best equipped to help and rescue people in distress.

Recently, the Pakistani army chief has taken umbrage at the media criticism of the army’s role in the Mehrangate affair.  I recall that many years ago the then army chief had similarly reacted to press coverage of the alleged corruption of the then navy chief, who was later convicted for taking kickbacks from the purchase of French submarines.  Neither Mehrangate nor the submarine scandal was a figment of an “unpatriotic” journalist’s imagination.

On both occasions our army chiefs also asserted that “nowhere else in the world” are such national institutions as the armed forces “vilified” in the press.  This is a trifle disingenuous, for anyone who has lived in any Western country for study or training, as all our generals have done at least once – or, for that matter, anyone who reads Western newspapers or watches CNN or BBC – knows that nothing is sacrosanct there, not even saints and prophets, leave alone presidents, governments, armies, generals and admirals.

There is a very simple rule that all national entities need to follow for countries to function normally, which is to let those who are charged or expected to perform certain functions, perform those functions, with legitimate and lawful oversight, but without interference or pressure, particularly from those who wield the guns and command the tanks.

Some generals, even captains, think they can succeed where civilian leaders are perceived or alleged to have failed.  They make short shrift of elected governments for corruption, even failure to make the trains run on time.  Truth is, as the French Prime Minister Georges Benjamin Clemenceau warned during the First World War, even “war is too important to be left to the generals”.  Leave alone civilian and political matters.  Pakistanis learned the truth of Clemenceau’s words more than once, most tragically in 1971; the people of Argentina found this out in 1982; and Malians are discovering it even as I write these lines.

(Daily Times, 4 April 2012)

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One Response to Military muscle and myopia

  1. Adnan khan says:

    If Pakistan’s Army chief feels our media has vilified the military lately, he should get some consolation from recent events in Turkey where a former 94 yrs old general has been indicted for crimes against humanity.Contrary to expectations, Pakistani civilian government has come out stronger then expected in the memogate scandal……

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