Those tales of war
Syed Badrul Ahsan, Editor-in-Charge, The Asian Age: The world has always been a pretty strange place. Life is quirky and people often do things which surprise and then shock and sometimes amuse us. Think of everything that has been happening in Syria. Some western nations were busy some years ago making the argument for a bombardment of Syria. Indeed, they and their proxies have bombed Syria and turned millions of people into refugees. Well, of course, Bashar Assad is a tyrant. But will bombing make Syria a better place? Observe Iraq. In their zeal to remove Saddam Hussein, Tony Blair and George W. Bush left the country in pieces. And then came Barack Obama to inform us why Syria should be subjected to bombing by his jets.
Don’t we all remember the degree to which North Vietnam was bombed by Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s? There was the Tonkin Gulf Resolution passed by the US Congress in 1964, on the basis of the lie that Hanoi had attacked American ships. The resolution authorised the American president to exercise his discretion in war. And he did. It did not help. Vietnam destroyed Johnson. In the years of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, the war was extended to Cambodia. That only left Cambodia in turmoil, eventually facilitating the rise of the murderous Khmer Rouge. As for Vietnam, the North won the war, conquered the South and unified the country. Just as the French had beaten a retreat after Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the Americans made a hurried exit from Saigon in the spring of 1975.
Waging war is a terrible thing. And waging it on grounds patently false is downright embarrassing. The Pakistanis thought, in early 1948, that sending their soldiers in the guise of tribals into Kashmir would engineer a revolution among Kashmiris in favour of inclusion into Pakistan. It only left behind a problem that may never be resolved in the decades, perhaps even centuries ahead. In 1965, Pakistan tried again, through Operation Gibraltar. When the Indians attacked Lahore, Ayub Khan was in trouble. His regime asked for a ceasefire. Again, in 1971, Pakistan miscalculated. Already on the point of losing East Pakistan to the Bengalis, it thought it could scare India into abandoning its support for Bangladesh by bombing Indian air force bases in the west. That calculation did not work. East Pakistan became Bangladesh; and West Pakistan came under threat of obliteration by the Indians. Had Indira Gandhi not called a halt to the war, West Pakistan would go under Indian occupation.
In 1979, the Soviet leadership did the most unwise thing of sending soldiers into Afghanistan and installing Babrak Karmal as the country’s new communist leader. The move simply sent Afghanistan into a tailspin, with Ronald Reagan and Ziaul Haq coming to the aid of the anti-Moscow Mujahideen. The Soviets left in 1988, in Gorbachev times, after which the Mujahideen destroyed the country in their internecine warfare. And then came the Taliban, to push Afghanistan back into the medieval age. What if Brezhnev and his friends had not invaded Kabul? Chances are that Afghanistan would turn into a modern country under its communist leadership, with its people building on the political opening caused, first, by the Daoud coup in 1973 and then by the Saur revolution in 1978 when Nur Mohammad Taraki took charge of the country.
The Soviet Union, for millions around the world, was a potent symbol of hope. But then, there were the huge mistakes it committed, first in Hungary in 1956 and then in Czechoslovakia in 1968 through invading them in the defence of orthodox communism, which certainly did not go down well with a very large number of socialists around the world. Now consider the folly committed by Saddam Hussein in 1990 when his army invaded the tiny state of Kuwait and invited opprobrium from the rest of the world. It was Saddam’s second mistake, the first being his pointless war with ayatollah-led Iran in the 1980s. The Iran-Iraq war sapped Iraq’s resources. And the invasion of Kuwait brought down the wrath of the civilised world on Iraq. The country went steadily downhill after that. Secular Iraq has been replaced by a system based on a sectarian understanding of politics.
In the 1990s, ethnic conflict precipitated by war put an end to Yugoslavia, a state Josip Broz Tito had assiduously built in the post-war years. Yugoslavia had been a significant hint of how communism could bring disparate peoples together in the task of creating a unified country. Under Tito, Yugoslavia became an important member of the international community and was one of the founders of the non-aligned movement in the mid 1950s. After his death, Serb nationalism more than anything else tore Tito’s legacy apart, to the detriment of a whole world. Notions of Serb superiority led to bitter war and the death of thousands of innocent men and women in such regions as Bosnia-Herzegovina.
There are wars that are necessary. Some wars are an imperative. But wars that disturb life, that leave societies and countries fractured, are wars that speak of the inherent brutality of men toward one another. There is no art in war, or about it. There is always heartbreak.