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To do and die, without asking why

War & Peace

The central Karakoram mountain range. The Siachen Glacier is located in the eastern section of Karakoram in the Himalaya Mountains. Guilhem Vellut under a Creative Commons Licence

History shows that militarism disproportionately impacts the poor. For the politicians it’s a game, writes Mari Marcel Thekaekara.

Last Thursday, an Indian soldier died. Lance Naik Hanamanthappa Koppad made headlines because his was a miracle rescue. He'd been buried under 35 feet of ice for six days at an avalanche-hit army post in the Siachen glacier in Jammu and Kashmir. Nine other soldiers who were buried in the avalanche didn't survive. The Siachen slopes, they died on are a formidable, barren, icy wasteland, which claims soldiers' lives and limbs regularly, yet continues to be treated as an important frontier that makes it imperative for Indian and Pakistani soldiers to sacrifice their lives to it.

An intelligent article appeared in Thursday’s Hindu. Happymon Jacob, Associate Professor of Disarmament Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, wrote an introduction I found deeply moving.

He wrote, ‘While we as a nation remain indebted to our brave soldiers who laid down their precious lives on the glacier, there is neither valour nor glory in death due to cerebral edema or hypothermia, guarding a few kilometres of ice whose strategic value is ambiguous at best.’

The tragic waste of young lives haunted me since as 12-year-olds we were forced to recite, parrot-like, Alfred Lord Tennyson's 1854 The Charge of The Light Brigade. Even at that young age I found the injustice of those words intolerable. The glorification of martyrdom caused by inept, grossly ill-informed often deliberate disregard for expendable lives.

Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldiers knew
Someone had blunder'd:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Tennyson raised questions that remain ignored now, over 150 years later.

In 1854, Lord Cardigan, Supreme Commander, according to reports, left the field and went on board his yacht in Balaclava harbour, where he ate a champagne dinner. He rode off without looking back. Obviously his not to bother why. Not how many men died. Nor, how many wounded needed care. Collateral damage is an old, old concept, clothed in new jargon in recent times.

Nothing much has changed since 1854.

Our soldiers who lose their lives in conflict are sometimes given a hero's farewell. Gun salutes, coffins draped in national colours. A parade, some tears at the concept of patriotism, martyrdom, valour. Then it’s all back to normal. The soldier's widow and children receive a pittance in terms of pensions. Old veterans suffer through peacetime with minimal sympathy or help from the Armed Forces or the country they fought for so valiantly.

Bernie Sanders, running for the US Democratic Party nomination for president, must have touched a nerve when he pointed out during the primaries that he was one of the few politicians to have the guts to say Iraq was a bad decision, amidst the uber-patriotic, rabble-rousing rhetoric of the post 9/11 period. 'I would have bombed Iraq yesterday,' a flag-waving American said to me, when the first bombs fell on Baghdad. A decade later most people prefer not to talk about war-crimes in relation to politicians who dragged poor young Americans into a war that turned millionaire politicians into billionaires. 'Not though the soldiers knew someone had blundered.' Vietnam, Iraq, numerous Indo-Pakistani threats later, poor young men from desperately impoverished families continue to pay the price.

For the politicians, it’s a game. They get money from the arms industry to fund their campaigns. Sabre-rattling and wars are always a successful distraction from the real problems of the time. And so they unleash the dogs of war with scant concern for the painfully young soldiers who go off scared but patriotic. They return often in body bags. The others are scarred and traumatized for life. It’s mostly all for a few votes more. And almost always for quite a few dollars more.

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