"You know sometimes I think there should be a rule of war saying you have to see someone up close and get to know 'em before it's ok to shoot 'em" - Colonel Sherman T. Potter
I recently read a news item, which reported that an army Major had died in an encounter with militants in Kashmir. Although I've been reading such news items for 2 decades and thought "yeah! so whats new?" and moved on to the sports column, something about this news registered in my mind. The Major was newly married, had a heavily pregnant wife when he died, and came from a family of Army people. I thought, 'what a classic reminder of the true stories from the Param Veer Chakra series'. He went out to save his friend and both died. Father, wife, un-born son, sister, friend, and the nation - every dimension of a person's relationship with the world is in picture. Isn't this as bad as it gets for everybody involved? Luckily, I chanced upon this rather heart-breaking post thanks to desipundit. This is a post by a cousin of the above-mentioned Army Major. Reading the post actually moved me incredibly. After reading the post, I clicked the links provided in the 'updates' column against my will and ended up feeling really sad. The Hindu, has a photo of the Major's sister, which if you see in the context of the post and the overall background is really heart-breaking. This news in rediff is equally moving.
It, instantly made me think of something very simple, yet profound statement that Hawkeye hears from his Commanding Officer in M*A*S*H;
"Look, all I know is what they taught me at command school. There are certain rules about a war and rule number one is young men die. And rule number two is doctors can't change rule number one." - Lt. Colonel Henry Blake
Obviously, I don't have the stature, intention and interest to make a maudlin post advising other people about the sacrifices people should be making for their country. The reason why I post this blog is nothing more than the "profound" - 'I have a blogger account, so I can and I want to'. The existential question here is; Why do I want to? I want to because I don't get this situation. Does anybody else get it? I struggle to comprehend, what I see as, the purity of the "patriotism" dimension here. This is the maximum any person can do to say "Hey! I am patriotic". This is why I am so conflicted? Are they really saying so? If they aren't then is that real patriotism? I feel an urge to treat this differently than the other cases of patriotism, I usually ignore. I don't attend Independence day parties (I don't shun them either but don't make it a point to go) or write blog posts on independence day. Mainly because I see the people who participate in this as fake. A fake who waves the flag while speeding in his car in Devon street on Aug 15, is no different from a fake who organizes an India Bhangra Independence day dance night. I think waving Indian flag in cricket matches as fake patriotism and writing blog posts for I-Day as fake. I just do. I don't think such people are fake in their enjoyment but fake in their expression of patriotism. Not just because it is futile, it is, or meaningless, which it is, or a waste of time, it definitely is, but it compares very badly to the purity I just described above. Yeah, not all can/want to/are able to lay down their lives for their country. But should that mean they should start doing all the other stuff? In short, should they do 'anything' to celeberate patriotism? Or are we settling for a low bar?
While I am clear about the fake'ness of the things I mentioned about, I am confused about incidents like the death of the Army Major. In that it is very pure. Sacred, almost. In that, I feel very sad for the person who died, his wife, his parents and his cousin. The cause that he died for; how am I or anybody in the country impacted by his death? Was his death futile? Did he die to keep anyone safe? If so - can anybody who wants to do something, anything after reading the news - but have no clue if/how to react to it - do something, anything? Is there a good way to say 'thank you' or repay the debt somehow? Writing a post in a silly blog definitely falls under 'anything'. But it is also as fake as anything I can think of. So anything is bad. If I get into a drivel about patriotism, which is the easiest thing to do here, then I would be no different from the various puke'able people who post on Discussion Lists, Rediff comments section and forums about how great a country India is.
Advocating peace is a low-hanging fruit that is so easy to pluck. However, I have always thought pro-war and anti-pacifism as common sense and this incident didn't change my mind. Humans will fight with each other no matter what, it is our nature, it will make us fight. We will fight in spite of ourselves. So war is fine. The contradiction of fighting to achieve peace is valid and justified. So lets cross-out boring patriotism lectures and pacifism. On the whole I feel any conversation on patriotism at the juncture by regular people is immature and does grave injustice to the Major and his family. I am at least not dumb enough to know that. While I can conclude that blogging, paying money for Kargil effort, talking at length about the greatness of India to the white man, saying 50,000 times 'mera bharath mahaan', waving flag in cricket matches, celebrating Independence day is all fake and distracts us from really doing something meaningful - I do not know what the meaningful thing is. I suspect that I will not find that meaningful answer during my life time.
There is a part about the Major's father saying (the newspaper quotes it) "I will advise my yet-to-be-born grandson that he should also join the Army". This is really quite a thing to say and I suspect a very profound thing to say. Requires tremendous maturity, understanding of life and poise. But help me understand a sense of proportion here because I don't want to understate or get carried away. How big is the sacrifice by the Major, his father, and his wife? Is the sacrifice made as part of a career choice? Kuppan's father made him an engineer, Suppan's father made him a car mechanic and the Major's father made him an Army Major? Who made the sacrifice? The parent? Or is it a sacrifice made by an authority higher up, who decided to send the Major to this encounter? Like Kuppan's manager sent him on an on site assignment to World Trade Center, Suppan's shop owner sent him to ride a brake'less car and the Major's commander sent him to an encounter. What is the motivation for sacrifice; survival, satisfaction, money? Did the Major believe in the geopolitical equations of nations and ideologies surrounding the causes and so went to war. Or was he a tool for a very responsible government who are spending people's lives as carefully as they spending people's money? Which brings us to another MASH quote, the one where Henry Blake is worried after having sent Hawkeye to the battle front line;
Frank: Are you worried about them?
Henry: I sent them, remember Frank? Their commanding officer? Back home my biggest decisions are whether or not have my own bowling ball made and do I get the cat fixed. Sending people to the front's just not my speed.
How about work satisfaction, visibility or financial benefits as a cause to make a sacrifice. I realize, that I can never make a comparison that cannot be contradicted and there are always exceptions, counters, anti-counters to anything I say. I also realize that this is a topic, which is hard to be sensible about. But I'll try to make a comparison among the thousands that are possible. Let me begin with the obvious. Army Majors get paid, what - 15000 a month ? For risking lives, working 24/7 and living in pathetic conditions, not seeing their family for unknown lengths of time. For what cause? For a cause that he/she is not sure about and a cause that most Gen X kids are cynical about. Tanjore Big Temple Gurukkal gets Rs. 1750 (plus Rs 1000 tips) every month for working all the time in a sweaty hole, getting yelled at by irate and impatient worshippers (who demand excellent QoS in exchange Rs 10 they are about to dish out), doing archaic rituals that only irritates people. For what cause? A cause that even he is not sure about and a cause almost everybody doubts. What is the motivation for the Gurukkal to sincerely do 'all' the steps in a 1000 step ritual, when nobody even understands what they do and will not notice if they skip a step. What is the motivation for an Army major to wipe out every militant, survey and scan every rock, hill and mound in unknown corners of Himalayas? When nobody even understands what they do and will not notice if they skip a step.
If both the Gurukkal and the Major encourage their children to again pursue the army/gurukkal career, then what am I missing here? Kuppan, the tachnology professional, does overtime for a weekend, does some work that appears in WSJ, and promptly files for extra pay/free dinner and comp off for doing extra time, for a cause that people believe improves the economy. Kuppan also encourages his child to not get slotted as an 'engineer' and encourages them to pursue something else. Should Kuppan feel guilty, really? Is there a scientific explanation for the career choices of Kuppan, Major, Suppan, and Gurukkal's parents? Is there a rationale which explains the reason why the individuals themselves think "car mechanic career is better than kovil gurukkal" or "I dont have the courage/ability to fight in the army, software is good I get more money?" I suspect I will never find an answer to this.
On the subject of science, it is ironic to see a man killed through a combination of science and religion. Killed because of religion and killed effectively and quickly because of science, with a puncture to his liver by a contraption that required a lot of scientific research to invent. I go back to another quote from MASH, a series which really researched and beat the topic 'war and death' to death. I am glad I saw MASH as much as I did (each episode around 30 times). It has answered my questions much better than many others. Hawkeye sums up the contributions of science working against that of doctors, a summing up that is not entirely irrelevant to Major's situation;
"Three hours ago, this man was in a battle. Two hours ago, we operated on him. He's got a 50-50 chance. We win some, we lose some. That's what it's all about. No promises. No guaranteed survival. No saints in surgical garb. Our willingness, our experience, our technique are not enough. Guns, and bombs, and anti-personnel mines have more power to take life than we have to preserve it. Not a very happy ending for a movie. But then, no war is a movie"