Despite intense Bullworker sessions and karate classes at a dojo for the princely sum of Rs 200 (this was a princely sum in’ 70) I have never excelled at the noble art of self defence. If you enjoy the cut and thrust of debate, it is probably sensible to learn how to look after yourself. This is easier said than done, and I must confess that my tongue got me into trouble on more than one occasion, especially in boarding school where a black eye was standard for a ‘yap who acted too bloody smart.’
My instinctive distaste for any form of blood sport was engendered by a semi-permanent raccoon-like state in my youth; inevitably I had no aspirations to a military career. I even managed to avoid NCC classes, which took some doing, given the reverence in which these ‘healthy group activities’, were held in my alma mater. Something about the mindless drills, the staccato, barked commands of Bhain Singh, our PT instructor (dhainemutt), the scratchy uniforms…all of these left me cold. Call me a wuss, but I much preferred watching ‘Roman Holiday’ in the air-conditioned comfort of the Odeon to learning the goosestep or presenting arms. Which, if you will permit an atrocious pun, is a damn silly term; present to whom and for what? It’s a bit like military intelligence: a contradiction in terms.
I have nothing against the army; some of my best friends are generals, make that ADC’s. What I have come to loathe is aggressive posturing by civilians; especially armchair experts whose closest brush with combat has been in the army mess after three Patialas. Soldiers who’ve ‘been there, done that’ are far more restrained about teaching Pakistan or China a lesson. One such whisky warrior recently dissed a fauji buddy of mine by calling him a coward and I found myself wishing I had paid more attention to my sensei in Madras…
Subsequently I met my friend and indignantly described my feeble attempts to defend his honour: a karate chop to the knee. To my surprise, he smiled wryly while confessing that his detractor had accurately read his state of mind on the battlefield: pure, unmitigated terror. This is not quite as strange as it seems, given that the strongest human instinct is self-preservation. Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’ uses five fundamental criteria to forecast the outcome of a war: politics, weather, terrain, commander and doctrine. In my friend’s case, the first three were wonky but his CO was a master strategist who adhered to the Montgomery doctrine. The punishment for ‘cowardice or disobeying the orders of a superior officer’ is court martial with the possibility of the death penalty. ‘Good thing my CO couldn’t read my mind,’ said my friend wearily, ‘or I’d have probably been shot, instead of being decorated for bravery. I look at my medals for valour and feel both guilty and foolish.’ Shades of Catch 22, I thought. If you are prone, as most of us are, to the primal ‘fight or flight’ urge and you choose the latter option, you could potentially face death at the hands of your own. If you sally forth with a battle cry on your lips you run the risk of being killed, maimed or wounded.
A month ago I asked a group of potential military recruits about their motivation; ‘Three square meals a day,’ replied a strapping son of the soil. For the most part, this is sound logic and it is only those ensconced in the soft underbelly of the upper middle class who can afford to hold forth in jingoistic terms about valour, courage and patriotism. The reality is far more mundane: roti, uniform and barracks.
Horace’s Odes strike a lyrical note:
“To suffer hardness with good cheer,
In sternest school of warfare bred,
Our youth should learn; let steed and spear
Make him one day the Parthian’s dread.”
But for those with a Gandhian mindset, the final stanza of Wilfrid Owen’s pacifist poem conveys a tragic eloquence: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. This isn’t fancy Latin; merely the poet gently mocking warmongers by suggesting that those familiar with the horrors of war will be unable to spout sentimental guff like: ‘It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.’