Military & Aerospace

Role of Military History
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 23 Feb , 2020

Napoleon had once famously said that ‘morale to the material is like three is to one’. Military history that celebrates the glorious deeds of past can boost the morale of soldiers and citizens alike. In case of India however the prominent role played by the non-violent movement in attaining freedom, there is general tendency to downplay the role of violence in freedom movement. The logic of freedom movement has been extended backwards to the history of the country. In addition, the domination of North Indian events in the national narrative has portrayed Indian history as a chronicle of military disasters. The over emphasis on invasions from North West has led to this skewed picture whereby the military history of entire Southern Peninsula has be erased from public memory.

Indian civilisation is peculiar in some ways. Its view on life as endless cycle has influenced it to neglect history. When one attempts to reconstruct Indian past, one has no choice but to look at works of Al Barauni, IbnaBatuta, Toynbee Hue Enet Sung etc. The situation is worse when it comes to military history. In India we have treatises on philosophy, religion, science, mathematics and even sexology, but none on warfare! There is no Indian Sun Tzu or Clausewitz. For this neglect of the military dimension India paid a heavy price,

Average Indian is not even aware of the great Indian cultural expansion in South East Asia. The victories of Pallavas and Chola Empires or even the Vijaynagar Empire are not part of the national consciousness. The stranglehold of Marxist historians post 1960 has led to grave distortions. The burning down of Nalanda and Taxashila universities has deprived Indians of first hand sources about our own history, including military history.

Even the Maratha Empire that ruled most of India before the British took over in 1818, has suffered from this phenomenon. The entire official records of Shivaji’s administration were burnt by Mughals in 1685 when they captured the capital at Raigad.

The British had a vested interest in portraying India that was forever ruled by foreigners, British being merely the last ones. The British also glorified the mercenary tribes of India as “Martial’ and the rest as Non Martial to create a division amongst the population.

To some extent Ramakrishna Mission and Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan have worked on the general history of India to correct some of these biases. But field of military history remains unexplored.

Writing of military history requires some background in the art of warfare to understand the tactical and strategic aspects. Since wars are influenced by technology, economy and geography as well as psychological factors like morale, a military historian has to have multifaceted talents/capability.

Armed forces have the reservoir of suitable candidates to undertake this daunting task. It must be understood that due to destruction of many original sources, an Indian trying to write history has to emulate Sherlock Holms, the legendary detective.

In 1993 when George Tanham of the RAND Corp., a US think tank, wrote an occasional paper on India’s lack of strategic culture, most Indians were in a denial mode. But honestly most of us agreed with his conclusions. One of the main reasons for this lacuna has been absence of military history as a discipline in Indian intellectual milieu. Wars are seen as competitive slaughter or a chivalrous sport. The dominance of history of North Indian plains on the national narrative has led to glorification of defeat and war as an act of ‘sacrifice’ rather than achievement of political objective. In the Indian army, military history begins with the story of East Indian Company raised mercenaries. An average Indian is only dimly aware of the historical heritage of South and East. In the recent past inordinate delay in publishing our own history of 1947-48 Kashmir War (published only in 1987) saw India repeat many of the mistakes in 1962.

As soldiers, study of military history in a comprehensive way by not just chronicling but analyzing events/battles, can pay rich dividends by training military mind. A comprehensive study of 1962 Sino Indian conflict shows it to be mirror image of 1947-48 J&K war. Companies were dispatched to block advancing Chinese. Accurate description of that is conflict is to call it the company commander’s war. The higher military leadership of that time had no comprehension of the dominant role played by air power in stopping the tribal invasion of Kashmir. India had total air superiority in the theatre of war. It was the destruction of transports of the invaders by the air force that turned the tide in valley in 1947.

It is only in 1988 that the study of 1962 conflict brought out the fact of non-use of offensive air support as a game changer as well as the clear linkage of Chinese actions with the Cuban Missile crisis. Air Commodre OP Sharma and this author found that the Chinese had no capability to use its air force on our border due to total lack of infrastructure in Tibet. We could have had total air superiority there like in J&K in 1947-48 and completely turned the tide in our favour.

The much reviled Krishna Menon was in its favour but political leadership was so funked that Chinese will bomb Calcutta for which they had only Illushin 28 Russian bomber that could at extreme range reach there. Such was the alarm that the Congress party West Bengal unit President had directly approached the American Embassy seeking American help to save Calcutta! The Ambassador politely told that character to go to his own govt first! In fact the 1962 Air Officer in charge of operations had in interview with us had made a ridiculous argument that it was better not to use offensive airpower as that gave us ‘moral’ high ground (forgetting disaster on ground).

Another curious thing about 1962 conflict that should have raised ‘red flag’ in a positive sense, is that throughout the conflict, the Chinese NEVER interfered with out transport fleer operations, possibly so as to not give a reason or excuse to the IAF to use offensive air support. Another equally telling fact is that China itself did not use even its transport fleet to help its troops with supplies in NEFA area when they were certainly under distress (as known from local civilians tale of Chinese eating horses) in Nov 62.

This author has had personal conversation with late Air Commodre Jasjit Singh who claimed that he and many others flew ‘unauthorized’ armed recce sorties over NEFA battle field to help army on NDA course mate net!

Luckily our study on impact of non-use of offensive air support in 1962 gained wide currency and many jumped on the bandwagon later. By 1999 when Kargil happened, it was common knowledge that non-use of air force was one of the major blunders of 1962 conflict. One can only speculate if this bit of history was known and influenced the Indian decision to use air power in Kargil. Many participants of that conflict are still around and can throw some light on the decision making process.

It will be a vindication of the notion that history does teach lessons and therefore must be studied.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Col Anil Athale

former Joint Director War History Division, Min of Defence. Currently co-ordinator of Pune based think tank 'Inpad' that is affiliated with Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.  Also military historian and Kashmir watcher for last 28 years. He has authored book ‘Let the Jhelum Smile Again’ and ‘Nuclear Menace the Satyagraha Approach’ published in 1996, and ‘Quest for Peace: Studies in Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies' as a Chatrapati Shivaji fellow of the USI.

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