NON-FICTION: NARRATIVES OF SACRIFICE IN THE PAK ARMY

Published June 27, 2021
A Pakistani soldier on patrol in Waziristan | AFP
A Pakistani soldier on patrol in Waziristan | AFP

Maria Rashid’s Dying to Serve: Militarism, Affect and the Politics of Sacrifice in the Pakistan Army is a fascinating insight into the phenomenon of militarism in Pakistan. Examining the relations of affect (the observable manifestations of an experienced emotion) between soldiers and their families at one end, and the military as an institution at the other, the book analyses the broader structural dynamics of military life in modern societies in general, and Pakistan in particular.

What makes this study unique is the author’s own military background, as she describes her father as a third-generation army officer. Thus, military life, with its accompanying rigours and emotions, is nothing new for Rashid. With this background, she is able to provide a critical account of the manufacturing of soldiers, the rituals and performance of martyrdom and the unique challenges that the Pakistan Army faced in fighting the ‘war against terror’.

Dying to Serve is a welcome addition to the study of the military in Pakistan because it departs from the existing research that typically looks at the institution and its intervention in politics, its organisational structure and its dominance within the structural framework of the state in Pakistan.

Instead, Rashid attempts to link the individual stories of soldiers and their families with the macro-level policies of the army as an institution. One can argue that the book opens up a new area of research into the mechanics of transforming personal grief into collective pride in the framework of laying down one’s life for the nation. Moreover, it covers some crucial research questions pertaining to military history and sociology, such as the recruitment pattern of the army for more than a hundred years, couched in the myth of martial races.

The book neatly delineates the universe of military cantonments, which is typically cut off from its civilian counterpart, and which creates a military public deeply rooted in its distinct worldview. It points to the power of the discourse led by the men in uniform that produces impressions of the existence of an umbilical cord between the army and the nation. The author employs an ethnographic approach to analyse the soldiers and their families’ ties of affect with their parent institution and the way it facilitates the larger narrative of the military as the saviour of religion and nation.

A compelling account examines the structural dynamics of military life and how they fit with the broader pursuit of the Pakistan Army’s agenda

In pursuit of these goals, Rashid conducts ethnographic research in five villages of Chakwal — long viewed as a martial district in northern Punjab. She also conducts fieldwork at the infantry-training centre in Abbottabad. She was able to have access to the Youm-i-Difa [Defence Day] celebrations held at the military’s general headquarters (GHQ).

Thus, she’s in a unique position to provide a first-hand account of how Pakistan’s military constructs soldiers, the emotional and material aspects of relations between the soldier and the institution, and its impact on the larger process of narrative-building pursued by the army.

After providing a broader context of militarism and affect — both in theoretical literature as well as in the available research on Pakistan — Rashid narrates a comprehensive account of the nationally televised ceremonies of Youm-i-Shuhada [Martyrs’ Day] and Youm-i-Difa. These ceremonies have helped to construct the image of the “manly soldier and his family as willing, nationalistic beings” who offer the ultimate sacrifice in pursuit of national honour and duty.

The author provides an interesting rationale behind the start of the Martyrs’ Day celebrations from 2010 onwards. According to her, these reflected the anxieties of the military leadership, as it grew deeply involved in the ‘war against terror’ against militants on Pakistani soil. This conflict created a unique crisis of legitimacy for the Pakistan Army. Unlike past conflicts, the army’s claims of fighting for Islam were now challenged by extreme right-wing Islamist elements.

For instance, as early as 2004, Maulana Abdul Aziz of Islamabad’s Laal Masjid [Red Mosque] had issued a fatwa against the Pakistan Army’s operations in South Waziristan. He went to the extent of opposing the burial of soldiers in Muslim cemeteries, since they had died fighting against the so-called mujahideen. Rashid lays out the challenges the army faced to its monopoly over claims of shahadat [martyrdom] in the service of Islam.

Subsequently, the army came up with the idea of arranging events such as Youm-i-Shuhada to reclaim that sacred place in the public imagination. In this way, the army sought to play the “moral card” through projection of the sentiments of soldiers and their families, which served to popularise the militaristic narrative of service to the nation and religion.

One major contribution of Rashid’s book is its exhaustive account of life in the martial districts of Pakistan — primarily villages in Chakwal — where she engaged in conversations with military families. Thus, she goes beyond the mere rhetoric of service and looks at the continuing choice of the army as a career among families in northern Punjab. She provides a history of the concept of martial races and identifies the patterns of continuity between the colonial and post-colonial periods. Her findings point towards the presence of material benefits as a major incentive for pursuing this line of duty.

Prospects of a stable salary and post-service welfare benefits are still the most important variables in shaping the choices of young men in rain-fed Chakwal district. Rashid examines, in detail, the much-talked-about ethnic composition of this institution. In her view, the institution continues to be dominated by Punjabis — with Pakhtuns as the second most populous group — even as efforts have been made to expand ethnic outreach by inducting soldiers from Sindh and Balochistan.

The author acknowledges that this dimension has given a tactical advantage to the ruling elites of Pakistan, dominated by Punjabis, and it facilitated the conduct of military operations in former East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), Balochistan and Sindh without any internal fissures or challenges.

The chapter ‘Manufacturing Soldiers’ provides an engrossing account of the subaltern soldier, his metamorphosis into a professional fighter after recruitment and the concomitant perceptions of the institution towards the individual. Rashid’s reflections are rooted in her detailed narrative of military training in Abbottabad. The transformation of “uncouth primitives” into modern, professional soldiers is achieved through rigorous physical and psychological training at the academy.

In the author’s view, the “management of emotion” is a key variable in the process of manufacturing the modern soldier. Strategic employment of emotions involves building on hatred for the “other”, to reliance on feelings of kinship through projection of the homeland as “mother” and military units and officers as “family.” This examination of the mechanics of a soldier’s ‘construction’ gives a unique insight into the army as an institution.

The author also examines the complicated role of religion after the onset of the ‘war on terror’ at both macro and micro levels. While state managers increasingly promoted a Sunni brand of Islam in pursuit of “national interest” since the 1980s, the situation on ground became more complex with the emerging conflict between Sunnis and Shias and, later, between Deobandis and Barelvis.

To make religion a part of shaping the soldier, the army employs khateebs [clerics] at the training academy. However, the khateeb remains a “paradoxical figure”, located at a much lower rung of authority. Instead, regular army officers teach the Awareness and Motivation course which, at the academy, is part of the syllabus that deals with religion.

In another interesting discussion, Rashid profiles the growing sectarian and religious divide in Chakwal with its reflection in popular perceptions of the ‘war against terror’. As she aptly points out, the villagers expressed reservations towards Pakistan’s participation in the ‘war against terror’ — a reflection of the macro-level confusion that has shaped public opinion.

In an interesting observation, Rashid recounts the everyday views about militants against whom the Pakistan Army was fighting. Even in the martial lands of Chakwal, militants were either seen as “Muslim but misguided” or rejected as Muslims. Essentially, they were considered foreign agents aided by India, Israel or the United States. Rashid describes the various ways in which all soldiers who died in service are branded shaheed [martyrs] irrespective of whom they were fighting against.

A compelling account of how micro-level developments fit with the broader pursuit of the Pakistan Army’s agenda and narrative, Dying to Serve should be compulsory reading for students and scholars of the army, politics and nationalism at the grassroots level.

The reviewer is assistant professor of political science at Lums and author of In Search of Lost Glory: Sindhi Nationalism in Pakistan. She tweets @faiz_asma

Dying to Serve: Militarism, Affect and the Politics of Sacrifice in the Pakistan Army
By Maria Rashid
Stanford University Press, US
ISBN: 978-1503611986
267pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 27th, 2021

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