Dismantling myths

Published June 9, 2011

WITH the army’s stock plummeting, that age-old question is back: how do you reverse the balance of power between the military and civilians? Ideas are a plenty. Parliamentary committees! Debate the military budget! A more muscular Ministry of Defence! Civilians need to get their act together!

It all makes sense, perhaps a bit too much sense. To get to the promised land, you need to do A, B and C, or some permutation thereof, and eventually you’ll end up with a military that obeys the commands of civilian authority. A neat theory for a messy country.

But maybe that alchemy hasn’t worked in six decades because missing is the necessary catalyst: dismantling the narrative the army has constructed for itself.

A combination of denial and exaggeration, that self-constructed narrative — subtly and not-so-subtly foisted on the public via the media and other channels of manipulation — acts as a buffer against any meaningful inspection of the army’s track record.

And without that scrutiny of the army’s track record, the argument for civilian control of the military is always stillborn, the scummy and self-interested politicians looking distinctly second-best to the noble and sacrificing military.

Even when things go pear-shaped as they did during the army’s mensis horribilis last May, the self-constructed narrative is trotted out soon enough, a self-exonerating version of reality spun around seismic events.

The ploy works in two parts: first, prevent any possibility of the facts emerging and then play up the army’s role in protecting the homeland against enemies seen and unseen.

The OBL debacle? Already we know we will never know how Osama bin Laden was able to hide for years in plain sight or what exactly happened the night of May 1-2. Having shovelled the facts into a pit and placed a do-nothing commission atop it to guard its contents, the army can now roll out the ‘enemies abound/you need us’ line.

PNS Mehran? Internal inquiries guarantee the public will never hear the truth. And since planes reduced to ashes were ‘India-specific’, the army doesn’t even have to try very hard on the ‘enemies abound/you need us’ line.

Saleem Shahzad? The ISI has spoken anonymously. Saleem’s killers will never be tried or publicly exposed. And the ISI will not stand for its reputation being maligned.

The one-two combination of suppressing the facts and drumming up the army’s role as defender of the nation almost guarantees that once more the army’s stock will bounce back. With no counter-narrative to the army’s self-serving narrative available, what could have been the beginning of a structural shift will eventually be remembered as a cyclical low.

Counter-narratives — or, to put it more bluntly, the truth — are hard to come by when the facts are suppressed. Remember Kargil? Or the ’71 war? Or even the ’65 war? By either not allowing debacles to be studied or suppressing the results of inquiries, the army has been able to protect its reputation as a competent fighting force.

So perhaps if the army is ever to be brought under civilian control, what we need first is for the army’s self-constructed narrative to be chipped away at.

But who will lead that charge?

Among the politicians, Nawaz Sharif alone seems inclined to challenge the army’s self-constructed myths. But he has massive wealth, popular support, international backers and a stubbornness most politicians don’t. What Sharif can do, or get away with, most others cannot. Even so, what’s possible in opposition isn’t necessarily feasible when in power.

Zardari also has massive wealth, control of an enormous vote bank and international backers, but he’s too scared, or perhaps too content with what he already has. Beyond those two, even the most powerful of constituency politicians will meekly fall in line when the army nudges. The trappings of power trump the uncertain rewards of defiance.

Oddly enough, the ones most likely to challenge the army’s self-constructed narrative are the very people who have helped spread that narrative far and wide in the first place: the media.

Having drunk the army Kool-Aid, the media, particularly the rambunctious electronic media, may seem an unlikely suspect to be leading the charge in taking down army-created myths.

But just like the jihadis who were nurtured for instrumentalist purposes ended up spinning out of control, the media too has elements who genuinely believe all the tripe they have been fed.

Pakistani exceptionalism, external threats, army as the defender of the first resort militarily and of the last resort politically — all of that doesn’t just sound like stuff that should be repeated ad nauseam, it was stuff that was repeated ad nauseam because it was believed in.

Eventually, events occur which expose those myths as hollow and bankrupt. At that point, the army’s suppression of facts kicks in, salvaging enough of the myths to be later burnished once more, and again with the help of the media, once it has been suitably mollified of course.

But this time there’s a media with increasing doubts, armed with a megaphone unlike one seen before. The furious words in the media last month were not unprecedented since 1971. They were unprecedented. Period.

The banner headline in this newspaper of record on Dec 17, 1971? ‘War till victory’. And below it, a small two-column headline, ‘Fighting ends in East Wing’. The accompanying story began: “Latest reports indicate that following an arrangement between the local commanders of India and Pakistan in the Eastern theatre, fighting has ceased in East Pakistan and Indian troops have entered Dacca.”

Lest you missed it, Pakistan had just lost the war to India and Bangladesh was born.

What we saw and read in the media in May has never happened before.

The army still has many tools in its box to recover from the pummelling it has received since last month.

But if the first step to bringing an unaccountable military under civilian heel is dismantling the myths around it, we’ve now seen the outlines of just how that can be done.

The writer is a member of staff.




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