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The slow war

December 05, 2012

THE Battle of the Somme in the First World War took place between July 1 and Nov 18, 1916.

It was a grisly conflict, made near and proximate by the close contact between enemy soldiers. Thousands of French and British were holed up on one side of the river Somme and similar ranks of Germans on the other.

A soldier could see the enemy then; in some precipitous locations they were even unable to distinguish between the stench of their own rotting corpses piled high from that of the enemy’s corpses. It was a war that could be seen, felt and heard and whose imposition of death had little mystery and much misery.

Its commanders, amongst them British General Haig, imagined closeness as the character of conflict. Haig eschewed the rifle and glorified the bayonet, saying: “It must be accepted as a principle that the rifle, effective as it is, cannot replace the effect produced by the speed of the horse, the magnetism of the charge and the terror of cold steel.”

Those were the days when even the aeroplane was considered suspect because of its sheer distance from the men locked in combat and the centuries-long understanding of battle as a physical joust between humans.

The belief in proximity as a necessary part of war, however, had its own kind of respite. It provided an unbearable, concentrated dose of terror whose very intensity and completeness necessitated an end.

In the six-year long Second World War, although it took hundreds of thousands of lives and included the horrific chapter of the Holocaust, the destruction and annihilation of cities took place in an instant as explosives rained down, flattening schools and hospitals, transforming weddings into funerals. The horror is retold and rehearsed, a sordid drama and an exhortation to peace.

It was the same in Pakistan in the wars of old. In 1965, Indian armed sorties pushed against the border near Lahore, and the taking over of a new country became suddenly possible, even imminent.

In cities and towns across Pakistan, bombings from above were expected and feared. In memories of the day, people recall painting headlights and windows black, the now defunct Civil Defence Corps going up and down the streets to ensure that not a single flickering light could alert by its mischievous spark the existence of humanity to an overhead plane.

Those who were young in those days remember crouching beneath stairwells, rushing down to musty basements and keeping a terrified silence until the all-clear was sounded. As little as a half-century ago, war had rules and finitude; the drama attached to a nightmare had a beginning and an end.

These stories of the tangibility of war — the death-filled trenches of the Somme, the horror of bombed London — suggest not their palatability or even that in a less technological age, war was kinder. The point gleaned from these recollections is the terrible slowness of the new wars. Gone are the decisive battles of yore, which led to a consideration of peace, consternation about future skirmishes for which no men were left to kill. War in the present age, like the colouring book of an angry child, has evaded lines and boundaries. It has become a monster of tremendously intangible proportions.

At least in Pakistan, its episodes of tragedy are scattered and numerous, too many to stop and not dramatic and damning enough to be decisive.

In a hundred bombings, or two hundred, this slow war does not lead to either the exhaustion or the contrition that would rouse peace considerations. Its amoebic proportions are heightened by an enemy that is not only not close, but chameleon-like in face and form: it is now a quasi-political party, now a social service organisation and now a suicide bomber.

The new war is this slow war, one that provides just enough respite to give a peek of what looks like peace but that almost never is. Just as the concrete girders are taken down, the barricades of containers carted elsewhere, the bombers are back with a terror as resolute and present.

Dealing with war in present-day Pakistan, then, is dealing with a sluggish, unhurried conflict that bleeds drop by drop, kills with targets and in ones or twos or tens or twenties.

The numbers of dead are enough to scare into vigilance, push into mourning, but not quite enough for action or rebellion that would eventually lead to resurrection. For Pakistan, the new war, against terrorism, against militancy, against the many enemies we can’t name but that remain on our horizons, is a very slow war.

Sometimes, we have a period of relative calm, silenced cellphones leading to a few blast-free days. On others we have heroes, a brave schoolgirl taking a shot in the head from those who think education is a crime. On most days, we have the two or three or 10 dead that get into some headlines and not into others.

Pakistan in its present moment is the victim of a war different in its horror, one that is not simply owed to the accrued advances in technology, the remote-controlled Predators that hover over our horizon or the invisible invasions of others over the border.

The new war is novel not because of the newness of its intrusions and horrors, but because in its constant (though less than final) attrition, it permits destructions where just enough is left behind to justify one more attack.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.