Vocabulary of arrogance

Published September 17, 2009

A DEBATE is raging in a section of the English-language press in Pakistan about the use of the term 'bloody civilians' for the non-military population of Pakistan. Before going into the issues raised in the debate, let me attempt a definition.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives many meanings of 'bloody'. Most of them are related to blood, slaughter and the colour red. The meaning relevant to this article is “Bloody; as an intensive i.e. very much. In general colloquial use from the Restoration to 1750.

Now constantly in the mouths of the lowest classes, but by respectable people considered 'a horrid word', on a par with obscene or profane language and usually printed in newspapers and police reports as b...y.” Among the combinations the dictionary gives 'bloody back', which is a “contemptuous term for a British soldier”.

As for 'civilian', again there are several meanings but the most relevant one is that the term was used for the civil service (later the Indian Civil Service or ICS) of the East India Company in India. The ordinary non-military inhabitants of India were called 'natives' and if some British officer wanted to be contemptuous of them he called them 'bloody natives'.

The reason for this highly insulting phrase was because the ICS was more prestigious than the army in India and the army officers resented it. However, the usage was considered impolite by the ICS officers and it was a breach of etiquette to use it to their faces, in polite company, before ladies or in print. It was an invective, not a metaphor, and civilians in Pakistan are right to find it offensive.

As far as I can make out from the ongoing correspondence in the press, Pakistani military officers use the term 'bloody civilians' for all non-military citizens of the country and not for the civil service officers as the British did. They justify this usage on the following grounds that civilians cannot swim; that they do not know firefighting techniques; that they are disorderly and unclean; that they relieve themselves in public; and so on.

The list goes on to attribute moral excellence, efficiency, tidiness and so on to the military. And, what is more, these vices and virtues of the two sets of citizens are seen as essential, unchanging qualities for which external conditions are not responsible.

On a closer reading this list of presumed vices and drawbacks is uncannily similar to the one the European colonial officers made for the natives. The natives were portrayed in exactly the same way as the 'civilians' whom the military officers despise so much. And the superior Europeans are portrayed exactly as the military sees itself. In short, the military officers look at their own countrymen with the eyes of colonial masters.

Let us now deconstruct these stereotypes. First, the characteristics of the stereotypical civilian relate more to socio-economic class than to military service. Aitchison College students, for example, swim and do not relieve themselves in public places. Our working class and rural people have to because our rulers have not built any latrines for them.

As for efficiency, our businesses — to give one example — are run by civilians and they are quite efficient. And the civil service is just as efficient as the army.

Actually, if the military rulers, who have ruled this country more than civilians, had given swimming pools and taught children how to behave in emergencies all our children could have had these skills. But they spent so little money on the common people that it is only boys near canals, rivers, ponds and the sea who picked up swimming at the risk of their lives.

Now for moral virtues. Actually, all armies are notorious for behaving cruelly in war towards unarmed civilians. Rape is a common complaint in almost all wars. And our own army's record in Bangladesh in 1971 is far from good.

For that matter the Indian army's record in Kashmir is not good either. Nor is that of the Americans in Vietnam or the Allied armies in Germany in 1945. As for the record of our armed forces officers in ordinary civilian life, it is not known to be morally inspiring either. Apart from arrogance, the armed forces officers do not hesitate to enjoy the perks of office as much as any offending civilian.

Actually this has to do with power, not with military training or education. Give somebody power — civilian or military; an illiterate or a PhD; man or woman; religious or secular — and he or she will most probably misuse it. This is an argument against military rule, ecclesiastical theocratic states and civilian dictatorship because in these systems there are no institutionalised controls over the wielders of power.

Throughout history writers have been making fun of the military. Look at George Bernard Shaw's plays like Arms and the Man and The Man of Destiny with statements like “nine out of 10 soldiers are born fools”. And Shaw was writing when the British Empire was at the height of its power. But the army, much to its credit, laughed with Shaw. Our own military academies also staged Shaw's plays to good-natured laughter.

In reality these caricatures of the armed forces are as inaccurate and wrong as those of civilians and foreigners and other groups. All such stereotypes prevent understanding and mutual respect and we should not use them for military personnel or civilians.

At no time in British history did anyone seriously question civilian supremacy, that is the representatives of the people rule in a democracy. We have yet to teach our cadets the meaning of this. And we cannot even begin if we have such contempt for most of our citizens that we call them 'bloody civilians'.

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