Satadru Sen on Eagles Over Bangladesh

Satadru Sen has written a very thoughtful and engaged review of Eagles over Bangladesh: The Indian Air Force in the 1971 Liberation War. His generally positive review also strikes some critical notes in it, and I’d like to respond to those. These critical points are all largely concerned with how well the book succeeds as (generally) military history and as (particularly) a history of the 1971 Liberation War for Bangladesh, and about how the narrowness of our focus in the book detracts from that task.

A couple of preliminary remarks. My co-author, PVS Jagan Mohan, and I self-consciously restricted ourselves to documenting the air operations in our book. We chose this narrow perspective for two reasons: a) to make our task manageable and b) to not obscure the treatment of the air operations. The definitive history of the Bangladesh Liberation War and especially the conflicts that preceded it might yet have to be written, but attempts have been made and we did not intend to try doing so ourselves. There has been no history attempted though of exclusively the air component of the war. (Incidentally, our book is only the first volume of an intended two-volume project; the second will cover air operations in the Western Sector; this should give you some indication of the magnitude of the task at hand.) We took our contribution to be toward filling the gap in the aviation history literature and not necessarily to contribute to the very interesting debates that surround the genesis of the Bangladesh war, its conduct, and so on.

Now, in general, air war histories and naval warfare histories are more specialized in their focus than the conventional war history. Books on the Battle of Britain, for instance, detail the air operations–the dogfights, the bombing etc–in far more detail than anything else; what they primarily focus on, which we do as well, is the operational context: the aircraft used, the decisions that led to the planning of air campaigns as they proceeded, the technical infrastructure, some detail on combat tactics and so on. We do not expect these kinds of histories to provide the kind of political histories or context that Sen finds missing. In large part, this is because, prior to the First Gulf War and the 1999 NATO Kosovo campaign air power, despite what its most enthusiastic proponents might say, has not been the primary weapon of choice in accomplishing tactical or strategic objectives; it has supported boots on the ground. Given this, it is only natural that histories of air campaigns are largely operational histories, with some strategic and planning detail provided to make sense of operations.

Now, on to Sen’s more specific critiques.

First, Sen suggests we might have documented a little too much:

Using sources ranging from interviews and squadron logs to newspaper reports and video footage, Mohan and Chopra provide a vivid picture of the air war in November and December of 1971, from the particulars of individual missions to the processes of operational planning. That thoroughness is occasionally counterproductive. Sections of the book can be tedious: it is really not necessary to detail every mission flown in the eastern sector of the war, or to reproduce every bit of information available on the movement of squadrons from base to base. The authors seem to have proceeded under the impression that information must be included regardless of its value, without first establishing the criteria for what makes information relevant. The result is a methodological slippage: the work drifts periodically from the terrain of the historian, who must evaluate and organize material with a ‘so what’ question in mind, into that of the chronicler, who wants to catalog ‘everything that happened.’

As my co-author Jagan Mohan noted in an email conversation last night, we did indeed try to function as chroniclers and thus often erred on the side of over-inclusion:

[W]e approached this project as a book of record. Looking at the track record [of the Indian government, the Indian Air Force, and the Ministry of Defence] there is no hope of records being made available publicly in the near future the way the British do with their archives. Nor do I see any similar project being done like we did. So this turned out to be something I hope future historians will refer to when they are doing further research. For me its a case of ‘has to be done else no one will do it’.

Sen then broadens his critique:

Now for what EOB does not do, which is also a plea for a different type of Indian military history. ‘Air force history’ is by definition a troublesome concept: unless the historian is very careful, it remains airborne, abstracted from the mess on the ground….Chopra and Mohan do try to include a political narrative, especially in the introduction, but it is somewhat cursory: they are anxious to get to the real topic, which is the fighting. The war tends to get cut off from its own political context. (The exception to this is the very good discussion of Kilo Flight, the rebel air force.) This leads of unfortunate errors of omission. There is insufficient discussion of the American posture….The Blood Telegram gets no mention, and the very interesting section on Dhaka on the eve of surrender has no reference to the massacre of the city’s intellectuals on December 14….

This was indeed, our objective, as we noted in the introduction, echoing the points I made earlier:

As might be expected, our discussion of the political background to the Bengali secessionist movement, its foundations in the Partition of India, and West Pakistani–East Pakistani relations is necessarily brief; the interested reader can find a wealth of material on this subject in many other sources.

When we say ‘As might be expected..” it is because we do not expect a reader of an air operations book to find too much political context or analysis in it. Again, historians of the US Air Force’s strategic bombing campaign in WWII might note that German industrial targets were bombed without delving into the details of who was working in them (e.g., the slave labor) or that German army positions around concentration camps were being bombed without getting into details about the Holocaust. They might too, study Royal Air Force operations in WWII in South-East Asia without delving excessively into Japanese nationalism or the motivation for Japan’s need for Indonesian oil. That history might begin with noting Pearl Harbor and carrying on from there. It would not necessarily analyze at any great depth the British colonial presence in Malaysia, Burma or Singapore.

In similar fashion, Sen faults our discussion of the genocide carried out in Bangladesh by the West Pakistani Army:

In Bangladeshi discourse, 1971 was a genocide. EOB accepts that highly charged terminology at face value. This is not necessarily incorrect, but it is a missed analytical opportunity. 

This was done for two reasons: there is enough academic and historical consensus that what the West Pakistani Army did in Bangladesh was indeed a genocide and that the Indian military intervention was a just one (c.f Michael Walzer in Just and Unjust Wars), that the mass rapes of Bengali women committed by the West Pakistani Army were part of a systematic campaign (c.f Susan Brownmiller in Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape.) To delve further into this admittedly complicated debate would have been a diversion again from our task of documenting air operations. I realize that I am not addressing Sen’s point that such diversion is necessary even in an aviation history but to this point, again, I would reiterate the claim that it would be out-of-place in a study of the military arm that is usually tertiary to the war. Indeed, I wonder if we had broadened our approach, whether we might not have committed another kind of ‘methodological slippage’ by military aviation historians; we might have been accused of casting too wide a net, of concerning ourselves with too many issues not germane to our supposed focus. Sen’s point, though, still remains an interesting one for debate among military historians.

Later, when discussing the genocide committed by the West Pakistani Army, we write:

The Pakistan Army then commenced a deliberate campaign to terrorize the Bengali populace of East Pakistan. Hundreds of thousands were massacred, raped and otherwise brutalized. Anthony Mascarenhas’ chilling recounting of the genocide that followed remains essential reading for anyone strong enough to stomach its gory details.

And we then return to the air war. So we did not elide the genocide, we merely pointed the reader to where more details could be found.

Later, Sen notes,

Mohan and Chopra don’t try to hide the contradiction[about the declared start of the war and the actual commencement of operations]; it can be discerned between the lines. But they don’t talk about it either, although these little self-deceptions are precisely what make history interesting.

But we leave very little to be ‘discerned between the lines’: we focus on the usual December 3 date because that is when offensive air operations began in earnest; there was only one aerial combat before that, on November 22nd, which we describe in detail. What Sen is looking for is perhaps a comment to the effect of ‘Therefore, while official Indian line was that war began on December 3, it will be seen that the war began on November 22nd with the Boyra aircombat.’ But this would be instance of us telling, not showing; we chose to show, not tell. We note that the Indian Army was already operating within East Pakistani territory before December 3rd, we note that the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) was attacking it, we note the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) scrambles and then the subsequent dogfight. It is clear to the reader that even if a formal declaration of war was not made, hostilities were underway. And indeed, we note:

On the evening of 3 December 1971, the piercing notes of air raid sirens signalled the ‘official’ start of the third Indo–Pakistan war.

The scare quotes around “official” above are there for a reason; they indicate our considered skepticism about this date being considered the start of the war. This is quite explicit. Indeed, the Indian Army would have very good reason to not consider December 3rd the ‘official’ date, because it was even busier than the IAF before then.

Moving along, Sen notes the civilian deaths caused by an Indian Air Force bombing raid over Dhaka and notes:

The Indian use of an extremely crude bombing technique in a populated area at night, for negligible gains, can be described only as criminally irresponsible. Mohan and Chopra, to their credit, lay this episode bare, although they also try to downplay it.

I do not think we ‘downplay’ it; indeed, we thoroughly debunk the IAF’s attempted defenses of the raid, and exonerate the PAF of any wrongdoing. Sen notes that the Pakistanis were not believed when they defended themselves against the charge they had done it themselves, but after reading our book, they should be. What Sen is looking for is a judgment harsher than the one that may be read off from our analysis of the raid. But we had little access to any of the records of the planning of the raid, other than at the squadron level. We do not know that, like Sen suggests, ‘ It was just some mid-level officer’s idea of…improvisation’. As Jagan Mohan noted,

 [W]e really don’t have any insight into what the operational plans were , what the top brass discussed , or how the station commanders approached the war.  All our interaction had been wi th officers of Squadron Commander or below with one or two exceptions. The real people who can shed light on the operational planning  – the CinCs, the SASOs, the Air1s are out of reach or did not have much to share….[W]ithout access to the official IAF records, and the complete picture, [we] cannot comment on strategy or planning or other analysis that one would expect.

(On a side note: Sen notes the pilots of the IAF Caribous not raising any objections to their operations, but the place where we note this is not for the Dhaka raid but during the first briefing, when the Caribous’ operational role was being changed from daytime supply dropping to night-time bombing; the pilots were not being asked for their assessment of the suitability of the operations but about whether they had any qualms in executing a role in wartime for which they had trained for during peace.)

Lastly, Sen notes we do not provide more context on the pilots themselves and broaden our scope into a kind of social history of the IAF:

[O]ne wishes that the authors had told us more about the pilots involved in the 1971 operations. Who were these men? What were their backgrounds, and what drove them? What role did ethnicity play – why, for instance, were there so many Anglo-Indians in the IAF (and the PAF, for that matter), and why did so many of them emigrate to Australia? These questions are vital to understanding the place of the IAF in Indian society as well as the internal culture of the air force, and those details matter enormously in military history.

We certainly could have done better in providing more background on the pilots (something we did a little of in our previous book on the 1965 air war, and which we supplemented then with a section titled ‘Where are they now’, which looked at their lives after the war.) But again, this is not a critique that is usually made of air warfare books unless it is vital to understanding the very motivations for the operations. It is necessary, for instance, that we understand the samurai and bushido codes in an exhaustive history of the kamikaze attacks but again, histories of the US Air Force in the daytime operations over Germany or the Luftwaffe over North Africa do not suffer excessively from not providing details of the pilots’ ethnicities or their class backgrounds. Pilots in the Battle of Britain must have been drawn from different classes, and squadron life must have reflected this in a very interesting way, but our understanding of the Battle of Britain as an aerial conflict does not suffer from not studying these details. (Jagan and I have sought, however, to make a start in this direction with a website we have dedicated to the history of the Indian Air Force, and which includes an extensive section on veteran’s histories. We have also encouraged many veterans to start writing autobiographies and some have so started.)

The central problem, of course, as noted indirectly by Sen, is that for nations of their size and complexity, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, have not been studied well enough by historians; many, many histories remain to be written. An accomplished academic historian like Sen can only feel this lack even more acutely than we do. Our attempt is but a small contribution to the gigantic task that lies ahead.

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