Nixon, Kissinger, And The 1971 Genocide In Bangladesh

This evening, Jagan Pillarisetti and will be speaking at the New York Military Affairs Symposium on ‘Indian Air Force Operations in the 1971 Liberation War.’ Our talk will be based on our book Eagles over Bangladesh: The Indian Air Force in the 1971 Liberation War (Harper Collins, 2013). Here is the jacket description:

In December 1971 Bangladesh was born. Its birthing was painful: it had suffered a brutal genocide conducted by its former countrymen from West Pakistan, and a war between the indigenous Mukti Bahini (Liberation Army) and the Indian Armed Forces on one side, and the West Pakistani Armed Forces on the other. War broke out on the Western and Eastern fronts in December 1971 and ended quickly; the West Pakistani Army surrendered in Dacca two weeks later. A significant factor in facilitating the Indian Army’s progress to Dacca was the IAF, which neutralized the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), and provided deadly, timely and accurate firepower to support the Indian Army. The IAF flew a variety of missions: counter-air raids on airfields, steep glide dive-bombing attacks on runways, aircombat with PAF Sabres, helicopter borne operations, paradropping, and shipping attacks. Eagles Over Bangladesh: The Indian Air Force in the 1971 Liberation War, provides a day by day recounting of the IAF’s activities, commencing with raids on Dacca on the first day of the war, and moving on to the final coup de grace delivered on the Governor’s House, all the while bolstered by first-person descriptions from IAF pilots. [links added]

I’ve been warming up for the talk by reading Gary BassThe Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide and I’m reminded, yet again, of what total and utter shits and moral reprobates those two were. There is little I can say to lengthen the already existent and damning charge sheets against Henry Kissinger (the approval of whom by Hillary Clinton was one of the many reasons why I could not bring myself to vote for her.) Let me instead, quote the always eloquent and erudite Patrick S. O’Donnell on the subject:

Henry Kissinger, a moral monster who exemplified the dark arts of immoral and amoral Realpolitik while at the pinnacle of political power in the United States, is a living reminder of why we established (several ad hoc and hybrid, as well as one permanent) international criminal tribunals and need universal jurisdiction in the quest for international criminal justice. If you’re not well acquainted with the precise reasons why Kissinger is rightly referred to in some quarters as a “war criminal” (although one could plausibly argue he is also guilty of crimes against humanity and complicity in genocide, among other crimes), see the first and still best summary of the particulars of this searing public indictment in Christopher Hitchens’ The Trial of Henry Kissinger (Twelve, 2012; first edition, Verso, 2001, 2002 with new preface).

Bass’ book notes that despite a series of anguished reports emanating from US diplomatic staff in Dacca–headed by Archer Blood–who bore witness to the Pakistani Army genocide in Bangladesh, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger not only ignored these pleas to publicly condemn these atrocities, they refused to bring any pressure to bear on the Pakistani military administration–including but not limited to, not allowing American arms to be used in the massacres. Worse, they remained actively hostile to the Indian government, which was then dealing with an influx of ten million refugees fleeing the killings in East Pakistan. As Bass notes:

Nixon and Kissinger bear responsibility for a significant complicity in the slaughter of the Bengalis. This overlooked episode deserves to be a defining part of their historical reputations. But although Nixon and Kissinger have hardly been neglected by history, this major incident has largely been whitewashed out of their legacy—and not by accident. Kissinger began telling demonstrable falsehoods about the administration’s record just two weeks into the crisis, and has not stopped distorting since.

My father fought in the 1971 war as a pilot in the Indian Air Force; I’m glad he did.

On Being Able To Forge My Father’s Signature

A few years after my father passed away, I began to be able to forge his signature. One day, on a lark, I picked up a pen and tried to sign his name; much to my surprise, a reasonable facsimile stood forth. I stared at it for a few seconds, and then tried again. The resemblance of my production to the original grew; or so it seemed. There was no point to this exercise of mine; there were no documents to be forged, no school report to be faked. I’d just been curious to see if I could emulate my father in at least one dimension, one that had always seemed to capture, quite acutely, at least one aspect of the irrepressible flair I associated with him.  I called out to my mother and showed her my ‘work’: she agreed I had, indeed, made a good copy. There it was: the distinctive ‘P’ of his first name, which required an extravagant loop to close the ‘top’, and then, a quick, seemingly unintelligible sequence of lower-case letters, followed by the extravagant ‘C’ that began his last name, followed by yet another quick run of lower-case letters, and then, finally the closing flourish, a sharp, short line drawn underneath the first and last names, finished off with a pair of stylish dots. I had seen that signature hundreds of times: on report cards from school; on letters my father had written to his brothers, my grandfather, my mother; on official documents pertaining to his service in the Air Force; on various official documents that always seemed to be required by the ever-present state bureaucracy that pervaded our middle-class lives. I had seen my father draw it quickly and efficiently, mostly with a fountain pen. I’d always marvelled at how he closed the loop on the ‘P’; he seemed to throw his fingers and the pen upwards, and then drew them sharply down, so that the closed ‘P’ looked like a balloon floating above the stem below.

I know I carry around traces of my father in me; in the books I read; in the music I listen to; in the pleasures I find in the outdoors; in the ways I respond to the sights and sounds of aviation. I‘ve even tried to emulate his appearance; the crewcut I sport and the aviator sunglasses I wear suggest I haven’t given up on this endeavour. My father didn’t know it, but I paid him a lot of attention. That successful attempt at forging my father’s signature showed that somehow, through all those sessions of observation, I had internalized his actions; or perhaps there was some ‘machinery’ in me that made it possible for me to function in the same way.

I‘ve made note here of how I think my parents live on in me and my life. That successful attempt at forgery might have been another way to make my father alive in me again. As I enter a stage of life–the middle-aged years–that my father never got a chance to live through, I wonder how else his presence will manifest itself.

The Pleasures Of Comfort Reading

We eat comfort food when we are sick, angry, depressed, or unhappy: chicken soup, chocolates, <insert your own, idiosyncratic favorite here>, substances that satisfy cravings which tap into some deep nexus of the mind and body and momentarily elevate our mood. Comfort food is comfortable because it is ‘easy’; it does not tax you unduly; it provides readily accessible pleasure; it goes down smoothly, bringing you up as it does so. Like comfort food, there is comfort reading too. Everyone has their own varietal.

Last Thursday, a bacterial infection that has, on and off over the past three weeks, subjected me to a sore throat, fever, body aches, a runny nose and eyes, and which I have subjected to two courses of antibiotics, returned with a vengeance. All too soon, I found myself canceling trips to the gym and social engagements, and retreating to the safety and comfort of my bed. There, unable to sleep, I turned to the most visible and tangible source of comfort: a good read.

My tastes in comfort reading follow well-established patterns: books on cricket; fiction by authors whose work I’ve read before; narrative, ‘trade’ or ‘popular’ history; and lastly, a perennial, military history. It was to this group, and to a particular subset of its offerings–military aviation–that I turned to this past weekend. With a slight twist.

For many years now, I’ve owned the last vestiges of my father’s book collection. (It deserves a blog post of its own, which I will write someday soon.) For the time being, it suffices to note that that collection includes two autobiographical accounts by pioneering test pilots: Neville Duke and Mike Lithgow.   The former’s Test Pilot and the latter’s Mach One, have long adorned my shelves; for some reason, I’d put off reading them ever since I brought them back from India a few years ago (after an extended quasi-archaeological rummaging through my brother’s garage.)

On Friday their day had come. I could not read Cass Sunstein on analogical reasoning in the law or Larry Alexander on being constrained by precedent in legal decision-making; I could not concentrate on Seneca‘s nostrums for a good life; I could not stare at a page of Mussolini expounding on fascism; I did not feel like hacking through a ninety-thousand word assemblage of notes and comments and semi-coherent writing. But I did think I could read, again, like I used to when I was a schoolboy, about pilots, and the machines they flew. I was ready to be transported again to familiar spaces in the mind.

Duke and Lithgow are now long gone (the latter in an aviation accident in 1963); in my father’s time, when he was a newly commissioned fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force, their stories–about service in the Second World War, followed by flight testing work on the new generation of jets–must have served as inspiration and edification alike. The inscriptions in these books indicate my father bought them on 3rd May 1955 at the International Book Depot in Bombay; some sixty years later, in Brooklyn, I finally read them. It was a curious occasion on which to reconnect with my father, but there was no quibbling with the manner in which I did so.

Of Pilots’ Comrades And Young Imaginations

On Father’s Day, like last year, I posted a photograph of my father on Facebook. This one shows him as a young pilot, standing in his flying overalls next to a fighter jet; he stands proud and erect, carrying his flying helmet tucked under his arm. Here it is: the man, his steed, the glamour of fighter pilots and flying, captured in vivid black and white. It is a photograph that can easily serve as the stuff of legend for a young boy–as it did for me.

I’ve written here, briefly, about the effect my father, a fighter pilot who fought in two wars, had on me. That photograph encapsulates part of the reason why he was able to exercise such a hold over his sons’ imaginations. (All that is missing is the sound of the jet engines; their high-pitched start-up, their roar on ‘lighting up’, their flames trailing from their fiery exhausts.) It captures, statically, one of the many, many moments of scarcely plausible derring-do, flair, and élan I will always associate with my father.

Some part of the fighter pilot’s glamor and style was captured–for me–in the interactions these dashing swashbucklers had with each other, their comrades and mates in the air and on the ground. There was talk of flying, their hands and arms, sometimes with a beer mug held in one, tracing out aerial maneuvers with the expertness of a dancer executing a complex interpretive move; there were jokes and repartee; their camaraderie–a bond forged through training, close companionship, and a shared participation in an often dangerous activity–plain to see for all.

I saw many such meetings and interactions. One, in particular, stands out, its remembered details clear as ever.

In 1975, our family piled into our loyal car, a venerable Fiat 1100D, and set off on an epic road-trip up to Kashmir and back. We drove through plains and hills and valleys, up into the mountains and down again; we picnicked, we hiked, we walked, we swam; we stayed with family, we spent nights in ‘rest-houses’ and ‘forest bungalows’; and thanks to my father’s military service, we sometimes stayed in air force bases.

One fine day, we drove into an air force base in Avantipur (Jammu and Kashmir). We would take a brief break, eat brunch at the officer’s mess, and then carry on. We were met–for my father knew some of the base’s residents from the academy or from previous postings–by a bunch of pilots returned from their morning flying. The greetings were uproarious; there was vigorous handshaking and backslapping aplenty; many stories were quickly swapped–the roar of jets taking off and flying overhead provided the appropriate soundtrack. My mother, my brother, and I gazed upon the scene: crew-cut men in flying overalls, still sweat soaked from the cramped cockpits they had occupied a little while ago, wearing aviator’s sunglasses, talking about their trade. These initial interactions over, we made our way to the mess for food. There, sitting on its lawn in glorious sunshine, we watched fighter jets coming in to land; their wheels would kiss the tarmac, the nose would drop down, the colorful landing chute would flare as the mighty aircraft would continue its deceleration toward its eventual resting spot.

It has been forty years since; I still feel like a boy when I think about that day, that sunshine, those men.

Military Brats And Shoe Shines

A good shoe shine isn’t easy to pull off. You have to do a preliminary cleaning of the shoe first: a removal of the dust and grime that has accumulated on the shoe’s precious leather exterior, perhaps with a cloth or with a spare brush. Then, you apply the polish itself with another small brush with dense, closely packed bristles. Not the one you just used for dusting; that will still have some dirt on it which will stick to the greasy polish and will be transferred back to the shoe. (If you’ve been careful in your storage of the polish, that is, you’ve kept the can carefully closed, the polish will not have dried up and become useless.) This initial application done, the actual shine can begin. A larger brush with broader, softer bristles should be used. The last touch–one only used by those who desire the kind of gleam in their shoes that you could check your reflection in–is to use a soft cotton rag to deliver one final buffing. (Incidentally, while some shoe shine kits come with such rags, I’ve found old undershirts work best.)

As this description of the shoe shine process should indicate, I have some familiarity with it. And I continue to take pride in stepping out for the day wearing a well-polished pair of boots. Over the past twenty years or so, I’ve worn Doc Martens, Blundstones and Dickies boots; I think I’m justified in explaining their long lives–several years for each pair–on my feet as being partly due to not just their sturdy manufacture, but also my diligent care of their exteriors.

This attitude of mine is, in large part, due to the fact that I am a military brat, the offspring of an air force pilot, someone who took acute care to make sure his precious flying boots looked ready for action every time he stepped into an aircraft cockpit. This attention to appearance, this external manifestation of an inner discipline, he sought to convey to his sons, teaching them that to look sloppy and slovenly in manner and dress was to be sloppy and slovenly in other aspects of our lives too (and perhaps in our minds too). A school uniform was not one if its wearer sported dusty and dirty shoes. My father taught us how to spit and shine, how to make sure we stepped out in style, taking pride in  pair of well-shined shoes. This was not preening or strutting; this was simple self-esteem made manifest.

Over the years, I let many of my father’s lessons about dress and decorum fade away. I grew my hair long, I got tattoos, I wore jeans and shirts with holes in them; I disdained ties and never learned to knot one; I own only one suit, purchased twenty-fours ago, which I trot out for weddings; I walked around in shorts and sandals; I was often sloppy and unkempt.

But somehow, I never reconciled myself to wearing dusty, beat-up shoes that looked like they hadn’t been shined in months.

#SderotCinema: War, the Oldest Spectator Sport

News of Israelis watching the bombardment of Gaza–lounging on chairs, perhaps after dinner, smoking hookahs, chatting among themselves–has set many fingers racing on keyboards the world over, pointing to what may seem like a particularly bizarre and novel voyeuristic exploration of the suffering of others.

Imagine, people gathering to watch acts of violence. Safely, from a distance.

Dunno about you, but this seems vaguely familiar to me. War as spectator sport is as old as the hills. Whenever it has been possible to do so, non-combatants watch war–well out of harm’s way. During the Battle of Britain, the good citizens of London would stand around in large groups, staring up at the sky, while Spitfires and Messerschmitts tangled thousands of feet above them; Civil War battles were often observed by families–men, women, and children–curious to get a closer look at the guts and glory the papers wrote about; in our book on the air war component of the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, in making note of an epic air battle between jets of the Indian and Pakistani Air Forces in India’s north-east, staged in the sky above the campus of an engineering college  in the town of Kharagpur, my co-author and I noted:

The citizens of Kharagpur had a grandstand view of the roaring air battle from the top of their homes. The students cheered loudly every time the Sabres – or the Hunters, it didn’t seem to matter – seemed to be on the receiving end.

We love seeing things go boom and pow. And when non-combatants can’t watch the real thing, they watch movies, or read books, or take part in reenactments.  When ‘shock and awe’ went live in March 2003, I do not doubt television ratings went through the roof just like many Iraqi limbs did. If the US were to–for whatever reason–start bombing a neighboring country visible from the US (perhaps Russia, visible from Alaska?), I don’t doubt there would be crowds of eager spectators, perched on vantage viewing points on the border.

Those who cheer their armies and air forces and navies on to war, who are happy to let politicians pull the trigger for them and send others’ sons and daughters and husbands and wives and fathers and mothers to war, they would happily tune their channel to the military version of CNN–perhaps MAN, the Military Action Network–and watch live war action, twenty-four hours a day. If they could, they would watch the action in slow motion replay. (You can find versions of the MAN on YouTube on channels dedicated to clips showing military action from the world over.) They would sit down with popcorn and cheer on their heroes. And boo the villains.

War makes for excellent visual material. There are lots of very beautiful explosions–the various chemicals used in bombs produce flames and smoke of many different colors; the rising of smoke conjures up mental visions of nature’s clouds and mist and fog; bombed-out landscapes have their own twisted and haunting beauty to them; viewed from a distance, even the bodies of the dead can have a grotesque, eerie quality to them.

From a distance. That’s the rub. War is always good from a distance. You can’t see the fine detail of the mangled limbs, the oozing entrails. And you can’t smell it. But pan out just far enough and it all looks good. Even pretty. The kind of stuff you’d want to watch in company. After a good meal.

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.

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