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.

Continue reading

‘Empire,’ ‘Self-Government,’ and ‘Religious Conflict’

In The Colors of Violence, an attempt to contribute ‘a depth-psychological dimension to the understanding of religious conflict, especially the tensions between Hindus and Muslims [in India]’, Sudhir Kakar writes¹:

If Hindu-Muslim relations were in better shape in the past, with much less overt violence, it was perhaps also because of the kind of polity in which the two peoples lived. This polity was that of empire, the Mughal empire followed by the British one. An empire…Michael Walzer observes,² is characterized by a mixture of repression for any strivings for independence and tolerance for different cultures, religions and ways of life. The tolerance is not a consequence of any great premodern wisdom but because of the indifference, sometimes bordering on brutal incomprehension, of the imperial bureaucrats to local conflicts of the people they rule. Distant from local life,  they do not generally interfere with everyday life as long as things remain peaceful, though there may be intermittent cruelty to remind the subject peoples of the basis of empire–conquest through force of arms. It is only with self-government, when distance disappears, that the political questions–‘Who among us shall have power here, in these villages, in these towns?’ ‘Will the majority group dominate?’ ‘What will be the new ranking order?’–lead to a heightened awareness of religious-cultural differences. In countries with multireligious populations, independence coincides with tension and conflict–such as we observe today in the wake of the unravelling of the Soviet empire.

This  analysis of religious conflict is not inconsistent with those that see it grounded in economic dispute and class struggle; the political questions noted above have an economic dimension to them as well, for variants of the power being mediated and parceled out and haggled over are very often economic ones; and class struggles may only become more starkly visible when the mediating hand of empire is removed. It is however, in the Indian context, inconsistent with those accounts of Hindu-Muslim conflict, which view the two ‘communities’ as living in a state of peaceful, tolerant amity before being rudely interrupted in their mutually respectful reveries by the heavy hand of the divide and rule colonialist; instead, here, it is the colonial stamp that keeps the incipient clashes at bay.

The empires of the colonialist enterprise displaced questions of power to its centers, away from the margins, and rendered its most central questions in a form that appeared only in highly restricted forms–pertaining to survival, not flourishing–to its subjects. ‘Local conflicts’ of the sort alluded to above remained low-stakes affairs, the spoils accruing to their victors not great enough to warrant the mobilization of a favored group along lines that emphasized social, cultural and religious identity. It is only when the trappings of the immense power associated with governmentality become visible that the group draws in closer and prepares to make an ambitious, even if expensive and bloody, play for power.


1. Sudhir Kakar, The Colors of Violence, Penguin Books India, 1995, pp.  241

2. Michael Walzer, ‘Nations and minorities’, in C. Fried, ed., Minorities: Community and Identity, (Berlin: Springer Verlag), pp. 219-27

‘Prohibited’ and ‘Acceptable’ Weapons and Targets in War

In my last two posts on Syria on these pages–here and here–I’ve tried to express my discomfort at the threat made by the US to launch cruise missile strikes in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. In them, I was trying to make a distinction which I did not clearly articulate, one whose provenance goes back to the debates over nuclear deterrence at the time of the Cold War, or to be more precise, the 1950s, when the threat of mutually assured destruction was first made manifest:

[T]he crucial distinction in the theory and practice of war [is] not between prohibited and acceptable weapons but between prohibited and acceptable targets. [From: Michael WalzerJust and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illuminations, 3rd ed., Basic Books, New York, 2000, pp. 276]

Indeed, insofar as a ‘prohibited’ weapon is to be viewed as such, it is because its effects are likely to be–or have been–disproportionately borne by ‘prohibited’ targets i.e., non-combatants, civilians, innocents, bystanders, call them what you will.  The use of a tactical nuclear weapon, say in the Second World War, on a battlefield, perhaps against massed infantry or armored formations, or out at sea, against a massive fleet of warships, would have provoked considerably less angst than its actual use against the residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did. (Despite Paul Fussell‘s–sometimes ad-hominem–dismissal of critics of the decision to use the bomb, there are good arguments to suggest it was a criminal act c.f the Walzer reference provided above, and especially the discussion on pages 263-268.)

This distinction, once established, now lets me make more explicit the incoherence in our attitudes toward war and weapons that I had suggested in my earlier posts on this topic. Drawing a so-called ‘red line’ around the use of chemical weapons seems arbitrary and hypocritical when those that have charged themselves with the enforcement of a supposed norm against such use are:

a) confused about the right norm to be observed;

b) guilty of violating the appropriate norm themselves.

A ‘limited’ US cruise missile attack on Syria–one committed to no other objectives other than the preservation of the ‘red line’–then, would have been problematic on both these counts. It would have flirted with the implicit claim that the slaughter of civilians is acceptable, or tolerated, so long as it is carried out by conventional weapons;  it would have established that the US, which is guilty of violating the norm against killing noncombatants in its drone strikes in Yemen and Afghanistan, was taking upon itself the responsibility to enforce its confused reading of it elsewhere.

In response to the cries of ‘What do you want us to do while civilians–prohibited targets–are being gassed?’, I’d suggest that in this case–this Syria, with its warring parties, at this point in time–all options short of armed retaliation be explored first, especially when such an action is likely to cause further loss of life, destabilize the region and perhaps invite retaliation by Assad, using conventional weapons this time, against the same non-combatants. (My post at The Washington Spectator alluded to some of these possibilities.)

Note: I realize that recent diplomatic maneuvers involving Russia have made a US attack less likely, but the threat has not completely receded, which suggests this discussion is still relevant.