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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Pearl Harbor and Tora! Tora! Tora!

Today is the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on the US fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor. My intention today is not to talk about the attack but a cinematic depiction of it: the US-Japanese production Tora! Tora! Tora! directed by Richard Fleischer and released in 1970. I saw TTT with my father and brother at the Odeon Cinema in New Delhi; I do not remember the exact date (I was not even a teenager then), but I remember my viewing of TTT very clearly.

I had been brought up in a military pilot’s household, and was an enthusiastic consumer of war comics and books. The WWII movies I had seen till then were fairly simple morality plays; gallant English and Americans took on leering Nazis and Japanese and cut them down to size with a dazzling combination of weaponry, insouciance, and moral rectitude. The violence in the movies was reasonably sanitized. War appeared in these movies the way it appeared in the comics: the sort of thing a schoolboy could get behind.

TTT changed that, and quickly. It was the first cinematic description of an Allied defeat in the Second World War that I had seen; it was extraordinarily violent (and loud; the opening scene of the flyby over the Japanese Imperial Fleet shocked even this schoolboy, brought up on military bases); and it was the first time I had seen “the US”, “America”, “the USA”, come off second-best at anything. (Strictly speaking, that might not be true; it is possible that by then I had seen the US come third in the medals tally in the 1976 Olympics at Montreal).

When I emerged from the Odeon after that matinee show, blinking, into the glare of the hot Delhi sun, I was still stunned. I had known, dimly, of Pearl Harbor, but I had not realized the carnage associated with it; the shots of USN sailors on fire still haunted me.

In the years to come, a great deal of my original naivete about war would resurface in various forms. But if that sentiment ever had a competitor in my understanding of that most intense of all political conflicts, TTT had a great deal to do with it.