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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Murakami on Japan’s ‘Years of Trial’

Like most ‘Western’ students of the world wars, my reading has largely been confined to American and English sources; this is revelatory of both provincialism and laziness on my part. In the case of the Second World War, I’ve read a few German sources but very few Russian or Japanese ones. Thus it was with great interest that I read Hyõe Murakami’s Japan: The Years of Trial 1919-1952, a little book that provides a highly compressed history of that turbulent period. (Murakami served in the Japanese Army in WWII before going on to become a novelist and critic.)

As might be expected, there are interesting shifts in perspective on: the Paris Peace Conference, the Sino-Japanese conflict in Manchuria, Japan’s motivation for the declaration of war, the conduct of wartime operations, and the US occupation of post-war Japan.

Some of these shifts are startling. For instance, the invasion and sack of Nanking is described thus:

Nanking fell to the Japanese army in December of that year (1937).

That’s it.

Others, however, are far more interesting. Consider, for instance, Murakami’s debunking of several aspects of the ‘Japanese soldiers never surrender but would rather commit suicide’ legend:

The fact that Japanese soldiers surrendered to the enemy is often attributed to the traditions of the samurai era, but this is not correct. Most military men throughout the world feel the same: surrendering is dishonorable. Yet in fact the Japanese samurai of old surrendered quite frequently, nor was there any traditional feeling of shame involved. Even during the Russo-Japanese war, Japanese soldiers became POWs–there were not many, it is true–expected quite naturally to be treated according to international conventions . It was only in the Shõwa era (1926- ), when the spirit of nationalism began to be fostered, that the belief that it was shameful to be taken alive really sank into the nation’s mind. During the Shanghai incident in 1932, Major Kuga Noboru was seriously injured and, while unconscious, was taken prisoner by the Chinese army. Treated well in the hospital, he was subsequently repatriated, but was so ashamed of having been a captive that he went back to the former battlefield and committed suicide there. The event received overwhelming news coverage and created a new standard of the ‘model soldier’. As the war with China dragged on, this spirit was encouraged still more until it permeated the entire population.

Once taken prisoner, a Japanese could no longer return to his old home; no one but his father and mother would be happy that he had returned alive, and sometimes even the parents and family, swayed by the other villager’s scorn, would start wondering why he had not died a ‘glorious death’. It was not necessarily ‘for the Emperor’ that the Japanese soldier fought to the last, but, rather, because of such rules of the community. What he wished most of all was to avoid shame for the family; the Emperor’s name was no more than a convenient symbol used for that purpose.

Murakami’s book is far too slight for the serious historian of that period, but it still works as a very good introduction for anyone else.

Bosses Call For Mass Harakiri In Event of Obama Victory

In what some election observers are terming an ‘extreme, possibly misguided–and certainly un-American in its excessive Japaneseness–response’ to the US Supreme Court’s Citizens’ United decision freeing companies from restrictions on using corporate funds to endorse and campaign for political candidates, several large American employers have called for mass, public harakiri in the event that Barack Obama wins the US presidential election on November 6th.

Major companies–including Fox News, Coors Breweries, and various NASCAR sponsors–have sent detailed letters and information packets to their employees explicitly recommending that employees, as one letter put it, ‘not just off themselves but do it in a way that sends a message to future generations.’ Some employers have rejected criticisms of these letters as ‘unfair and imbalanced.’ A senior executive at Fox News said:

If Barack wins, the economy will crash, new taxes will be levied, our children will be forced into labor camps, we will be forced to grow beards and memorize the Koran. Life as we know it will be over and certainly not worth living anymore. Our employees have a choice between being forced into humiliating subjugation, or doing what a true warrior would do under the circumstances, namely, kill themselves before Death Panels decimate them and their families. We intend to facilitate and encourage such behavior. There is no coercion here.

A letter sent by Fox News to their employees included explicit instructions:

In event of Barack Obama being elected on November 6th, we call on our employees to gather in the company parking lot on the morning of November 7th (Pearl Harbor Day Minus Thirty) and disembowel themselves with stainless steel katana swords supplied by management. We will pair off employees–into samurai and kaishakunin–based on lots drawn by their group managers. After the ‘samurai’ has disemboweled himself, his kaishakunin will carry out the decapitation. The kaishakunins will be dispatched by special Corporate Disposition Matrix Squads. The parking lot will be cleaned up by groups of Hyatt Hotel housekeepers prior to their deportation.

While some employees found the call for mass seppuku ‘a little over the top’ and an ‘over-reaction,’ others were entirely unsurprised. A foreman at Coors Breweries said, ‘They get our Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and FourSquare passwords before hiring, make us piss in bottles and take hair samples to test for drugs, scan our emails, search our hard drives, regulate our toilet and meal breaks, tell us what clothes to wear, make us attend–and bring our children to–company picnics, specify when we have to come in to work, when we can leave, and how long we have to work on weekends and national holidays, so it makes eminent sense that they should be able to tell us when our time on this planet is up, when our lives aren’t worth living. A job  is a cradle to grave kind of thing, and the bosses knows best. People who don’t like it always have the option to exit the labor market.’

Gary Johnson, the US Libertarian Party candidate for president, said he was pleased the US government had not attempted to intervene in ‘what is essentially a workplace issue.’