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.

Generals and their Strategies: Patton and Napoleon on the Koran

Today, on my new Tumblr ( I posted two quotes on the Koran (or the Quran, take your pick). The first, by George S. Patton:

Just finished reading the Koran—a good book and interesting. (George S. Patton Jr., War As I Knew It, Bantam Books, 1981, page 5. War Diary for North Africa landings ‘Operation Torch’, 2nd November 1942)

Patton wrote these lines on board the USS Augusta as the Western Task Force headed for landings on Morocco to enter into battle with French Vichy Forces. (Operation Torch was an attack on French North Africa, ostensibly to remove  Axis forces from North Africa, improve Allied naval control of the Mediterranean and aid in the preparation, hopefully, of an invasion of Southern Europe in 1943.) He appears to have read the Koran as part of a self-imposed ‘backgrounder’ in Morocco’s history and culture. In his diary entries that follow, Patton keeps up a stream of commentary on Morocco’s culture and institutions, but shows little evidence of applying any particular principles gleaned from the Koran. There is, however, a note of a conversation with the Sultan of Morocco–during a meeting held after the surrender of Vichy forces–in which Patton’s reading of Koran might have helped:

When the initial conversation had terminated, he informed me that, since we were in Mohammedan country, he hoped the American soldier would show proper respect for Mohammedan institutions. I told him that such an order had been issued in forceful language prior to our departure from the United States and would be enforced. I further stated that since in all armies, including the American Army, there might be some foolish persons, I hoped that he would report to me any incidents of sacrilege which some individual soldier might commit.

Patton’s reading of the Koran then, appears to be a self-edificatory strategy: to equip himself with knowledge that would aid him in an understanding of a country, whose population was almost entirely Muslim, and which he would soon administer as a military governor.

The second quote is from Napoleon Bonaparte:

I hope the time is not far off when I shall be able to unite all the wise and educated men of all the countries and establish a uniform regime based on the principles of the Quran which alone are true and which alone can lead men to happiness. (Letter to Sheikh El-Messiri, (28 August 1798); published in Correspondance Napoleon edited by Henri Plon (1861), Vol.4, No. 3148, p. 420)

Napoleon being Napoleon, this drawing upon, and citing of the Koran, is more interesting. It foreshadows Napoleon’s concordat with the Catholic Church in 1801, which reinstated most of the Church’s civil status in France, his assembling the Jewish Grand Sanhedrin in 1806 and his establishing Judaism as one of the official religions of post-revolutionary France in 1807.  For Napoleon, religion was yet another arrow in his quiver, one that would aid in efficient rule. For a man who so easily moved from the military to the political and back again, this stocking of his arsenal would have been the proverbial no-brainer: a good general always calls upon all available resources in winning a battle or waging a protracted campaign.