#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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Book Release Announcement: Eagles Over Bangladesh

Some readers of this blog might remember that I write on military aviation history; more specifically, the history of the Indian Air Force (IAF), and especially its role in India’s post-independence wars. Thus, I’m pleased to announce the release of my second book on this subject: Eagles Over Bangladesh: The Indian Air Force in the 1971 Liberation War (HarperCollins, 2013). As with my first book on the Indian Air Force, The India-Pakistan Air War of 1965, this book is co-authored with PVS Jagan Mohan, India’s most accomplished military aviation historian. (My father and brother both flew for the IAF, in case you were curious why a philosophy professor is interested in military aviation history.)

Here is the cover for the hardback:

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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]

Here is the cover for the paperback:

Eagles over bangladesh cover2