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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Birthdays, Coincidences, and Divination

I was born on the 156th anniversary of Percy Bysshe Shelley‘s expulsion–on grounds of atheism–from Oxford. (Thomas Jefferson Hogg, his collaborator on The Necessity of Atheismwas expelled with him; the two were accused of ‘contumacy in refusing certain answers put to them’ by the master and fellows of University College.) My birthday is also, remarkably enough: the 189th anniversary of Beethoven‘s first public concert; the 140th anniversary of his death;  the 96th anniversary of the founding of the Paris Commune (though there seems to be some disagreement about the exact date); and the 43rd anniversary of the premiere of George Bernard Shaw‘s ‘Saint Joan‘ in London. Among other things.

A very distinguished list, I’m sure you will agree. Unfortunately, closer examination of the ‘among other things’ reveals my birthday to also be: the 41st anniversary of the first lip-reading tournament in the US and the 30th anniversary of the day spinach growers in Crystal City, Texas, erected a statue of Popeye. The chuckles that these events might provoke are quickly silenced by noting that my birthday is the 25th anniversary of the arrival of seven hundred Jews from Lvov in Poland at the Belzec concentration camp, and the departure of the first ‘Eichmann transport’ to Auschwitz.

My birth date, through history, appears to have played host to, in equal measure, the sublime, the sordid, the ridiculous, and the horrifying. There seems to a similar pattern in my birth anniversaries: my 4th birthday was marked by the Bangladeshi declaration of independence (which kicked off a genocidal crackdown by the West Pakistani Army on the Bengali populace) and the ascendance of the ‘Benny Hill Show‘ to the top rank in television ratings in the United Kingdom; my 12th by the signing of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty by Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat; and so on. You get the picture: there really isn’t one. My birth date and my birthday is like all the other days of the year, undistinguished and memorable in its own particular way.

An inquiry into, and examination of, the coincidental occurrence of events in world history on the date of one’s birth is an old fascination of ours; it remains a species of divination, an inspection of cosmic tea-leaves, a close reading of the universe’s entrails that tempts and afflicts many of us, sometimes, I suspect, even the hard-headed ones. Could something, possibly, just possibly, connect us to this strange list of events? Could there perhaps be a historical pattern that I am part of? Am I the bodily manifestation of some global world-historical-process? It can engender grandiose idiocy too: Have I inherited some of the intellectual talents of Shelley, Beethoven, Shaw? These are lovely, deluded, tempting thoughts, strategies to grant of possible meaning to a life that otherwise may appear destined for insignificance. The relationship with astrology is, of course, unmistakable; that is precisely what that popular pseudo-science set out to do, to convince us that there was some deeper meaning to the date of our birth, over and above the circumstances leading to the coupling of our parents.

Still, some virtue may be found in such pursuits: if nothing else, it may provoke further reading on a matter that catches our eye, and also remind us that the calendar stretches out long into the past before us, and will continue to do so into the future, long after we are capable of noting the coincidence of our birth anniversaries with events of historical interest.