Wars Have Unintended Consequences
Histories are usually written by winners who describe the performance of their heroes in glorious terms. Their society immortalizes the epic tales in song and story, drama and recitations, adding flavour to the narratives with the integration of facts with fiction, overlaying of humiliating truths with colourful boasts. However, perceptive students of history notice other dimensions to the embellished account.
Every victory over a neighbour makes a nation live in “continuous dread” when the retaliation will come. The defeated nation, in turn, keeps alive the wound that they are determined to avenge at the earliest possible opportunity. Everyone fights to win. But every thunderous victory opens out a shortcut to a crushing defeat…if not today, tomorrow; if not with these allies, with others; if not because of fresh economic sturdiness, because of burgeoning population growth at a later date. The story is extremely similar between England and France, France and Germany, Athens and Sparta. Only, in the last case, Athens never recovered. Her Delian allies abandoned her, and Ionia was annexed by Persia. And Macedon took over Athens itself a little later.
It was the Peloponnesian war that destroyed Athens. It was between neighbours. Three times she had been offered terms of peace by Sparta. Lost in her self-importance and proud of her democratic traditions, she was determined to teach autocratic Sparta a lesson. But she destroyed herself. Thucydides, the great historian, describes the war at length. He had served in the Athenian army; so had Plato. What you fight for is not what you get.
Grabbing a Bit of Land Can Pave the Way to Self-destruction
Achaemenid Persia controlled the entire world from the Indus Valley to the Aegean Sea. But the emperors were not satisfied until the Greek cities too were brought under their control. The Greeks refused to yield. They threw the Persians back in the battles at Marathon, Thermopyle and Salamis. And a little later, Alexander pressed further forward, determined to teach them a lesson, carrying all before him even up to India. The Persians lost their very homeland. Herodotus, the great historian, takes pains to tell us WHY “the two peoples fought with each other”. Human pride and human follies. He wanted later generations to learn a lesson.
Look at what happened in the Seven Years’ War (1756-63). Austria merely wanted to take back Silesia which she had lost to Prussia in a recent war. France was ready to help Austria, and so Britain hastily joined Prussia to keep balance. The war that followed killed more than 850,000 troops; over 30,000 civilians died from local violence and disease; all fighting nations went bankrupt. Further blunders followed. The British government raised taxes to stabilize her economy, provoking the American War of Independence and thus losing her major American possessions. The French over-taxed their people which ultimately led to the great Revolution of 1789. You sow winds and reap whirlwinds, you grab an inch of land and lose a continent.
The Mood for War Is Collectively Constructed
The two World Wars turned out to be the “Collective Suicide” of Europe. A Continent that controlled over 90% of the political space of the world at the beginning of last century, drove themselves to total helplessness by the end of the two Wars. They were able to stand on their feet again only with generous American help, the Marshall Plan.
But this was a tragedy that they had invoked upon themselves. Roger Osborne in his book “Civilization” (Random House, London, 2006) is merciless in placing the full responsibility for the disaster on the “War Mentality” the nations concerned had built up during the 19th and 20th centuries. Each of them were convinced of their own superiority, looking down on others. The French considered the Germans uncultured, the Germans despised the Russians as an inferior race. The British were sure that they, as Anglo-Saxons, were destined to rule the world. Patriotism meant near “worship of the state”, nationalism the peak of spirituality, and national symbolisms almost objects of idolatrous adoration. Hatred of the ‘enemy’ was a national duty. Anyone who failed to do so was a ‘traitor’.
Have you heard echoes of the same fervour among our Hindutva nationalists during the brief period that the BJP has been in power, demanding from fellow-citizens that they shout their slogans, dictating postures at their whims, imposing their food habits on others, declaring dissenters ‘anti-national’, asking colleagues who differed to ‘go to Pakistan’? Such an aggressive mood is “collectively constructed”, shaped under formal instructions. These things do not happen by mere chance.
Bitter Fruits of Aggressive Nationalism
John Keegan argues that long before the First World War, Europe had increasingly come to resemble a “vast military camp”. See in comparison in India, the mounting enrolment rate of the RSS in recent years and their glamorous display of strength during their drills and in defence of Hindutva values and aging cattle manifest precisely the same traits of irrational display of chauvinism. At the beginning of July 1914 there were some 4 million Europeans actually in uniforms; in two months there were 20 million…and tens of thousands were already dead (Osborne 11).
This disaster did not overtake them unexpectedly overnight. It was invited. Osborne says, not only ambitious leaders, but entire populations, were convinced that a “major conflict was not only inevitable but positively desirable”. Militarism, he says, and “aggressive nationalism infected every area of life”. An eagerness for aggressive action was consciously built up over decades (Ibid 408). The way some of our countrymen express their pride about ‘surgical strikes’ against a neighbouring country, Balakot intrusion into another sovereign State, and force occupation of PoK raise questions, anxieties. They little realize that the same “aggressive nationalism”, that destroyed Europe during the last century, is being driven into Indian blood; in fact, that they are active agents of it. In India, there is the additional dimension to it: that of venting anger against minorities, Dalits, tribals, marginal communities. The Sangh Parivar tutors who are eager to add an “aggressive edge” to our collective psyche are accountable to our centuries old Civilization!
Death, Defeat and Destruction
Once war was declared, there was exuberance on every side for a while. Letters, diaries and memoirs record the “sense of joy” at the hope of proximate action: daring, venture, achievement, triumphant return home! Such were the songs. Every nation was confident of victory. “German military leaders felt their nation was invincible, while the Russians believed they might reach Berlin before the Germans reached Paris”. Leftist parties who were in principle against war consoled themselves with the belief that this would be a brief decisive war: ‘the War to end all Wars’. A minority of sober-minded people could hardly believe that “Europe had sleep-walked into a war” that really meant its own destruction (Ibid 423).
This widespread sense of joy could not continue as the War began to make its demands. Thousands were dying in a single day. Trench warfare was exasperating. Day in and day out before fire-power, in the cold, rain, hunger…amidst feelings of betrayal, cowardice, flight. But the struggle dragged on. All optimism and thrill vanished as the conflict days lengthened. No victory, only uncertainty. Here, before mighty machine guns, there was too little chance for self-display or teasing challenge. War became a living nightmare of technically advanced weapons inflicting anonymous carnage on “millions” of human lives. The artillerymen never saw those they killed, the infantrymen never knew who killed them (Ibid 423). Most of the generals were used to fighting colonial wars against poorly armed enemies; none had ever fought a war where the defence was sustained by a vast machinery of artillery and machine guns. Millions of men of service age were mercilessly poured into the murderous conflict. War really meant mere death and destruction.
We will not go into further details of the disastrous War, its humiliating conclusions, and its many unintended consequences: the Russian Revolution and the rise of the Communist movement worldwide, the definitive decline of the colonial powers, the rise of America with already her initial readiness to replace them, peace terms that paved the way for another War. Despite all this, the painful fact remains: humanity is slow to learn from a perceptive reading of history.
Two Schools of Thought
Two schools of thought have always flourished side by side: the one proposing peace, collaborative effort and progress; the other suggesting a self-assertive way to the same progress, which will not however exclude conflict and war. The Indian genius opted for the first approach from the times of Gautama Buddha and Vardhamana Mahavira, whose genes probably ran in the veins of Mahatma Gandhi. Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, on the other hand, believed in strong national self-assertion. He belonged to the age of Mussolini and Hitler and closely vibrated with them. He wanted his countrymen to be like the young European rebels of his times who wanted to change the world order. He thought that the Buddhist approach would be a betrayal of the national cause. The fact that countries like Italy and Germany destroyed themselves in opting for the violent path has not discouraged Savarkar’s followers from seeking to impose it on others.
History has lessons for us. People usually follow those whom they admire. Many of the leaders of the Russian, Chinese, Vietnamese and Cambodian Communist Revolutions had studied in Paris, and the models for radical social change that were placed before them were those of the French Revolution. No wonder they tried to imitate them with similar consequences. On the contrary, Indian freedom fighters like Gandhi, Nehru and others studied in London and had seen that even revolutionary social changes could be brought about through parliamentary reforms. They had seen that peaceful self-assertion could combine with dialogue and tangible results. They opted for the latter path and left the ideals of peace for fellow Indians.
The Chinese Have Admired Indian Wisdom, Indians have Esteemed the Chinese
The Chinese have always admired Indian wisdom and still cherish the memories of Indian teachers of earlier centuries, both Hindu and Buddhist. However, a section of the community thought that the Indian submission to colonial rule was a humiliating acceptance of servility by a great Asian nation. Indians fighting for the East India Company and in the British Indian army strengthened that attitude. Today, they are worried lest Indians shift the same loyalty to the Americans. It is good to look at reality with someone else’s eyes, even as we make the wisest decisions.
Tagore, while having many admirers in China, was humiliated in Hong Kong by some young men of this school of thought who considered the Indian path of peace a public admission of weakness. They did not want China to be infected by that enfeebling ideology. Mao Zedong certainly belonged to that school of thought. In fact, he was convinced that Confucianism itself had a weakening impact on the Chinese character. That is why he adopted a fierce western ideology (Marxist) to avenge the western humiliation of the Chinese people. Xi Jinping holds on to the same ideology. If we go by the experience of history, we know there is a limit to excessive self-assertion with arms. The great Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu (604-531 BC) with his deep intuition proposed centuries ago, “Can you know what is emerging, yet keep your peace while others discover for themselves?” Watch for a while until your opponent is forced to learn a lesson for himself.
These are difficult times, with coronavirus advancing, economy collapsing, leaders still unwilling to admit their mistakes and listen to diverse points of view. But a change is possible. It will be a pity if they will be forced to learn a hard lesson in the hard way.
In any case, India’s External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar, seems to believe in dialogue and a sober approach to issues, whether they be conversation with people of similar concerns or respectful dealing with neighbours. For he knows, as Lao Tzu says, “For every force there is a counterforce. Violence, even when well intentioned, always rebounds upon oneself” (Tao Te Ching 30). And to match it, Indian wisdom urges, “Oh Men! Direct your energies to promote the good of all mankind” (Rig Veda 8,49,4).
(Published on 14th September 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 38)