January 20, 2007

Armies and Indoctrination

Armies have always fascinated me. The fascination began with G. I. Joe action figures and might culminate by figuring centrally in a doctoral dissertation. I remember a conversation in college pre-Abu Ghraib with a politically conservative friend who insisted that the US Army pumped out jawans who were critical and ethical and unlikely to abuse their power in post-conflict situations. Abu Ghraib surprised him greatly. But having been around military families in South Asia and interacted with various personnel, egregious conduct from soldiers, even in peacekeeping situations never surprise me. Afterall, isn't the whole idea of an army is to train obsequious combatants, who will suspend all ethic and critical judgment to obey orders? How can such a rigorous process of indoctrination in one nationalism or the other, or some other form of -ism, not produce many strangeos? They would be more than "exceptional" I would think. How can such an intense process of bodily and emotional disciplining not change one chemically, and often unpredictably?

1860s onwards, the British in India stopped recruiting from the South and the East (Madras and Bengal Presidencies) after a Mutiny and opted instead for jawans from the North-West. Their raison d'etre was two-fold: firstly, the jawans from the North-West (modern-day Punjab, Kashmir, NWFP, Rajasthan, etc) were more "martial" and secondly, more obedient. The ideological indoctrination in armies was so powerful that a wonderfully symbiotic alliance formed between Punjab and the colonial state. Consequently, the Independence movement against the British took a while to get off the ground in the Punjab (See Rajit Mazumdar on this). Another historian has also attempted to explain the war machine that was the Germany Army in the 20th century by drawing on colonial wars that the German Army fought in Africa in the 19th Century. She has argued that motivated by racism against Africans, the German Army adopted a tendency of "absolute destruction" which became internalized, the worst excesses of which came to pass in the World Wars.

What we see today seems no different. I was reading somewhere that over 200 UN “peacekeepers” have been sent back to their home countries or otherwise disciplined for sexual and other misbehavior. One wonders how a group of (usually) under-privileged teenagers conditioned and disciplined through one ideology or the other, dangerously real-politik, and in line with one nation’s and imagined community's exclusive gain over others’ – can ever be counted upon to act as a moral or social police.

UN peacekeeping missions in Haiti, Liberia, Congo, Sudan, and Somalia have been notorious. The Bangladeshi state, as much as it trumpets it prolific record in peacekeeping missions, have a lot to be mortified about. Bangladeshi peacekeepers have been notorious in southern Sudan. About 15 Bangladeshi peacekeepers have been disciplined for sexual offenses against Sudanese girls, many of them minors.

Last year, I ran into to a Indian Uncle who happened to be a retired Army officer, during a layover at the Kuwait Airport. He said he was trying his hand in journalism and wanted to write a piece he wanted to call "Ethics of Bombing." It appeared as if he had thought much about the needfulness of bombing enemy states into oblivion. Slightly intimidated by his hawkishness, I resisted the temptation to suggest how the said piece might be better entitled "Bombing of Ethics."

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