An evening at Shaista Sirajuddin’s is always a stimulating affair and never fails to remind me of the time when I would sit through her class, usually the only one I attended, trying to soak in every word and image.
On this evening, a few days ago, Shaista mentioned Keith Douglas, an English soldier and poet who studied at Oxford and then reported for recruitment and graduated from Sandhurst to fight in WWII as an officer in the Second Derbyshire Yeomanry, a Reconnaissance Armoured regiment. Captain Douglas was killed during the Normandy landing on June 9, 1944 by a mortar shell splinter so fine, as Ted Hughes wrote, that no wound showed on the body. He was 24.
War claims the young and the best, as Herodotus noted millennia ago. That hasn’t changed.
I had not heard of Douglas before but have since read some of his poetry and read up on him. There is horror in those lines, the dreadfulness that always attends violence, more so at a large scale. But the paradox is the understanding that comes with it, the value of life in the midst of death, the appreciation of relationships, sacrifice, camaraderie, even empathy for the enemy.
There is deadly, matter-of-fact prose in the rattling of machine guns and the employment of other weaponry; but it’s the human behaviour in the midst of the sound and fury that signifies both much and nothing, that awes, and the combination is always poetic.
What does one say when “returning over the nightmare ground” after “the combatants [have] gone” one sees
the soldier sprawling in the sun.
The frowning barrel of his gun
overshadowing. As we came on
that day, he hit my tank with one
like the entry of a demon.
Look. Here in the gunpit spoil
the dishonoured picture of his girl
who has put: Steffi. Vergissmeinnicht.
in a copybook gothic script.
There’s the sense of victory for one’s side but there is also human emotion which goes beyond the sides we take because we are either born into them or, as sometimes happens, we think we are fighting a “just” war being on a particular side.
But she would weep to see today
how on his skin the swart flies move;
the dust upon the paper eye
and the burst stomach like a cave.
For here the lover and killer are mingled
who had one body and one heart.
And death who had the soldier singled
has done the lover mortal hurt.
These are the moments when war’s larger picture, the one that interests the historian and the strategist, shrinks to become one man, the dead soldier who has his woman’s picture in his pocket and who now lies with a burst stomach, decaying, having crossed the line from where none has ever returned, regardless of the pain and love of those who are waiting for the one who death has singled out and claimed at that moment.
But, for the living, or still living, there is also the grim acceptance of the broader picture, of stakes involved, of the job that must be done, no matter how many fall in the course of doing it. And there is also the recognition that tomorrow death may visit the one who has seen his comrades fall today.
War, then, is the constant interaction of deadly prose and awe-inspiring poetry, each informing the other. I cannot think of any other human activity that embraces in itself, and subsumes, so many paradoxes and ironies: such selfishness and such selflessness, such ruthlessness and such compassion, such cold calculation and such passion.
I was talking to Maj.-Gen Tariq Khan, IG-FC. He has, and is, commanding some of the most difficult counter-insurgency operations in the tribal areas. A cavalry officer, he belongs to South Waziristan himself. I asked him about the Scouts that make up the Frontier Corps and its 14 battalions. Are they trained for this kind of war?
General Khan said that he had always endeavoured to keep the Scouts as Scouts. This is how he put it: “Being from the Army I know the value of drills and procedures. While most people feel these are a necessary nuisance to allow for efficiency, I do not agree. These SOPs etc are important because while the average soldier is doing a mission, he does not [necessarily] understand the intent. But the Scouts are too individualistic and must never have their wings clipped by SOPs. They follow an intent and not merely the mission. The Soldier appreciates a situation; a Scout anticipates it.”
I found the fine distinction very incisive. This kind of insight comes when the commander knows his men and when his men know him. That bond does not come easy. War is fascinating and dreadful, more dreadful than fascinating because when the fighting is on and the blood is spilled, the average soldier does not think in terms of poetry or the philosophy of it. That luxury is meant for those of us who can find the right words and write despatches. A Douglas, or to raise the bar, an Orwell, is an exception.
Where the taking and giving of lives is involved, the officer has to lead from the front. General Khan believes, as an adaptive leader, that “the initiative and independence of the Scout” must not be disturbed. If it is, “you shall have a radically negative shift in the efficiency of the institution”.
He went on: “Just a year ago they lost forts, lines of communications and border control; look at it now! These are probably the best troops in the world. If you have their confidence they will follow you to hell. But getting their confidence is not so easy.”
True. General Khan and his officers have had to be with their men in almost every difficult situation. They must compete with them when they shoot rifles, live with them when there is a problem, face the danger where it is most dangerous. General Khan himself was with the troops during the worst days in Bajaur and remained there for two weeks until the siege was broken.
And then there is, in the middle of it all, the simplicity and the hilarity. General Khan told me: “Driving back on the route you took to Khar and back now in the worst days of last year, my driver on reaching the Motorway at Mardan decided to get sophisticated and told the gunman next to him, ‘Put on my seat belt’. The gunman reached across and yanked the belt from where it was secured and promptly tried tying it up with the handbrake. When I asked him what the hell he was doing, he looked at me and said, ‘Didn’t you say we must have our seat belts on? Why are you worried how we do it as long as we do it?'”
This article was originally published in Daily Times on Sept. 17, 2009.