Two Ways into Writing About War
Hamoodur Rahman Commission Report
After the loss of the East West Pakistan War, the Pakistan Government, apparently at the behest of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, began an inquiry into what really happened and why. The report was begun in 1971 and completed some three years later when all prisoners of war returned to Pakistan and could be interviewed. Bhutto immediately classified the report due to the sensitive nature of its findings and all copies of it mysteriously disappeared. In 2000, a copy of it was leaked by an Indian newspaper and as a result the Pakistani government had to declassify it. It now lives in various places on the internet as a 126-page pdf. After reading another declassified military report written by my uncle, retired Colonel Maqsood Ali Khan, I found this one. To my surprise, without exaggeration, the entire thing made for riveting reading.
The language of the report is of particular interest. It is written in what I feel is a rather literary style indicative of South Asian English writers in general. There is an inherent drama within the subject matter – war crimes, genocide, prisoners of war etc. But moreover, the key players come across as fascinating characters – patriotic, propelled by history, and despite their best intentions, deeply flawed. There are scenes in which the general in charge of Eastern Command is revealed to have created a scheme involving a prostitution ring in Lahore and a whorehouse named Señoritas House. There are paan smuggling rings. There are scenes in which high level generals break down and sob. Coded communiques expressing a kind of nationalist fervour that could only lead to defeat.
I am considering including excerpts from the report in the body of the novel, as it is useful in conveying a kind of historical truth. What I find most compelling however, is that the commission’s singular judgement as to why the war was lost is summed up in these terms:
‘…due to corruption arising out of the performance of Martial Law duties, lust for wine and women and greed for lands and houses, a large number of senior Army Officers, particularly those occupying the highest positions, had not only lost the will to fight but also the professional competence necessary for taking the vital and critical decisions demanded of them for the successful prosecution of the war.’
I don’t think a fictional account could present the war in more dramatic terms. The phrase everlasting shame was also employed to illustrate the effect of the loss of the war on the psyche of the nation.
ARTICLES AND MEMORABILIA
Actions of 3 Independent Armored Squadron by Lieutenant Colonel Maqsood Ali Khan
A declassified military report, separate to the Hamoodur Report, was written by my uncle shortly after he returned from East Pakistan. It outlines the details of his squadron’s engagement in the Jessore area of Bangladesh, and in particular his activities leading up to and during this engagement. It is particularly useful because I have been able to structure most of the specific movement of Abdul Azeez around this since the scale is much smaller than events that are outlined in Dead Reckoning and the Hamoodur Report. The challenge here is to take all the military jargon and extract what is fictionally useful while still maintaining the narrative tone of the story. The report is written in the first person from my uncle’s pov, which is useful towards getting a sense of the officer’s language. But since my uncle was a ranking officer, it still leaves me trying to figure out what the enlisted men sounded like at this time. In addition to the specificities of the mission, this report is also useful for getting a sense of the failures and futilities of the mission in general. He describes at length the lack of training, equipment and supplies the Army was experiencing at this time which no doubt played a hand in their overall defeat.
Dispatches by Michael Herr
It’s easy to see why this is considered such a classic of war writing. I did not realize that Michael Herr was also a credited screenwriter on Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket. Though it is obvious after reading this why Stanley Kubrick liked his work so much. Reading Dispatches from the very first page imparts a sense of place, a flavour of the language, and a certain visceral quality of Vietnam that could only be captured by someone who was there. It’s exhilarating to know that war can be written about in such a tactile and accessible manner. But it also depresses me because this is clearly the result of first hand experiences had again and again over the course of nearly a decade. What can I possibly say or write about war that will be even remotely compelling? And yet I am already in too deep, and I have to keep on with Abdul Azeez in East Pakistan.
It’s particularly of interest to me that the Vietnam War and the Bangladesh Liberation War overlapped. America’s [Kissinger and Nixon’s] inability to truly grasp or unwillingness to understand what was happening on the ground in East Pakistan can perhaps be forgiven some in this regard. America in 1971 had just gotten out of the very worst of the dirtiest parts of the Vietnam War and was beginning its own large scale withdrawals. Congressional hearings were taking place on the Mai Lai atrocities and certainly the last thing the US wanted was to get involved in another Asian civil war. There is much overlap between the kinds of terrible things happening and the weapons being employed to do so in both Vietnam and Pakistan. It was only the case that Pakistan’s loses were swift and firm and America’s bled slowly over time. I am also especially awed by the episodic way in which Herr writes. He jumps to exposition sometimes and at other times explains in some detail the nature of particular missions. But mostly he digresses from one character to another that he meets along the way. Mostly men, soldiers from all walks of life, enlisted and officer, local American civilians of all types including war profiteers, humanitarians, etc. He presents the dubious acts of war as a storyteller without judgement, allowing the reader to come to their own conclusions. War is certainly hell, but to moralise about it doesn’t make for good storytelling. What’s clear is that the ambiguity of what propels people to act or not act is what is most interesting.