Friday, July 16, 2010

Is military history sacrosanct?


Military history may not be a `holy cow' but once finalised, it does become sacrosanct and should be interfered with only in the most exceptional circumstances, lest the public loses faith in the objectivity of the military. The old adage that “truth is the first casualty in war“ is fairly accurate, but largely at the individual level.

At the institutional level, the Indian military has an elaborate system in place so that maximum objectivity is ensured, when the final product in the shape of a history is produced.

However, any activity in which human beings are involved is bound to be questioned, either genuinely or for some other reason.

The compilation of military history commences at the unit level, where actions of sub-units and individuals, eyewitness accounts, logs of messages and reports are compiled, giving allowances for the `fog of war' and the fast and furious pace of operations.

In the end, a coherent picture does emerge. Thereafter, at every hierarchical level, the `war diaries' are scrutinised and compared with plans initiated, situation reports of the time and the inputs of the formation commanders and staff. This process goes all the way up to the army headquarters, where the Military Operations (MO) Directorate carries out a thorough oversight and comparison with the plethora of reports generated prior to, during and after the operations.There are thus sufficient checks and balances to ensure objectivity.

There are essentially four types of military histories. The first is the memoirs of individuals who have taken part in the conflict. They describe their experiences and those of their comrades, as also details culled out from operational documents.

Depending on who the author is, there is usually a fair to medium degree of subjectivity in them. The second type of military history is the one written by historians, media persons and others, who did not take part in the operations. Their sources are the media and some interviews conducted by them during or immediately after the conflict, usually the latter. In a large number of cases they tend to be sensational. In professional parlance they are termed `quickies', with `making a quick buck' as their main aim. The third category is scholarly works, mostly commissioned by `think tanks' or quasi-professional institutions. These are usually well researched and fairly objective.

The last category is the official military histories, mostly written by a team of professional persons commissioned by the government and comprising both military and civilian professionals, who are given access to official documents like war diaries, operational orders and instructions, results of post-war evaluations carried out at various levels, as well as independent studies ordered at various echelons of the field Army. These are the only histories that have official authenticity.

The tragedy of India is that our political leadership and others are so scared of the truth that till date not a single official history of wars and conflicts fought by the Indian Military has been cleared for publication. This is the main reason for conjectures, innuendos and inspired comments in the media. It is a great pity as the military has cleared them all for the public domain. As an example, the Henderson Brooks report of the 1962 India-China war, of which I was the custodian as the DGMO, contains no secrets that will jeopardise national security, but it continues to be kept in wraps as it highlights the gross incompetency of the political leadership and the bureaucracy of that time.

Let me now briefly deal with the current controversy, which is a fallout of a judicial judgment, wherein a senior formation commander of the Army who had taken part in the Kargil conflict of 1999 had his military honour restored, when the court ruled that his confidential reports were biased against him.

That judgment was widely welcomed, but the court also ruled that three paragraphs in the official war records relating to the particular operation of the aggrieved officer must be rewritten. The Army is challenging only the latter part of the judgment, pertaining to the rewriting of the records, in the apex court. Their contention is that there was no fudging, falsification or doctoring of the 1999 Kargil war history, as the military history has been finalised after invoking numerous checks and balances. The apex court will no doubt study all aspects before giving its judgment.

Let me end this piece on an irreverent note. It was Voltaire, who said in Jeannot et Colin that “All ancient histories, as one of our wits say, are just fables that have been agreed upon“.

What needs to be noted is that he was referring to `history', not `military history'!
Lt Gen Vijay Oberoi, PVSM, AVSM, VSM (Retd) is a former Vice-Chief of the Indian Army
Courtesy: Hindustan Times, Chandigarh, 15 July 2010
(Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the views either of the Editorial Committee or the Centre for Land Warfare Studies).
Is military history sacrosanct?
Lt Gen Oberoi’s letters on Pay Commission Recommendations

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