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Home > News > Columnists > Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd)

The ethics of war


March 13, 2003

Many many years ago the Pandavas fought the Kauravas in an epic battle over a piece of real estate. Brother fought brother, pupil fought teacher and friend fought friend. Yet each day after sunset when the day's brutal activities ended, each side laid down their arms to rest. Then people crossed over not only to collect their dead and wounded but even to inquire about the welfare of their kin and friends. Indeed the battle in the Mahabharata must have been one of the most civil actions in history.

That type of dharmayudh has long gone out of fashion. Today's wars are fought on any cynical excuse and with no holds barred. Bribery, corruption, deceit, and lies are now part of not only war but also its preparation. Every nation, army and company now appears to have now adopted Notre Dame coach Vince Lombardi's famous dictum, 'Winning is not the main thing, it is the only thing.'

Just look at President Bush's pell-mell march towards a confrontation with Iraq. By now everyone knows that the fight is for something more than that Iraq is supposed to have weapons of mass destruction. Even the United Nations inspectors by now have called the US bluff. Some of the evidence put forward by the Americans has either failed to convince most nations or has been repudiated by the inspectors. No matter. The United States has given its final, final ultimatum and despite what the UN decides it is now certain that the US and her allies will invade Iraq.

It can even now be forecast that once the invasion starts US troops will no doubt find all sorts of stacks of anthrax, delivery missiles and nuclear weapon stockpiles that the foolish inspectors missed during their efforts.

In its desperate efforts to win coalition partners the Americans have resorted to straightforward bribery. In return for the stationing of some US troops on its border with Iraq, Turkey demanded 'development aid' of some $30 billion. After much haggling, which would have even put Bofors to shame, both sides appeared to have agreed on about $20 billion.

Of course, not all nations extracted a monetary price for jumping on the bandwagon. After 9/11 General Pervez Musharraf promptly switched sides fully realising that his uncertain hold on power is thanks to American support. It would not take the US more than a few days to topple the general or even stop cross border terrorism for that matter should they wish to do that.

India too extended its support to the war on terrorism taking the US on its word that the war would be global and include all forms of terrorist activity. Alas, we have realised too late that the words 'global' or 'world' have quite a different meaning for the Americans, as in the Baseball World Series.

If it was bribery in the case of some countries, it was the use of threats in the case of others. Needing the support of its neighbour, Mexico, which happens to occupy a seat in the Security Council, the US in an unsubtle show of coercion, warned that country of the 'backlash' which might occur on the large number of Mexicans and even Hispanics which are resident in the US, if they did not support the US. Far from winning Mexican support, the move backfired, leaving Bush with a red face.

Bribery and coercion are, of course, not new in politics and warfare. Even in the Mahabharata, where each side fought the other ethically and nobly, there are incidents that fully bring out the human nature of the contestants. Even the great Dharmaraj was not above telling a lie to win the battle for his side.

Of course, the people who were the masters of winning battles at any cost were the British. Robert Clive faced the 70,000 strong army of Siraj-ud-Daulah with exactly 3,000 troops, 800 Europeans and 2,200 Indian sepoys taken all the way from Madras. Yet Clive obviously knew the Indian character well. By the simple expedient of bribing Mir Jafar, who aspired for the gaddi of Bengal, he managed to win the Battle of Plassey.

Jawaharlal Nehru, in The Discovery of India, quite correctly describes Clive as having won the battle 'by promoting treason and forgery,' and notes that the British rule in India had 'an unsavoury beginning and something of that bitter taste has clung to it ever since.'

During the recent American campaign in Afghanistan, one wondered how the Taliban and their allies capitulated so early and easily to the US forces during what appeared to be a non-campaign. Only later was it revealed that the actual campaign took place only after an army of CIA agents had infiltrated into Afghanistan armed with suitcases stuffed with dollars. The US had taken the simple precaution of softening up the opposition by buying off the mercenary warlords.

One should not be in the least surprised if the ground has already been prepared in a similar manner in Iraq and as soon as the action starts, Saddams's loyal generals will either switch sides or force the dictator to flee the country.

There is, of course, a delicious irony in all this. If a Win Chaddha or Ottavio Quattrochi accepts a few crores to enable Bofors to win an order, it will be called bribery. If a cricketer can be induced to throw a match for some consideration, it is match fixing. Both, of course, will make headlines and lead to investigation and action. But if nations act in a mercenary way, accept bribes couched as 'aid,' then all is above board. Indeed, as the saying goes, all is fair in love and war.

Add to all the above qualities one more. Hypocrisy. America wants to remove Saddam to bring back a modicum of democracy to the Middle East. Yet it sees no contradiction in supporting a number of despotic rulers in the neighbourhood or a military dictator in this part of the world.

After the Second World War, the victors set up the United Nations with the United States and Great Britain being the prime supporters. In the first euphoria, the UN was even offered land in New York for its headquarters. Yet ever since, the US has shown total disdain for this democratic body of nations and its democratic working. The US has never been able to stomach the fact that the mighty and powerful United Sates and the lowly Maldives, for instance, both have only one vote each in the general assembly.

This brings us to a facetious but quite a practical question. By now it is clear that mercenaries have neither scruples nor any ideology. A few may be willing to lay down their lives for the 'cause.' But a vast majority are certainly there because it is a living. And all have their price.

India is spending an enormous amount each year in its war against terrorism. One keeps wondering if some of the expenditure could not be used to make terrorist leaders 'offers they cannot refuse.'

Who knows we might find some Mir Jafars among them.

Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd)


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Number of User Comments: 44




Sub: Whats your point Mr?

You sound all confused. Yes US is going to Iraq for Oil, this is a known fact. Other reasons being to eliminate the scourge of ...


Posted by Manu





Sub: recruit unemployed on both side

ther is vast pool of unemployed youth on both side of border.If india wants it can exploit it for anti terriorst/covert operation .Destablize the enemy ...


Posted by mir jaffer





Sub: Ethics of war

Simply the best column i have read .. this is what i expect from rediff .. -Manjunath


Posted by Manjunath





Sub: Why blame only the U.S?

We have read hundreds of articles about the U.S hegemony and its attempt to bully the world by use of brute force. What the U.S ...


Posted by Rohit





Sub: Are you Kiddin'

I dont think the person of your strature should compare cricket with statesmanship. Mahabharat and ramayana are good to impart teachings to our youngsters. Well ...


Posted by Ani




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