February 12, 2002


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Admiral (retd) J G Nadkarni

The reality of war

The summer of 1940 was a particularly bad time for the people of Britain. The phony war was over and Hitler's Panzers had soundly thrashed the combined armies of Britain and France. More than 338,000 members of the British Expeditionary Force and Allied troops had been heroically evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk and the island nation was bracing itself for the inevitable German invasion.

From July to September 1940, Hitler's air force commanded by Goering decided to soften Britain and the British people as a prelude to the invasion. Massive bombing raids by hundreds of bombers on ports, ships, dockyards and strategic targets took place. The Royal Air Force took a great toll of German aircraft, destroying scores of bombers at a ratio of more than two to one. When the strategy of attacking military targets did not work, Hitler switched targets, intending to subdue the civilian population. Massive raids took place on London and other cities such as Liverpool, Coventry, Southampton and Plymouth. The people took it all and the German air losses kept mounting. Eventually Hitler and his air force capitulated. Not able to sustain losses any more the invasion was postponed and later called off.

Undoubtedly the Royal Air Force won the Battle of Britain, but it was also a victory for the people of Britain, and especially the gallant population of London. Not once throughout their ordeal did their morale sag nor was there any panic. They took whatever Hitler could throw at them with stoic calm and the proverbial stiff upper lip. There was neither panic nor an exodus from the city. Their courage was exemplified by the royal family, which refused to leave Buckingham Palace throughout those dark days. The queen (now the queen mother) summed it all up. When urged by the government to evacuate to a safer place, she replied matter-of-factly, "The children will not leave without me, I will not leave without the king, and the king will never leave."

Armed forces of a country may win battles and defeat their adversaries in combat. It is, however, the people of a country who win or lose wars. It is their ability, their courage, their indomitable spirit, their ability to take punishment and their behaviour, especially during adverse and bleak times, that finally makes nations victorious.

Just a hundred years ago war was something that the armies of nations fought many miles away in remote areas. Casualties were restricted to the frontlines except when one side was defeated and countries were overrun. Even so, people did not get involved in the prosecution of war except to provide their young men to fight it.

The First World War changed all that. With the invention of aircraft, the reach of weapons increased. In the total war that followed, civilian populations became as much a part of conflict as the armed forces. Civilians were involved from the start and the war was won as much by the troops as by the workers at home in what was called the "home front". Tales of heroism of entire populations became commonplace.

During the Second World War the German army made rapid progress after invading the Soviet Union. Within two months they had encircled Leningrad (now St Petersburg), trapping a population of nearly three million within the city. For the days the siege continued, the troops and the people did not even consider any calls for surrender. Food and fuel stocks were very limited (one to two months only). By the winter of 1941-42 there was no heating, no water supply, almost no electricity and very little food. During the bitter winter people survived on only a small piece of bread per person a day. In just two months, January and February 1942, 200,000 people died in Leningrad of cold and starvation. But some of the war industry still worked and the city did not surrender. The siege was finally lifted in January 1944.

The advent of the nuclear bomb finally brought the ravages of war to every doorstep. The progressive increase in aircraft and later the missile range has now allowed entire countries and continents to be brought within the ambit of nuclear strikes. No longer can the civilian population be smug about its safety.

The two atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki might have brought a swift end to the war against Japan, but it was also at a cost of nearly 400,000 civilian lives. The result so traumatised the nation that the country's post-war constitution expressly forbids the use of military force except in self-defence.

India has been singularly fortunate in the matter of civilian casualties during the various wars it has been involved in during the last century. During the two World Wars, Indian forces fought mostly away from home and the population was more concerned with the freedom struggle than with the war. The Japanese overran Burma, but were stopped in their tracks at Imphal and Kohima. A few stray bombs were dropped on Visakhapatnam and Madras when a Japanese carrier force made a foray into the Bay of Bengal, but that was the nearest India's people saw of the war.

The three wars fought against Pakistan since Independence are known more for their civility than barbarity. Indeed, the people of Baramulla went through some horrendous times in 1947, but by and large civilians on both sides were left unharmed. Wisely, both sides used their air power to hit military targets. Population centres were left alone.

Indians showed their commitment to the war effort in the border areas. The people of Punjab have always given every assistance to the army, both during actual conflict and at other times. There is no reason to believe that people in other parts of this vast country will be any less supportive, should such a need arise.

The possession of nuclear weapons and long-range delivery systems by both countries has added a new dimension to any future war between the two countries. For the first time civilian populations of both countries will be hostage in any conflict. Sadly, a vast majority in both countries is totally oblivious to the ravages of a nuclear holocaust. Their whipped-up passions and jingoism is in no small measure due to an innocent belief that a nuclear exchange will never take place. After all, they have been fairly isolated from the results of war for hundreds of years and there is no reason to believe that history may change in the future.

Yet, even the unthinkable can happen; after all who ever thought that two mighty symbols of America's economic might would disappear from the face of the earth in a matter of two hours?

Both India and Pakistan may not be so lucky the next time around. The people of both countries will be fully involved and will have to face the threat of escalation and a possible nuclear exchange. The political and military leaders would do well to bring the reality to their innocent people.

Admiral (retd) J G Nadkarni

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