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Why Pakistani Men Prefer The Army

By Ajai Shukla
July 17, 2023 17:54 IST
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What drives Pakistani men to join its military, despite the toll it takes on them?

IMAGE: A Pakistani soldier salutes during the Pakistan Day military parade in Islamabad. Photograph: Saiyna Bashir/Reuters

The last two decades have seen several good books on the Pakistan army and its ethos and functioning.

In 2007, Zahid Hussain wrote Frontline Pakistan: The Struggle with Militant Islam, in which he explained his country's situation in simple terms: Pakistan is at war with itself.

Later that year, Ayesha Siddiqa published Military Inc: Inside Pakistan's Military Economy, a diligently researched tour de force on the Pakistan military's economic empire.

In 2008, Shuja Nawaz's Crossed Swords: Pakistan; Its Army and the Wars Within gave a comprehensive insight into that country's ultimate power centre.

In 2012, Aparna Pande's excellent, Explaining Pakistan's Foreign Policy: Escaping India, delved into Pakistan's quest for an identity beyond merely the 'anti-India'.

In 2014, C Christine Fair wrote Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army's Way of War, which postulates that Pakistan's military achieves its aims by resisting India's drive for regional hegemony and keeping the Kashmir dispute alive.

In 2015, Steven Wilkinson wrote his magisterial Army and Nation: the Military and Indian Democracy since Independence, which traces the politicisation of the Pakistan army since the late 19th century and its roots in Punjabi domination.


Now Maria Rashid's fascinating book seeks to answer a fundamental question about the Pakistan army: Why do so many Pakistani men actively volunteer to serve in that country's large military, despite the toll it takes on its members in injury, debility and death?

As Ms Rashid points out, Pakistan has seen more than its fair share of wars and internal conflict since it became independent in 1947.

This includes four wars with India, numerous counter-insurgent operations within the country, covert backing of the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet Union in the early 1980s, frequent deployment of regular troops on combat missions abroad, including United Nations Peacekeeping Operations and, in recent years, counter terrorism operations on its border with Afghanistan.

Citing government figures, the author reveals that an average of 130,000 young men apply to join the army each year, of which only 38,000 are selected.

The voluntary nature of enlistment into the non-conscription Pakistani military is often explained as stemming from economic deprivation.

Another reason cited is historical: The lack of employment options in the Pakistan army's traditional recruiting grounds -- the rain-fed hilly tracts of Punjab.

However, the key question that the book seeks to answer is: How does the military retain its attraction for employment seekers even though it all but guarantees the death of its subjects?

To find an answer, Ms Rashid investigates the Pakistan army's memorial ceremonies --the author calls them 'spectacles of mourning' -- that it organises on the occasion of Youm-e-Difa each year.

This is easy, given that the government has already transformed the country into a militaristic State, with public spaces used for the display of various types of killing machines, such as machine guns, fighter aircraft, and, ludicrously, scaled down copies of the hills where Pakistan conducted its first nuclear tests.

Pakistan Day is celebrated on March 23 each year with a military parade to mark the anniversary of the Lahore Resolution by the All India Muslim League in 1940.

The author describes one Youm-e-Difa ceremony at the Pakistan army's general headquarters (GHQ), held in the shadow of the Yadgar-e-Shuhada (Martyr's Memorial).

As patriotic anthems blared, the guests of honour were family members of soldiers who had given up their lives.

Turn by turn, relatives of dead soldiers came up to the microphone and eulogised their heroes.

Mothers brimmed with pride as they spoke about their dead sons and expressed their readiness to donate more to die for their motherland.

The author underscores the military's public relations skill in creating this space -- the Youm-e-Difa and Yadgar-e-Shuhada -- for communicating directly with the nation and bringing into sharp focus the carefully crafted narrative of grief and mourning in the messaging that the military puts out for the nation.

As a consequence, in the martial districts of Pakistan, the military functions as 'a modern kinship group that rewards its subjects with pay, pensions, benefits and land grants.'

In these martialised terrains, nationalistic narratives of sacrifice are bargaining chips that permit continued membership in the military's kinship group and allow claims to be made from it.

As a result, the desire in these areas to serve in the military is deep and unabated, even though the ideology has shifted from a traditional Hindu enemy to a new Muslim threat.

This patriotic space is carefully cultivated. Every year, on Youm-e-Difa, Pakistan's army chief delivers a nationally broadcast speech at the Yadgar-e-Shuhada, which can be likened to the 'State of the Union' address by the US president each year.

This makes for a powerful demonstration of how the military positions itself in Pakistan's polity, with the army chief commenting, without any raised eyebrows, on issues such as governance, the criminal justice system, economic development, foreign policy, terrorism and corruption.

Ms Rashid's book makes for compelling reading for all students of Pakistan, terrorism, the South Asian region and civil-military relations in general.

Dying to Serve: Militarism, Affect, and the Politics of Sacrifice in the Pakistan Army

Author: Maria Rashid

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Pages: 267

Price: Rs 699

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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Ajai Shukla
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