General accounts of war

Lt Gen Baljit Singh (retd)

By and large, Generals are almost always reticent to recount the battles they fought and the wars they directed. However, when once in a while a General is persuaded to, his uttrances are often smeared in controversy.

Some Generals do chronicle the wars they had waged. Nevertheless, victorious Generals would be least suited to write dispassionately because of their deep involvement from conception to the conclusion of the battle or war concerned.

Added to that is the factor of a certain human frailty which someone had frivolously but very aptly thus stated: "It was like mentioning one General favourably to another General. You learned not to do it the first time you made the mistake. You could always mention a General, though, that the General you were talking to had beaten. The General you were talking to would praise the beaten General greatly and then go happily into detail on how he had beaten him!"

May be it was for this kind of belief that in the UK, the writing of the official history of World War II was entrusted to non-military minds. And perhaps flowing from that, the history of the Indian Army's participation in World War II was handed to the novelist Sir Compton Mackenzie to write. However, death intervened and the task was then passed on to and completed by the Indian historian, Bisheshwar Prasad.

The official history of the British forces in the Italian theatre was likewise assigned to an outstanding novelist Eric Linklater. I do not know whether he wrote the history, but on the side lines, Linklater did write the hugely acclaimed fiction Private Angelo in which this down-to-earth Italian conscript is constrained to pronounce that "courage is a common quality in men of little sense"! Perhaps the uncomplimentary phrase "chocolate soldiers" and the more derisive comment that an "Italian soldier values an ounce of his blood above an ounce of glory on the battle-field," were also the product of this book.

Having stated all that, let me hasten to add that among the best remembered and most readable of military chronicles are also those written by the men in uniform and generally in the autobiographical format. Of the foremost in this class, FM Slim's Defeat into Victory will remain a popular favourite. It is an epic narrative of collective human endeavour from the lowliest soldier (not omitting even the baggage-mules) right up to the highest of his field commanders. But seldom a word in the book, in the singular, about his own contribution!

Slender was the Thread by the late Lt General L P Sen comes close to Slim's history for a balanced recounting of the 1947-49 war in J&K. And much the same can be said of Brigadier J P Dalvy's book Himalayan Blunder concerning the Sino-lndian War of 1961.

A little-known book but of rich Indian military history value concerning the wars in 1947-49 and 1961 is Maj General D K Palit's autobiography Musings and Memories in two volumes, published in 2003. His are refreshing and new insights not covered by others. The narrative is, however, marred by the jarring note where he emphatically holds the new COAS responsible for several falsehoods vis-a-vis the Army and his political masters. Naturally Brig Palit was found unfit for promotion but luckily for him the Raksha Mantri thought otherwise.

The war with Pakistan in 1965 commenced with military setbacks for the Indian Army in the Chhamb Sector of J&K and on the Ichogil canal beyond Amritsar. Lt General Harbakhsh Singh in his autobiography In the Line of Duty (published posthumously), gives a lucid account of events but refrains from adverse judgements on personalities— Certainly not on his superior, General J N Chaudhury, the COAS who was rumoured to have panicked and advised a disastrous military recourse to General Harbakhsh Singh. In a way, the latter's book scotches that unholy rumour altogether.

The 1972 war, for the first time committed the Indian Army simultaneously on the Western and the Eastern borders with Pakistan. Lt General K P Candeth who fielded the Western Army has written a blow-by-blow account in a matter of fact style, without any literary pretensions. I believe he was encouraged to write by the MOD and the book can therefore be termed as the official history.

Of all the books by uniformed men post 1947, Surrender at Dacca: Birth of a Nation by Lt General JFR Jacob is by far one of the better military history narratives judged by any yardstick. One hall-mark of good military history (besides being factually truthful) is that it should hold the interest of a military and civilian reader alike. By my reckoning Gen Jacob's book meets those criteria admirably.

It was unfortunate that Lt General J S Arora was believed unable to carry two of his three corps commanders with him. Possibly that made Lt General Jacob assume a role for himself larger than life as the chief architect of that war. Let that flawed personality streak of the author not detract from the merit of this valuable military history book.

Professional differences of opinion and personality clashes at the higher military echelons during a war are not unheard of. F M Montgomery during one meeting with General Eisenhower had raised the pitch of his argument close to rudeness.

General Eisenhower put his hand on Montgomery's shoulder and said: "Steady Monty. I am the Allied Supreme Commander, you know." Now that is something worth remembering by all the fire-eating and acerbic military historians (Generals) for comportment during interviews to newspaper editors, TV channels and in their writings.