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



ISBN-13: 978-1503611986
ISBN-10: 1503611981
by Maria Rashid
Stanford University Press, Stanford
California, paperback, 267 pgs. $28

by Arnold Zeitlin    30 June 2020

Dying to Serve: Militarism, Affect, and the Politics of Sacrifice in the Pakistan Army, by Maria Rashid, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, paperback, 267 pgs. $28, ISBN: 978-1-5036-1198-6

Psychologist Maria Rashid has produced an extraordinary survey in which she seeks to demonstrate the Pakistan military has used death in combat, particularly the concept of martyrdom, as a tool to extend its domination over the country’s political and civil society.

“To understand the Pakistani military’s hold over the imagination and loyalty of the Pakistan society requires changing our focus from the coercive power of the military that’s on display every time a military regime takes over to its ability to shape sympathy and opinion during as well after military regimes leave,” she writes. “….The intent….is to identify the more insidious ways that the military and its norms and aesthetics make their way into Pakistani society.”

She adds:
“….the military uses the bodies of the dead and the grief of families to shape the ‘enemy,’ glorify and situate militarism and war as something to be celebrated, create illusions of equivalence and solidarity between civilian and military dead and provide a legitimate stage….for the military (the COAS –reviewer’s note: the chief of army staff, whom she writes is considered the most powerful individual in the country) to address the nation and comment on affairs of governance….
“….The military’s role in Pakistan extends and spills over into political and social spaces in which it positions itself as a savior, the ultimate guarantor of the permanence and continuity of the state, while various democratic and military regimes come and go.”

She attempts to demonstrate how the military achieves this state by describing her attendance among the families of the dead at a 2015 Yuom-e-Difah, or YeD, Defence Day by the Yadgar-e-Shuhuda, a Martyrs’ Memorial or a YeS, at the Army general headquarters in Rawalpindi. Rashid considers the Defense Day commemoration also to include an aspect of Yuom-e-Shuhuda, or Martyrs’ Day. She abbreviates the event as YeD/S.

Rashid then lays out in detail the results of 13 months of fieldwork (and teaching in the local school to develop familiarity) among families whose sons entered the Army in five villages of Chakwal district; a hardscrabble section of Punjab province long a favored recruiting area for the Pakistan Army (and before that, the colonial British Indian Army). She also interviewed Army medical personnel and colonels, brigadiers and generals at the GHQ and Inter-Services Public Relations office.
She identifies herself as a child of a military family who grew up on Pakistani cantonments and attended Army schools and anti-militaristic. She dedicates her book to her military father, who writes, “loved me regardless.” Rashid examines a facet of the Pakistan military that goes beyond the work of other authors on the subject, such as Stephen P. Cohen, Ayesha Siddiqa, and Shuja Nawaz.

The Army carefully preps these YeD/S occasions, with scriptwriters and handlers who pay sensitive attention to the relatives of the dead before reciting testimonials from a stage to sobered audiences in house and nationally over television.

“The mother’s appearance is saved for the grand finale….,” Rashid writes. “The military foregrounds the female figures — especially the mothers…..The mother’s grief is exalted….then managed to produce the maximum effect, all in the service of militarism….The mothers’ testimonies are carefully balanced, and so alongside her inconsolable grief, her stoicism and willingness to sacrifice her most treasured relationship for her nation are also highlighted. She…gives her blessing to the violence on the body of her loved one….”

Also carefully controlled are the funerals after a body arrives home in Chakwal, Rashid finds.

“The military’s preoccupation with appropriate grief is evident at this point in their call to the family to not cry or mourn,” she writes. “Matam (mourning) for the shaheed (martyr) is disallowed instead; it is a time to rejoice.”

On these occasions, Rashid adds, “subjects feel compelled to say something they may not mean because it is expected….Mothers and fathers willingly…offering up their other sons to the military….is another example of the compulsion to say things that the heart may not desire.

“It is a mask they have to put on….one they know they put on. They say, ‘Karna parta bai, kehna parta hai’ ( ‘you have to do this; you have to say this’); signifying an awareness that wearing this mask is a symptom….”

Rashid also explores the way the Army has used Islam.

“Since partition, she writes, “the Pakistani military has relied heavily on the construction of a more ideological and religiously motivated imagining of the soldier who defends against the Hindu threat….The Pakistani military used religion…to construct its image as the defender, not just of national boundaries but of Islam….the martyr for the nation and the shaheed for religion have been imagined as one”

The concept was uncontested until the Pakistani Army was thrown into a war on terror against Islamic jihadists in the northwest.

“The subject is faced by two opposing Islamic spaces here: the Islamic state of Pakistan and Islamic militants,” Rashid writes.”….the dilemma becomes this: How can Islam fight itself.” And are soldiers who die fighting other Muslims truly shaheed?

“In the village space,” Rashid explains, “there was an assertion of a new…category of a shaheed, one who dies because he fights for his country but not necessarily for his religion.”
According to Rashid, this new category makes the military uneasy.

“The Pakistani state and military are haunted by a desire to use religion as a political tool to legitimize their current policies and the original idea. As such, the move in local spaces to separate martyrdom for the state from martyrdom for religion becomes all the more significant, because it threatens the state-religion ideology that the military considers fundamental to the image of the Pakistan Armed Forces.”

For all the focus on patriotism and religious ideology, Rashid finds that what propels young men from Chakwal to line up to join the service “would circle one word, ghurbat (poverty) followed by another phrase: pakki naukri (secure government service)….the reasons for enlistment are largely economic….”

The author concludes:

“The state (military) creates a false equivalence between the affect produced in response to the death of its soldier and itself as an institution. Just as authentic grief and loss cannot be questioned, the state cannot be questioned. This false equivalence acts as an arsenal at the state’s disposal to be used to discipline and control public opinion in its favor.”

She appeals for a challenge to the “false equivalence….that suggests that questioning war or the hegemony of the military state is the same as disrespecting….the death of its soldiers…and…most challenging, by deconstructing narratives of heroism, pity for suffering, and meaningful death in war and by acknowledging that war can never be glorious and that participation in it is rarely honorable….

“….As long as war is glorious and the dead are heroes….and as long as service in the military is not called out for what it essentially is — a viable source of pakki naukri for the more economically marginalized….the state’s (military’s) ability to depict service and sacrifice as noble…will be sustained.”

And just in case the reader misses her point, Rashid ends her book with a poem from Wilfred Owen, a young British writer whose death in World War I is often used as an example of the waste of manpower. His poem ends in Latin, “The old lie: Dulce at decorum est Pro patria mori” “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country”).