Reflections on Army Life

We were told to avoid talking politics in the dining hall, as it was against the spirit of the army rules, General Zia, our then dictator, was canvassing the nation to gain support for his sham referendum. No general has left the service for Abbottabad episode. But then, our generals are known for losing half a country without feeling any remorse.

I joined the Pakistan army as a junior cadet in 1981 and graduated as a second lieutenant in September 1985. The graduation followed ten years of service in infantry that involved tours of duty in Sindh, Balochistan, Punjab, the Siachin Glacier, deployment to the first Gulf War, and two tours of duty at the School of Infantry and Tactics. Until I resigned my commission in 1996, I was the most die-hard infantry officer: trained to be a leader of men, highly disdainful of all things civilian, and a strong believer in the absolute superiority of the Armed forces as compared to their civilian counterparts.

This brief article, thus, is based on my personal experiences of being an officer and also a reflective inquiry into the structuring of an army officer’s subjectivity. My account, however, is in no way exhaustive and cannot possibility be read as an all-encompassing explanation for the actions and beliefs of all Pakistan army officers.

The way we were trained had a crucial impact on our worldview and on our self-perception within the national space of Pakistan. I graduated at the height of Zia-ul-Haq’s regime. And though I took an oath to protect and safeguard the ideological and material borders of Pakistan, in my four years of training I was never trained to be a servant of my people. In fact, all formal and informal training was meant to solidify a sense of being above and superior to all Pakistanis who did not have the privilege of wearing a uniform. To be honest, this kind of mindset is not only germane to the army; it also permeates the civil services of Pakistan, but in case of the army the civilians are imperceptibly treated as suspect and not worthy of an officer’s trust. This distrust of the civilian populations was one of the strategies employed by the British to train their officers and men and seems to have been incorporated within the Pakistan army seamlessly. Thus, in a way, the old imperial attitude lives on in the rank and file of Pakistani sahibs, long after the empire has ceased to be.

As one grows in the profession and gets promoted the sense of entitlement and privilege grows exponentially. It is this deeply seated sense of entitlement coupled with a normative suspicion of all things civilian that underwrite the excesses of the army elite. I am not suggesting here that all army officers are corrupt and morally deficient: No, in fact, majority of Pakistan army officers that I knew and befriended during my career were upright straight-shooting men, and our soldiers (Or ORs as our officers call them) are without a doubt the best soldiers a nation can hope for. But, as I have also written elsewhere, most of the corruptions of the army are normalized in such a way that they are accepted as rights and privileges rather than corruptions. And some of these corruptions are institutional and not personal at all and thus simply more palatable. For example, each battalion has something called a battalion fund. Meant to be used for the welfare of troops, this fund is generated by the battalion itself and does not draw on the national military budget directly. In utilitarian terms, this is perfectly fine as the fund IS meant for the welfare of troops. But since these funds are neither audited by an outside authority nor exist officially in a battalion’s public record, they form a sort of hidden economy at a micro level. The ways in which these funds are raised are also highly irregular but are never seen to be so. Some battalions run shops, own rental properties, or own agricultural lands. Those that do not have any such resources rely on other interesting means: coaxing money out of contractors, no not as bribes but as money in lieu of goods. Here is a hypothetical example: If you are deployed in the northern areas, your quartermaster usually deals with more than three contractors directly: the fuel or wood contractor, the fresh rations contractor, and the contractor who dumps rations on your posts. In order to raise money, you can do various things: you can ask the contractor to supply certain things only on paper and ask him to give you a certain percentage of the cost of other things in cash; for your fuel and wood contractor, you can ask him to supply only a prescribed amount of wood/fuel and get the rest in cash; you can do the same with your fresh rations contractors. As I said earlier, none of this money lines the pockets of the officers; it usually ends up in a battalion fund, but since these are black funds, they contribute nothing to the national economy but rather exist in the black hole of a parallel economy.

The case becomes even more interesting if you are in the services: the services deal with large contracts directly and it is there in those large contracts, civilian and military, that huge sums of money are exchanged again without any public record or accounting. Aisha Siddiqua covered this on a macro level; I am only providing some details at the micro level, because it is the moral elasticity of the functioning of the army at micro level that happens to be my concern.

As the officers move through the system of promotions, the degree of their sense of entitlement and their aversion to any kind of civilian oversight increases exponentially. This happens in pretty much all the cases: even for principled officers whom I had admired as a young officer. Obviously, a whole life being protected from the common vagaries of life and lifetime of indoctrination in self worth ought to produce such subjectivities.

What I found especially interesting in my career as an officer was the unofficial dual layering of the military law. The Pakistan army is governed by two major books of law: The Army Regulations (ARR) and the Army Rules and Instructions (ARI). There is no distinction in the law about how it would be applied to junior or senior officers: all military personnel, in fact, are equal in the rules and regulations. But just as we were being told to avoid talking politics in the dining hall, as it was against the spirit of the army rules, General Zia, our then dictator, was canvassing the nation to gain support for his sham referendum. Of course, we did not have the right to question his authority, but it always made me wonder as to how is it possible for a serving general to act as a politician while his junior officers were not even permitted to speak on the subject of politics.

Similarly, this above-the-board attitude has so deeply permeated the Army elite, that in 1999 General Pervez Musharraf, the then COAS, was actually able to launch a border war—the Kargil debacle—without even informing his own government. It is rumored that when the Indian prime minister called Nawaz Sharif to ask about why Pakistan had started a border war, Mr. Sharif had to tell him that he would have to get back to him after he had talked to his generals. Upon hearing this, it is also rumored, the Indian prime minister had said: “That is the difference between you and us Mian sahib, our generals ask us what they are attempting to do and not otherwise.”

Obviously, there is something broken within the army’s system of subjectivization that creates figures like Ayub, Zia, and Musharraf: I mean how is it possible that all these jokers were able to muster the support of their entire officer corps while obviously violating the very constitution that the army was meant to protect?

Obviously, this subjectivity arises through the systems of training employed by the army: almost all officers are trained to be suspicious of their civilian counterparts and internalize a feeling of systemic superiority over what they consider the corrupt and inefficient civilian-run systems. Naturally, this attitude also plays a role in their view of the popularly elected governments and is further accentuated in case of senior officers who are only accountable to their superiors in uniform.

The myth-making industry—the media and the conservative newspapers—also play a major role in buttressing army’s reputation in opposition to the ineffectual civilian governments. That is why, when going gets rough, our media start imploring the army to takeover and when the take over occurs, the turncoat politicians, the bought judges, and compliant civil servants become a part of a hybrid military-civilian system of power that has nothing to offer to the people except empty slogans. One serious audit of the wealth amassed by all the loyal corps commanders of our former dictators will be sufficient to prove my point. A COAS who takes over the civilian government works through various channels of idealization and appeasement. The first group to be appeased is the corps commanders, who are rewarded heavily for their loyalty. The next group is the politicians who break away from their parties and then sell themselves to the dictators: The chaudries of Gujarat and Shaikh Rashid from my home district are some examples of this bunch.

On lower levels, steps are also taken to keep the lower ranks loyal by introducing various “welfare” schemes that involve cheaply available plots, salary and pension increases, foreign assignments, and civilian appointments of retired officers. This entire system of appeasements, corrupt to the core, enables a dictator to sustain power and where all else fails, the same army can also be deployed to crush any uprising and, interestingly, while the army is deployed to suppress civilian uprisings, they are also paid a daily allowance that comes out of the non-military budget.

I am not opposed to the troops welfare projects; I believe that it is necessary for a nation to provide care for all those who put their lives at risk for the welfare of their nation. But I am, of course, vehemently opposed to spending indiscriminately on the armed forces and its upper crust, while millions of our children go hungry, have no access to healthcare or a good education.

I hope Pakistan army has probably changed for the better since I left it; but I am also certain that the ingrained sense of entitlement of army officers has also increased. And unless the way we train our officers is altered, this gulf between the army and people they are supposed to protect will continue to widen.

The recent debacle of Osama bin Laden’s long, comfortable tenancy in a house close to the Pakistan Military Academy and what followed after his death is a good example of the army’s holier-than-thou attitude even when their leadership has failed.

While the media, by and large, have done a good job of asking some really pertinent and hard questions of the army and ISI, the civilian government, it seems, has again buckled down and given in to the pressure employed by the military elite.

Looked at differently, this latest failure of Pakistan army and its intelligence agencies is very simple to understand. Here are the facts: The most powerful institution in Pakistan which claims the bulk of our national budget every year failed to notice that the world’s most wanted terrorists was living right next to the home of Army Officers for FIVE years. What other proof of leadership incompetence do we need? There has to be some accountability for this. But as far as I know, no general has left the service or accepted responsibility. But then, our generals are known for losing half a country without feeling any remorse. And unless our officers are trained as the servants and not the masters of their people, we will continue producing these Muhammad Shah Rangeelas of modern times.

(Also published by Viewpoint Online)

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  10 comments for “Reflections on Army Life

    May 27, 2011 at 2:38 pm

    That was a very insightful and excellent piece of writing. Thank you.

    samson simon sharaf
    May 29, 2011 at 5:16 am

    I mostly agree and must congratulate the author whom I saw growing up.
    A point he has avoided to mention is how the hybrid grain is separated from the chaff.The system ensures that only those grains are cultivated that assure the sustenance of the mindset. About 60% officers know within the first four years that they have no future. So they just wait to retire as majors. Of the remaining about 25% never make it to the staff college.Only the lucky ones amongst them become colones. It is the remaining 15% that compete at various levels and a handful make it to a generals rank. The question is, where does this disgruntled lot of 60-70% go and what do they contribute. I’ll leave the answer to Dr. Masood Ashraf Raja.

    • May 29, 2011 at 1:31 pm

      All systems have a mode of attrition: Althusser taught us that many years ago. A system must reproduce itself in order to survive. The promotion system is a part of that. In my experience, the so-called “disgruntled” group tended to be more honorable and trustworthy as they no longer had a reason to kiss up to their superiors.
      Anyway, I obviously do not have all the answers. I am rather more interested in thinking and writing about these issues of human subjectivity. Thank you so much for your comment; it would have meant more if you had used your real name.

    samson simon sharaf
    May 30, 2011 at 1:00 am

    Well this is my real name and you can google it. Was Pl Comd with 75th PMA Long Course and saw you in infantry school perhaps 1986. I would appreciate if you also read Amos Perlmutter, Jonnawitz and Samuel Huntington on Military Sociology and know where exclusivity and corporatism come from. I feel you stretched it a bit too far.

  4. May 30, 2011 at 1:23 am

    Thank you so much. Sorry, I never got to know you well enough. I am a literary critic by training so most of my work is in literature related fields. Huttington I have read but did not find his thesis about clash of civilizations very convincing.
    As for the army, of course my approach is to provide some kind of sociology of normalized privilege. I have published quite a lot about Zia and the dangers of Islamization of the Pakistani public sphere.My views, however, are always tentative and provisional and their value depends upon the context and perspective of the reader. I feel it is good if more of this critical tradition is developed in Pakistan so that no institution can claim an above-the-board place within the national space and time.
    Anyway, I am grateful for your insights and sorry for not connecting with your name: now, of course, I remember you quite clearly.

    Muhammad Imran Sajid
    December 4, 2011 at 2:14 pm

    Assalam u alakum its imran sajid here final year student of chemical engineering at university of the punjab lahore. I have read out your whole column about the pakistan army life reflection and found it a very informative and meaningful for those people interested in military affairs of pakistan. Last year pakistan army inducted chemical engineers as captain to work at missile technology first time. I want to ask you that what can be the possibilities for a chemical engineer in pakistan army. What is the highest rank upto which they can move. I hope you would guide me in the light of your knowledge about pakistan army matters. I would wait for your reply eagerly.

    • December 5, 2011 at 12:15 pm

      I am not sure what the procedure is for this but youvcould probably contact the local recruitment centre and see what they have to say about it. Good luch.

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