A bullet for a general?

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A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War began killing unpopular officers. This was immediately covered up, but the effect of this was that even officers as junior in rank as majors began avoiding the battlefield and zones of operations.

Since then, I have received a number of queries on the subject. Specifically, I have been asked if senior officers of our army were loathed enough by the rank and file during the 1971 War to drive them to think in terms of “wasting” their senior officers who had taken us into that unwinnable war?

Before answering this question, the it would be instructive if I shared my take on the esteem in which generals of other armies have been held by their rank and file.

The best source material from which this sentiment can be gleaned are autobiographies put out by officers of other armies. And the general impression one gets from these is that it is the lot of the generals [as a rank] in most armies, to be a butt of some dislike. Yet it must also be said that some among this rank in all armies were senior officers who were absolutely venerated by the junior ranks. But these were few.

The problem in most armies is that in their rise to the top, most officers need to successfully hoodwink a small number of senior officers. And with each promotion, the number of officers to be hoodwinked becomes smaller, and the task of hoodwinking that much easier.

But when the rank of general has been successfully attained, the newly promoted general suddenly finds himself in a glare of prominence, scrutinized by a million eyes. His hoodwinking tools fall too far short of the task, and he stands naked and exposed, generally loathed, except in the case of those that are the real McCoy, i.e genuine articles.
No one could have said this better than Capt. B.H. Liddel Hart, the most respected military theoretician in more than a hundred years:

” A different habit, with worse effects, was the way that ambitious officers, when they came in sight of promotion to the generals’ list, would decide that they would bottle up their thoughts and ideas, as a safety precaution, until they reached the top and could put these ideas into practice. Unfortunately, the usual result, after years of self-repression for the sake of their ambition, was that when the bottle was eventually uncorked, the contents had evaporated.”

A general who is unfair, a thief, or a coward, will always be hated. And in times of stress, generals are bound to come under added scrutiny by the rank and file. The 1971 war was one such time. As the war dragged on, so did this scrutiny. The generals began to be seen for what they actually were, and the hatred for the senior ranks grew apace as defeat could clearly be seen on the horizon.

Among the junior officers in the “Attock Conspiracy,” of whom I was one, there pervaded a sentiment of great clarity, i.e., if the generals thought themselves deserving of better pay, living conditions, pelf and privileges, staff cars with flags flying, and arms being presented to them each time they broke wind, they HAD to be judged by higher standards. Therefore, every general who could not prove that he had objected to the country being taken into an unwinnable war, needed to be sentenced on account of moral cowardice.

Whether I am privy to any plan to actually take down a general, the answer is “no.” Though I admit that the thought of having a general in one’s sights, and gently squeezing the trigger, could often be an enticing one.

No one expressed this better than young Obaidullah of 19 Punjab. That was the time when Chinese rifles were replacing the M-1s. These were also 7.62 caliber, but with smaller bullets. Obaid would casually pick up one of these bullets and examine it closely, and then wonder out loud: “Sir, I wonder if this bullet will go through a general!”

Things really came to a boiling point when, even after the surrender, it became clear that Yahya and his junta were bent on staying on. That was when Brig F.B. Ali disabled generals “Bachoo” Karim, R.D. Shamim, and Bashir by putting them in close confinement, and sent Colonels Agha Javed Iqbal [Probyn’s] and Alim Afridi s.j [Arty] to Gen Gul Hassan with a message for Yahya: Leave or I’ll march on GHQ.

It was good that Yahya heeded the message and left. Otherwise, F.B. was just the sort of man who would have kept his word marched as promised. Had that happened, we would probably have known if a Chinese 7.62 round could go through a general.

We are in a worse situation today. In 1971 we lost half our country. Today the half we have left threatens to fall apart. In both situations, it was the generals who were the arbiters of the fate of Pakistan. In 1971 they took the counsel of cowardice. Today, with a Hafiz leading them, one hopes the truth will have a chance of being spoken, heard, and heeded.