Dying to Serve: Militarism, Affect, and the Politics of Sacrifice in the Pakistan Army
by Dr Maria Rashid
Stanford University University Press 2020, 267pp

Reviewed by: Dr Rubina Saigol (PhD, University of Rochester)
7 May 2021
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There have been several studies of militarisation and military rule in Pakistan including Tariq Ali’s Pakistan: Military Rule or People’s Power, Hasan Askari Rizvi’s The Military and Politics in Pakistan and Ayesha Siddiqa’s Military Inc. Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy. Most of this scholarship is centered on the political and economic aspects of military rule. The social, cultural and affective aspects, which enable public consent for the project of militarism, have not been explored in the previous work. This is where Maria Rashid’s Dying to Serve is a major and important contribution to the discourse on militarisation in Pakistan. Focused on demonstrating the deep interlinkages between the cultural practices that generate affect, and the political economy of militarism, the author adds new dimensions to the prevailing discourse.

Dying to Serve revolves around the complex, intimate, ambivalent, and contradictory relationships between sexualisation, the military, and the nation in Pakistan. Set in five villages of District Chakwal, a major recruitment area for the army, it tells the story of the creation of the masculine soldier-subject juxtaposed with the feminised civilian subjects. The manufacture of the trained and disciplined rational soldier, along with the construction of the primitive, undisciplined, and emotional citizen as a binary opposite, is accomplished by the deployment of affect – emotions, feelings, sentiments, passions, and attachments. Emotions, sentiments, and attachments are carefully harnessed, altered, manipulated, controlled, and disciplined in the interest of the nationalist project of war and militarism which necessarily entails death, injury, and accompanying sorrow. The meticulous, detailed, and careful management of grief generates the complex and contradictory relationship between the local villagers and the military on the one hand, and the military and the larger nation on the other.

The book opens with one of the spectacular ceremonies that annually commemorate the martyrs of the nation. The ceremony is crafted skillfully and minutely curated to generate just enough grief for the nation to understand the sacrifice of the war dead, and the irreparable loss experienced by their stoic, heroic parents, particularly mothers. The idea is to draw the wider nation into the militarist project and to justify the vast resources of the country to which the military lays claim. The ceremony is carefully choreographed as next of kin are brought on to the stage to express their feelings which must be thoughtfully calibrated – too much grief has the potential to subvert the project of militarism which relies on the idea of willing sacrifice. The ceremony is beamed on all TV channels and the grief on camera can mesh with the grief by the wider audience outside, thus tying the military and the nation into a symbiotic relation.

The ideal masculine and disciplined soldier is produced through the use of space, time and activity. The training school is located at a distance from the village to separate the recruit from family and friendship ties that could weaken him. Using a Foucauldian framework, the author enables a close reading of the total institution where strict regimentation and controlled regimes of training, exercise and leisure govern the entire life of the recruit. Every activity is not only controlled but strictly monitored for lapses which are punished depending upon severity.

It is in this space that the soldier learns to be a fighter not only skilled in war techniques, knowledge, and routines, but also about how he is different from the primitive, feminine, and weak civilian. He learns to be masculine – devoid of fear, free from sentimental attachments, mechanical, hardy – in short, an automaton. If his physical endurance gives in, he is first encouraged with gentle coaxing and then subjected to humiliation and insult for being like a woman. He is ridiculed until his pride forces him to perform actions requiring extraordinary endurance. All that is feminine, soft, and connected to primitive sentiments is to be forced out of him. If he misses his home and family or tries to escape, he is either brought back in shame or must return and suffer the consequences.

A major outcome of this training is the transformation of attachments which are now suffused with new meanings. The home is now his unit, the mother is now the motherland, and the family is the nation. The training thus binds him deeply to his comrades, the military institution, and the nation.

When the bodies of dead soldiers are brought to the village, grief and sorrow are strictly managed so that the sordid and tragic side of the story may remain sub-liminal. The detailed and elaborate burial rites with full military honors are designed to impress upon the next of kin that he died for a noble cause fighting for the glory of land and faith. The men are allowed in public burial rituals and urged to control their emotions, while the women remain at home and the military is uneasy with their flowing emotions and sorrow. The martyr is not dead and is living happily in paradise; this is the myth through which meaning-making occurs to deal with the grief.

However, there are moments which interrupt the nationalist-military-religion narrative that is expected to be absorbed by both the soldiers and their families. The fissures in the discourse become apparent when there is an outpouring of visible grief by a father or mother unable to accept the loss. The unease in sending a loved one to death for a secure job and a guaranteed income is palpable. The official narratives then function to soothe the pain by invoking the nation, country and faith for which the life has been given.

After the army departs from the village following the burial rituals, grief can puncture the structured discourses of power. The villages are haunted by the dead, with large billboards proudly displaying the names and pictures of the martyrs at the entrance. The pictures, belongings, and mementos of lost loved ones create a presence within an absence, a world where the living and the dead exist side by side. Suppressed affect – sorrow, anger, guilt – can all arise after the army trucks leave.

As an institution premised on the idea of benevolence and welfare towards its own, the military provides generous compensation to the families who lose a loved one, especially a breadwinner. The official narrative of a willing sacrifice for the love of the country and religion covers up the bureaucratic and mundane business of calculating the compensation. Compensation is a silence, an invisibility in the official military discourse, for it punctures the idea that the sacrifice was willingly given for the motherland.

The prevailing notions of sexualised subjects play out in the compensation regimes in that the mother is perceived as the most deserving of the money for her love is pure and sublime, and devoid of any sexual connotation. The widow may also get compensation, especially if she has children, but the figure of the widow is somewhat problematic as she is still a sexual person who may remarry. The overarching narrative of dying for country and faith then comes into play to help assuage the guilt. Parents feel compelled to repeat that they would give more sons for the sacred soil.

The compensation for those wounded in war is even more complicated. They have not lost their lives in serving the country, nonetheless they have lost a limb which renders them incapable of earning a livelihood. The war-wounded soldier becomes an uncomfortable figure for a military that prides itself on able-bodied and complete men. The wounded and disabled soldier becomes a feminised figure, at times ridiculed by the villagers, often depressed and weepy. He is given the best possible medical care but is rendered unfit for service, therefore he is offered the less manly jobs like cooking which reduces his self-esteem and causes him to be regarded as inferior by his former mates. He is not paraded that frequently on stage as he represents the sordid side of war, the grotesque and ugly side that the military perceives as contrary to its image.

The dominant discourse of dying for the nation and religion was openly and severely interrupted during the war on terror when the army was killing fellow-Muslims in the northern parts of the country. Soldiers, villagers, and citizens alike were conditioned to believe that martyrdom is achieved only by killing infidels. The reference to a Taliban leader as shaheed (martyr) by a religious party led to an acrimonious public debate over the meaning of shahadat (martyrdom). This brought into sharp relief the ambivalence surrounding somebody else’s war and there were contentions over the meaning of shaheed – was the soldier who died fighting his fellow Muslim citizens a shaheed or were those killed by him shaheed. The unease over the meaning of shaheed was resolved by the villagers by creating a hierarchy of martyrdom with the highest level accorded to those who died fighting infidels, and a lower status for those who fought for the nation and country, but not for faith.

Apprehensive that the fractured meaning of shaheed could lead to disaffection among some, the military added new courses of training in which its transformed meaning was emphasised. The term was expanded to include anyone fighting for the motherland against external as well as internal enemies.  This was achieved by re-defining the militants as the enemy of the Islamic state and, by association, enemies of faith.

The metonymical association between motherland, country, nation, and religion enabled the military to justify the war and by extension soldiers’ deaths. On the other hand, the relatives of the dead soldier could deal with their grief and understand the death as life willingly sacrificed for a sacred cause. The guilt associated with having sent a loved one to die for material gain, a confirmed job and a guaranteed salary could be diminished by a resort to the grand narratives of the nation, state and religion. The military thus managed to retain and maintain the three-way relationship between the villagers and the institution, the institution and the nation, and the nation and the villagers. This association helps the military to make its claim to the largest chunk of the national pie. The pursuit of militarism in Pakistan is, therefore, achieved not merely by coercion but is actively generated by carefully manufactured public consent.

The book reads like a story with vivid descriptions of the settings and happenings. Interestingly, it generates in the reader the very affect that it speaks about. One cannot read it without a lump in the throat as stories are revealed about the deep pain of mothers and fathers who have lost a young son in the prime of his life. Written beautifully, flowingly, and empathetically, Dying to Serve is a very engaging read which appeals simultaneously to the heart and to the mind – it makes one reflect as well as feel. It combines intellectual detachment about militarism with an emotional attachment with those who die to make us live.

As one of the first detailed anthropological studies on the cultural, social and affective aspects of militarism it enriches the existing literature on the political economy of militarism. It is the first book that shows the complex inter-linkages between the realms of the social, cultural and affective on the one hand, and the economic, political and strategic aspects of militarism on the other, revealing that the latter are tied to and dependent upon the former.

The findings of the current study point to the necessity of interrogating and challenging the dominant military narrative and creating ruptures in a seemingly smooth story. Feminists need to not only resist militarism and its trappings, but also must interrogate the very idea of the nation-state that relies on religion, kinship metaphors, gendered binaries and violence to reproduce itself. Is democracy even possible, given the creation of specific masculinities and femininities that are clearly hierarchical with the former dominating the latter? Larger questions about the state, nation, democracy and collective social existence may need to be explored to further the vitally important issues raised by Dying to Serve.

© Bloomsbury Pakistan 2021


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