Tuesday, March 21, 2023

War after War


Chinese leader Xi Jinping has a plan to end the war in Ukraine. "Dear friend," Russian leader Vladimir Putin told him while on a visit to Moscow, "we are  always open to the negotiation process." Jinping has a 12-point plan for peace. It involves "ceasing hostilities and resuming peace talks." No rancour, more peace, indeed. What else could it be? Would it end as a war to end all wars? 

World Wars, both the second and the first, were phlegmatically described, when they were raging, as wars to end all wars. That was a naive dream, a vision conjured up by guileless chroniclers. It was a valid prophesy insofar as the third and final war not yet broken. So many wars across the planet, isolated or coordinated, do not add up to a world war.  

I had a self-assigned brief to tell my granddaughter Gauri a story of war. We were walking around the shelves of a medium library in Fairfax County when I picked up a heavily illustrated tome on wars in history. I thumbed through it before having it issued. The great war in Kurukshetra which had been glibly assumed as the last war of wars, but left no more than a dozen of its participants alive, did not figure in it.  Peace was a sombre dream.

From Herodotus to Winston Churchill, writers of war history have been duly hailed and decorated.  From Duryodhana to Vladimir Putin, wagers of war have been praised for their valour and, if it comes, victory. A soldier is known by the epaulets he pins on his chest, marking his participation in battles and the lives he has taken. News scribes down the ages have paid tributes to them, saying in an orotund way, "they died so that you live." 

War literature is as voluminous as it is convulsive. Churchill who led his country's part of the war in 1939-45, and narrowly won, was a recipient of  the Nobel Prize for literature. There was no grand reception awaiting the young poet Wilfred Owen who lost his life fighting a war. About the likes of him, who survived or died, he said they were "alive, but not mortal overmuch, dying, not mortal overmuch." A whole body of military folklore, singing paeans of surviving heroes, running down traitors,  invigorates every vernacular literature. 

The story of chicanery and betrayal in war, traceable to the times of Judas, is breathtaking, without end or beginning.  In our times and little land, the latest betrayer belongs to the era of the chekavars, mercenaries who are supposed to fight and finish, either way, dying or winning a trophy of his head, all for their employers' perceived benefact. In a reversal of main characters in a northern ballad, the traditional hero turns a villain, the villain the wronged hero. The recreation of the folktale in an M T Vasudevan Nair's film script was a massive success. A little kingdom of Ambalapuzha had a quiet quiescent king  when Marthanda Varma's advancing troops brought it under siege.

The siege was possible, thanks to some subtle intelligence an elite Nair, Mathoor Panikkar, passed on to the Venad army well in time. That was one of a series of mini-battles  Marthanda Varma fought in the course of his conquest. By the way, Marthanda Varma hired the commander of a Dutch detachment he defeated in a battle at Kolachal as his miliatry trainer.

Southern Kerala has plenty of the saga of betrayal. Eravikkutty Pillai, senior commander of the Venad army was betrayed by his own men, and he died leaving behind enough scope for a macabre ballad. Elsewhere the Ghoris, the Khiljees, the Lodis, the Mughals, all from arid west or central Asia, forayed into the Gangetic plane with the active connivance of betrayers, Jaichand and Mir Jaffar are familiar figures darkening our memory. No story of war will be complete without the exploits  of betrayers. Samoothiri in Kozhikkode had his betraying courtier, Thalappanna, a twisted mind, factual or figment of imagination.  The wily Brahman made things easy for the Portuguese traders to score commercial and political clout in maritime engagements.

Much like our Mahabharata Was was the Pelopponnesian War four hundred years before BC. From protracted  Pelpponnesian wars to our unremarkable Pookkottur Battle, is a tragic cry, rendering war as a principal factor of human civilization. Kalinga War, an incomparable expedition in the annals of war, seemed to be an approximation to the dictum, war to end all wars. That did not happen. But the victor of the sanguinary operation,Ashoka, laid down his arms for life, and turned into a campaigner for Dharma, Buddhism. In a different setting, Marthanda Varma, appalled by the blood on his sword, he surrendered his kingdom to his family deity, not much more than an apparent transfer of power. Another showman, Alexander, who died early, probably because of excessive consumption of alcohol,  embarrassed by the enormity of his conquest. So much so  he had left instruction to keep his open hands outstretched from the coffin to let it be known that he was carrying with him..    

Russian wars produced a magisterial novel, War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy. Two thousand years earliest, what may well be qualified as humanity's best war literature, the Bhagavad Gita, was produced. It was no appeal for peace or treaty of friendship or cessation of hostilities as Jinping has made to Putin. Gita was an unusual exhortation for war, charioteer Krishna asking his buddy, irresolute soldier, Arjuna, to get up and fight, yuddhaya kritanischaya. This unique 700-stanza war poem was disposed of in two lines by Malayalam's patron saint Ezhuthachan wrote his Mahabharatam. In our contemporary era, Amartya Sen finds Arjuna's doubts and questions more relevant and rational than Krishna's exposition.