Mahvish Ahmad

In a book that breaks new ground in scholarship on Pakistani militarism, Maria Rashid explores how the Pakistan Army manages emotions like grief, pride and fear among foot soldiers and their families.

Two days into a 2014 reporting trip to refugee camps in Bannu (Khyber Pakthunkhwa province), set up by the Pakistan military after the launch of Operation Zarb-e-Azb, I heard a rumour. A mother, cradling her son in her arms, walked up to a soldier patrolling the only checkpoint allowing refugees to exit North Waziristan. “He’s going to die of thirst”, she told him. “Please give him some water”. They had been walking for three days in the blazing sun, trying to escape bombs the military were dropping unannounced. Overcome by thousands trying to pass through, the soldier shooed her back: “Get back in line!” The woman left, but returned an hour later, bearing her boy’s little corpse. “This is your fault,” she said. The soldier replied, “Yes, it is” and then pulled out his gun and shot himself.

Several versions of the story circulated. When Pashtun journalists retold it, the soldier was an Afridi (a Pashtun tribal formation). At one point, I heard that he also shot two of his soldier friends. I never found out if the story was true, but it haunts me still. It is one among several stories that reveal the fragility of sending young men to war. In the first few years after 9/11, stories circulated of jawans, young soldiers, refusing to shoot on command and of soldiers overwhelmed by the scent of flowers emanating from the corpses of men they had killed. When traveling through Balochistan, I remember non-Baloch soldiers trembling and wanting to go home. While letting us through a checkpoint, one wondered what he was doing so far from home, among people whose language he couldn’t understand. In Bannu, another soldier, alarmed and wracked with guilt, was on the verge of tears; he didn’t have enough water or food for the refugees he had been asked to patrol. Every story demonstrated a dangerous doubt at the very heart of the military; a sign that this powerful institution — which likes to present itself as homogenous, disciplined, heroic and united — is more broken than the generals would have us believe.

Maria Rashid’s new book, Dying To Serve: Militarism, Affect and the Politics of Sacrifice in the Pakistan Army, is a powerful intervention in studies of Pakistani militarism for precisely this reason. In a crucial break with studies centering on the military as an institution and its top-brass, the generals, Rashid fixes her lens on its foot soldiers and their families. She studies the lives and worlds of junior commissioned officers (JCOs) and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) in the Pakistan Army, specifically those coming from Punjab’s Chakwal district.

Against the trope of soldiers as automatons or “sheep willing and ready for slaughter”, Rashid examines how men, mothers and wives live with the threat and reality of bodily violence so central to the work of the Pakistani military. By rejecting a lazy, racialized description of Punjabis from Chakwal as especially martial, she opens up an important space to study how the army transforms young men into soldiers, and dead soldiers into martyrs, whose sacrifice seems accepted and celebrated by family and nation. In a careful ethnography of recruitment, training, funerals, martyrdom, compensation and disability in and around Chakwal, Rashid reveals how the military tries to manufacture the complicity of soldiers and their families for its project of war.

Central to her argument is a deeply sensitive recognition that accepting violence upon yourself, or on the bodies of those you love, has demanded that all armies, including the Pakistani one, engage with affects such as fear, grief and mourning. While Rashid acknowledges that the military uses material incentives to recruit — men often join the army to secure a pukki naukri, a stable job, and financial security for their families — she also insists that they must curate and manage affect, especially when these same communities face the threat of death.

Readying men and families for mortal sacrifice requires that the military work at the level of affect, because it is at these moments of violence that people waver, wondering whether the sacrifice is worth it. Rashid’s primary focus is not the kind of stories recounted above — though an important, final chapter examines how the army dealt with doubting soldiers, who were “unable to bear the weight and ambivalence” of killing the “Muslim enemy” in the US-led ‘War on Terror’. Yet, through a similar focus on the affects that surround soldiering, she brings attention to the always-present fragility of Pakistani militarism, which the army works so hard to temper and control.

If we are to understand the emotional hold of the Pakistan Army, we must comprehend how it deals with a soldier who is scared to die and a mother who cannot bear the loss of her son. Affect, Rashid shows, is a crucial technology of rule. It might also be, she hints in her conclusion, a potential site of subversion: if we trouble the “apparent untroubled association between the military and these families”, we can challenge the “carefully manufactured ‘truth’ that men, women and sacrifice for the nation-state go hand in hand.”

Rashid begins her book in the middle of one of several, mass commemorative ceremonies held for martyrs. At a 2015 Youm-i-Difaa or Defense Day ceremony, we meet “Yasmin, the mother of Nawaz, a young soldier who had died in Wana, South Waziristan, in 2009.” We learn that Yasmin is unconvinced by how candidly mothers declare their willingness to sacrifice their sons. “I don’t know who these women are,” she once told Rashid. When she hears a mother make such an announcement from the stage at the ceremony, she looks at Rashid “with a raised eyebrow and a shake of her head” and says, “look at how easily she says it.”

By opening with a mother’s ambivalence towards the army’s narrative of heroic sacrifice, Rashid sets the scene for her book. While the army mobilizes affect as a technology of rule, these feelings are slippery. They threaten to overflow and contradict the army’s manufactured story. That is why Rashid argues that affect has the potential to both “affix relationships of oppression and provide cathexis to resist or oppose these relationships.” To ensure that rule is solidified rather than subverted, the army carefully curates and manages these ceremonies. In her book’s second chapter, “A Calculated Dose of Grief”, Rashid takes us behind the scenes to show us how an army major ensures that no one goes off script. At one point, he tells Rashid that families need “just the right emotion and some acting”, betraying the intermingling of performance with grief in the service of power.

The potential eruption and unpredictability at the heart of all affect is, Rashid shows, no easy task to manage. In the chapters that follow, she turns her attention to the soldiers and families of Chakwal to trace the affective work done by the army to ensure that feelings such as fear and mourning stay under control. She begins with a historical and contextual introduction of Chakwal in the chapter, ‘The Land of the Valiant’, tracing how colonial tropes of masculine Punjabis and a political economy of patronage and protection transformed this area into a centre for military recruitment.  

In subsequent chapters, she follows soldiers from the moment of recruitment to their potential death and injury. In “Manufacturing Soldiers”, Rashid visits training centres aimed at turning civilians into soldier-subjects. In “Grief and its Aftermath” and “The Value of Loss”, she examines how the army deals with the families left behind, especially mothers and wives. “The way women grieve “, she writes, “is a point of concern for the military.” In ‘The Bodies Left Behind”, Rashid turns to the feminized body of the disabled soldier. This particular soldier sits oddly with the army’s narrative of sacrifice. They have not died, so they cannot be martyrs; yet, they do not fit easily into ableist, heroic representations of the fighting soldier.

Finally, in “Pro Patria Mori”, Rashid turns to those difficult moments when soldiers doubt the orders they are given. Though she does not get a chance to examine these doubts up close — she tells about stories of desertions narrated to her by senior officers — she touches on the importance the military places in ensuring the loyalty of their soldiers, especially when they are deployed against people those soldiers consider their own.

It is in her conclusion, “A Post-Military World”, that Rashid draws out the crucial, political consequence of her analysis. If affect is the “substance that makes militaristic narratives possible”, as she shows throughout her book, it also functions as a “formidable deterrent to any challenge to or questioning of the militarism project.” Rashid points out that the immense power of affect to block critique of the military becomes clear when anti-war activists stall criticism in “a desire to show respect for the families of the deceased and the sentiments of soldiers.” Yet, this stalling fails to recognize how the army marshals the feelings of soldiers and their families to secure support for their continued dominance over Pakistani politics.

It is not that affects such as fear and grief are fake or absent — quite the contrary — but rather that the army often takes affective responses and ensures that they circulate in ways that shore up its militarist project. It is telling that the army rarely circulates stories of the Army Public School (APS) mothers anymore. The horrific attack on APS Peshawar in December 2014, which left 150 children dead, seems to be too much for the army to handle. Perhaps the affective excess we all felt after that attack threatens to undo popular support for the military’s projects of war. There is a reason that the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement – arguably Pakistan’s most important, anti-militarist movement today – has promised APS families that they will push the government to fully investigate the attacks. There is also a reason that the Pakistani military is so threatened by PTM’s pledge. The very act of demanding an investigation troubles precisely that “apparent untroubled association between the military and these families.” By setting up a commission where parents not only express grief at their loss, but mobilise this to demand a transparent investigation, the PTM may expose cracks that already exist between families and the military. Though Rashid does not specifically tell us how affective excess can be mobilized against Pakistani militarism, her analysis helps explain why a demand like the PTM’s is considered such a threat.

Rashid’s book is a crucial intervention, which challenges a tired trope of soldiers as willing, sacrificial lambs. This trope was apparent to me when, after coming across the rumored story of the soldier’s suicide in Bannu, I approached a known, pro-army journalist to ask for leads into a story on post-traumatic stress among Pakistani soldiers. “Our soldiers don’t get traumatized,” he said. “See, the Americans are a post-heroic society. We’re heroic. Our boys are ready to die, no questions asked.”

I think I’ll send him a copy of Rashid’s book.

Mahvish Ahmad is an Assistant Professor in Human Rights and Politics at the London School of Economics
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