By: Mariam Habib
As far back as I can remember, one thing that I was always known for by anyone who knew me, whether as passing acquaintances or fast friends, was that three subjects were explicitly taboo as far as any sort of criticism just or otherwise, subtle or blatant, was concerned – unless, of course, they were ready to have their heads bitten off. They were Pakistan, Quaid-i-Azam and Pakistan Army. Never once was I ashamed to be emotional about them, nor concerned that such a stance will portray a one dimensional thought process, generally scoffed at by most, if not all intellectuals.
However, as age calmed the volatility of youth and experience taught tact, sentiments such as these were more often than not kept to oneself; opinions, however offensive, were tolerated and army bashing was taken in stride as questions that disturbed even my intellect were ruthlessly asked and pointedly highlighted to ridicule an unquestioning loyalty to an institution which to me is synonymous with Pakistan, its army.
It took the sacrifice of more than a 100 soldiers to jar me out of that intellectual complacency and shame me into admitting that there is nothing, absolutely nothing wrong with being irrationally sentimental about an institution which has given us so much for so long. It reminded me that when I say Pakistan Army, I do not speak of generals or the ever theorised ‘sinister’ establishment or any of our historic dictators; I speak of the common soldier. He epitomises the army. A man who stands up and says my country means more to me than my life, I will sacrifice my comfort so that others may rest easy, I will bear the harshest of conditions to stand guard so that others may be safe, I will endure separation from loved ones so that others need not and if need be I will gladly lay down my life so that my fellow countrymen can be spared. So next time you slur the army, it is this man that you dishonour.
So much has been said and written about the corrupt elements present in the army, the budget allocation to defence, martial laws and, of course, General Zia and General Musharraf, that we somehow miss the most basic facts in all such debates. Men who go into the army are not reared in laboratories or sent from above; they are part of the same demographic that calls itself Pakistani – the only difference is that the army, perhaps, is the only institution in Pakistan that has a system in place, which actually works, at least for most part; a system that allows accountability and integrity; that ensures honesty and hard work by drilling its participants with all sorts of physical and intellectual challenges.
There is no denying that mistakes were made, and some did put personal interest in front of national interest, but that is inevitable wherever humans are part of the equation. Yet, during times of crisis our first line of defence has always been our soldiers. Whether we like it or not, the huge defence budget has been Pakistan’s necessity, rather than the army’s luxury. Anyone who has gone step by step through our history knows under what conditions Pakistan was made, what challenges we faced from day one and how the continued existence of our motherland is nothing short of a miracle in itself.
Starting from scratch at the time of Independence to being a nuclear power today is a monumental achievement for Pakistan and the role of the armed forces has been integral in this. The bitterest of all truths is that where all faux pas and all blunders are so glaringly apparent to everyone and highlighted to no end by the so-called ‘experts’ or ‘champions of democracy’, all the sweat and blood and all the sacrifices that are part of a soldiers everyday existence go unnoticed.
I have always been frustrated with the assumption that a soldier’s life is one of luxury, the general perception that exists is that you join the army and a horde of servants are at your beck and call, you have a fleet of cars at your disposal, you live in the best neighbourhoods unjustly acquired by the army for your comfort and in general live like lords ruling over the less fortunate civilians – and I think to myself, how can I show them the life a soldier and his family actually lives.
The agony of knowing that life and death hangs in a delicate balance for a loved one posted in Siachen or fighting against insurgents on the western border. The anguish of receiving the dead body of your son, who hadn’t even seen his 25th birthday or the grief of widowhood a year into your marriage, such is life for a soldier and his family. There is neither fortune, nor fame for a common soldier; there is just honour in life and honour in death.
Today as another 135 families are devastated by the loss of a loved one, I stand and salute our armed forces and their families. I give them my utmost respect and gratitude and ask their forgiveness for not realising just how much I owe them.
The writer is a freelance columnist based in the US.