Saturday, April 17, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Three Battles: Critical Clashes Between Asia and Europe By M Abul Fazl Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

Thanks to Dost Publications for the review copy

Published In Daily Times / 17 Apr 2010

The battles of Jhelum, Plassey and Dien Bien Phu are said to be key turning points in history. Of the three, two had already been lost on a political level long before they were ‘joined’; all of them have been subjected to intense scrutiny over the years. In one, a battle-hardened general and famous military strategist won a technical victory over a warrior king. In another, a trading company challenged and defeated a major Asian powerhouse. And, finally, a guerrilla style movement led by local nationalists brought down an occupying force of superior strength.

If Plassey was decisive for the company where the British gained a convincing military victory over young Sirajuddaula, the standoff between Porus and Alexander at Jhelum exposed the fatal flaws in a famed Greek strategy and the fall of Dien Bien Phu dealt a crippling blow to the French colonial ambitions.

Strength in numbers is not a decisive factor in either of these examples. M Abul Fazl’s book focuses on social and political dynamics at play that helped shape the course of these wars and analyses the implications of such forces on both the conquered and conquering forces.

It begins in the fourth century BC with Alexander who hailed from a land credited with early laws of war and a formal military organisation. The writer attributes this to unending intense fighting on the peninsula and examines the Greek juggernaut in the lead up towards the conquest of Asia where South Asian states and statelets were up in arms on the flimsiest of pretexts. Alexander’s South Asian adventure was marked by the peculiar nature of the environment where “the outsider was not viewed as a threat but a new entrant in an ongoing game of warfare”. In drawing contrasts between the two armies, he shows South Asians and Persians to be set in the ways of the battle, “as if they were divinely ordained”. The Greeks, on the other hand, relied on “training, discipline and solidarity of the infantry” (page 12). That and the tried and tested Arbela technique failed here. He challenges those historians who credit Alexander with influencing the Indian civilisation and deems trade, not Greek invasion, to be the extent of any cultural exchange.

In the Battle of Plassey, a trading company took on Bengal — a major Asian powerhouse — and its meagre forces defeated an army of 50,000. The writer does not subscribe to the theory that discipline alone gave the British an advantage on the battlefield. He concedes that superior organisation and financial resources served them in good stead when confronting the mighty states and possession of a navy gave them a tactical advantage. “The main weakness of the Indian states was in social and political sphere” and even the acquisition of French drill masters did not help as their politics were driven by “policy, power and personal ambition”. Odds were heavily stacked against Sirajuddaula, an empire was already on precarious footing and a few judicious thrusts managed to bring down the house of cards. Combined with the fact that alliances between Indian princes and Europeans were routine, it is hardly surprising that with such combustible elements present, the slender thread holding the empire together frayed completely. He rules that in the Battle of Plassey “the fighting showed the bankruptcy of South Asian society — a ruling class held masses in contempt and the masses owed no allegiance to it.”

Finally, the narrative enters the 20th century where the “curtain fell on the Asian colonial drama” and the French forces capitulated to Viet Minh — the Vietnamese revolutionary organisation waging a guerrilla war for independence. He states that “a small country, a poor country, an overpopulated country had chosen to write the most glorious chapter in the history of 20th century de-colonisation.”

Through these essays, the writer seeks to clarify Alexander’s conquering record in the light of his Asian exploits. He explores the brittle framework supporting the Indian Empire laying emphasis on its contribution to a rising Europe and closes with a look at the gathering storm that heralded the age of neo-colonialism. He admits the historians’ version into his narrative, and expands upon their ideas to rationalise his interpretation of warfare. The military side is not the sole focus of this discussion, which struggles to define these battles by their impact on the correlation of forces. It uses the failure of Arbela as an example to bolster the view that famed Greek tactic would have been rendered useless long before the Jhelum standoff had Alexander’s opponent (Darius II) been a worthy warrior and not, as was the case, a “pathological coward”. He argues that Clive won the battle before it was engaged through bribery and not in the Napoleonic fashion (page 36). And, finally, he shows how a classic set piece battle, where the destructive power of modern warfare could have been used to successfully crush opposition, crumbled instead when faced with a new age phenomenon of nationalism (page 74). Using insight gained from other books, historians and military-men enables the writer to broaden the debate. His scholarly efforts might spark interest in academic circles.

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