The Apotheosis of Alfred Cooke



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On September 7 of 1965, as the fighting between India and Pakistan spread beyond Kashmir, a young Indian pilot named Alfred Cooke found himself in a swirling dogfight over the campus of IIT Kharagpur, near the Kalaikunda air force station. It was the second Pakistani air raid on Kalaikunda that morning. There were two Indian jets versus four Pakistanis, but the Indians got the better of the intruders, and Cooke managed shoot down one Pakistani plane and damaged another. By all accounts, he showed great skill and courage, and fully deserved his Vir Chakra – in fact, he probably deserved a higher award. At the time, however, his action was not seen as especially memorable. Cooke’s role in the rest of the war is obscure, and he himself disappeared into obscurity, emigrating to Australia a couple of years later, having retired at the same rank.

Since then, Alfred Cooke has made a remarkable comeback, virtually from the dead. The Kalaikunda dogfight was rediscovered, as it were, by two amateur military historians, Samir Chopra and Jagan Mohan, in their informative book about squadron-level air operations in the 1965 war, published in 2005. Still, not many people took notice: the authors were, for instance, faced with a frustrating indifference on the part of book-review editors. Sections of the book appeared on a website for military fanboys, war-porn aficionados and Hindu nationalists, but outside that small community of self-described ‘jingoes,’ Cooke remained unknown. That he has now re-emerged as a minor star is quite revealing about the place of history and militarism in Indian national discourse.

The immediate reason for Cooke’s newfound stardom is simple. This year being the fiftieth anniversary of the 1965 war, the BJP-led government in New Delhi has decided to ‘celebrate India’s victory.’ The media, eager as ever for a good party, has leapt on board, scraping the barrel for bona fide war heroes. Cooke, now in his mid-seventies and finally discovered, has been brought back from Australia, dusted off and paraded before the television cameras, and a fair multitude of people who have no clue about the politics of the war, know nothing about ‘what really happened,’ and couldn’t tell a Sabre from a 747, are ready to celebrate the return of the native son.

It’s a highly Indian phenomenon, for various reasons. Even countries that won unambiguous victories in war don’t ‘celebrate’ them anymore, especially if they’re liberal democracies. It’s considered poor taste. In Indian democracy, the ‘liberal’ part died with Nehru and Ambedkar, and the combination of kitsch and melodrama is the national taste. So celebrations are in order. (Jai ho.) But it’s also something new, as indicated by the lukewarm reception given to the book by Chopra and Mohan just a decade ago. Military history is not a new genre of literature in India. In the first decades of independence, when the country fought virtually all its wars, several books by retired officers and analysts appeared in print, and some of them – like John Dalvi’s Himalayan Blunder – were serious and thoughtful works of non-academic history, although one might quarrel with the conclusions. The readership was very small, but that reflected the limited size of the public that was invested in the universal model of the modern nation-state, with its languages of foreign policy, strategy and military tactics. The enthusiasms of this public – which had no illusions about the fact that it lived in a poor and ‘backward’ country – were appropriately modest, with a minimum of cheerleading and salivating.

A different realism was apparent at the popular level of picturing war: commercial cinema. The war movies (or movies including war) from this earlier period were hopelessly ‘unrealistic,’ in the sense that they did not try very hard to achieve verisimilitude. The combat footage in Shakti Samanta’s Aradhana, for instance, is clearly from the Korean War and World War II, or Hollywood movies about those conflicts: the ‘Indian’ planes have US markings. Samanta was working with an assumption that his middle- and working-class audiences would neither notice nor care about the use of generic and crudely inserted imagery. War action on screen was meant to allude to war, in much the same way that embracing trees in picturesque valleys alluded to romantic/sexual goings-on. Since the audience understood and accepted the allusion, it was real enough.

It can, moreover, be argued that in the 1960s, war itself had a certain reality for Indian consumers of the media, although in a country without conscription or widespread military service, few expected to put on a uniform. It was a mundane, low-level anxiety: the periodic border conflicts put family members in harm’s way, and even people who were not well-acquainted with the machines or the tactics knew the routine of pasting over their window-panes. The representation in the media was, accordingly, sentimental rather than glamorous or pornographic.

In the forty-plus years since the Bangladesh War, however, two generations have grown up that have never known war at all, give or take the Kargil clash of 1999. The present-day media market in India is not only much larger than it was in the past, it is qualitatively different: more accustomed to consumption, more sophisticated in its taste for images, hungrier in its visions of power, and less patient with the ignominy of Third World status. It understands, at a level just below the surface of what it will acknowledge, that it inhabits a country whose everyday mode of violence is not the tech-tech contest of missiles and submarines, but the riot with swords, tridents and kerosene cans. So a new combination of the real and the unreal has emerged: the new public wants Top-Gun-like ‘realism’ in its images and stories of war, but its images and stories are more fantastic than ever.

This combination has given us some extraordinary visuals. In a recent television commercial for a cell phone service provider, a squad of Indian soldiers, looking a bit tired, are supposedly returning from a battle, when one smiling fellow whips out his phone, calls home, and declares “Mom! We won!” It’s farcical, but no satire is intended. Kargil was nothing if not a carefully packaged media product, complete with Bollywood starlets and preening TV anchors. Today, virtually the only Indian journalist who provides readable analyses of defense news is Shekhar Gupta. He is outnumbered by fanboys exemplified by Vishnu Som, who ask no difficult questions and only drool at the machines and warrior-gods, and the greatest number are simply incompetent. Recently, the Indian Army has put out an eleven-minute recruitment ad that puts the American ‘Be all that you can be’ campaign to shame, although it is obviously modeled after it. Alfred Cooke, poor man, has been brought back from the underworld by the same frenzied market for military 'glory.'

There is a great deal that is wrong with this picture, including the televised image of Cooke. It cannot be called ‘military history’ even by the loose standards of popular history. It’s actually a kind of anti-history. At the most basic level, by trying to cherry-pick ‘success,’ it buries the long catalogue of ineptitude that constituted the Indian war effort. Even the action that starred Cooke was marked by incompetence: the Pakistani air raids on the Kalaikunda air base were highly successful, half the Indian planes that were ordered to intercept the second raid failed to engage the attackers, and Cooke’s aircraft was armed with the wrong kind of ammunition. It elides S.C. Mamgain, who was Cooke’s partner in that fight, turning a two-against-four battle (which was apparently not impressive enough) into a one-against-four affair. It turns a few short minutes in the life of a twenty-five-year-old into a ‘victory’ that can stand for, and compensate for, several thousand instances of heroism and absurdity.

More pertinently, it casts the politics of the war into the oblivion of total irrelevance, contributing both to the Indian determination to not talk about Kashmir, and to the nationalist myth of war without politics. It makes it tasteless to ask what factors in Indian society led Anglo-Indians like Cooke to emigrate en masse, even as it turns war into a spectator sport. That latter connection is not new; it’s familiar to us from the associations between football and American militarism that Garry Trudeau satirized, not to mention the older British discourse of ‘playing the game.’ But the Indian maneuver goes a step further: it bypasses the game and goes straight to the victory podium. The story becomes unimportant, even distasteful; only the ending matters, even (especially) when the ending is a public-relations product. In this regard, it replicates what has happened in Indian cricket in recent years, as the flush new market (the same one that consumes the war narratives) has shown its preference for shorter and shorter versions of the game. What the public consumes is victory itself, and it consumes its own consumption – i.e., celebration – of victory. The rest is boring.

That appetite for distilled victory is not benign. The new military ‘history’ is inseparable from the building climate of fascism in India. The craving for heroes who shine above general incompetence, the consumption of technology into pornography, and the total abstraction of war from political and social context are all hallmarks of that fascism, and it occupies precisely the same political and social space as Hindu nationalism. It is not a coincidence that websites that cater to these appetites also harbor the crudest forms of anti-Muslim bigotry, and that their members take time out to pour vitriol on the liberal arts, advocating their abolition and using the rhetoric of treason – plus the terminology of the American far right (‘libtard’, etc.) – to condemn academics who recently signed a petition against Narendra Modi.

This is a different level of anti-liberalism from the sentimental view of war that existed forty years ago. That older anti-liberalism has been fattened by the market forces that developed in the 1990s, and its sentimentality has been supplemented by the acute abstraction of what is imagined from what is lived. That a large part of the Indian public feels the need to ‘celebrate’ a fifty-year-old ‘victory’ and continues to use the vocabulary of ‘glory’ to describe military action is, at best, a form of ideological immaturity. But it also signifies the deep damage done by colonial subjugation, which has left a violent complex about inferiority and weakness, and by a navel-gazing nationalism that has never ‘won’ adequately because it has not eliminated its existential enemy, which – having been located next door and within – cannot be eliminated without eliminating Indianness itself.

It is politically na├»ve, in this context, to ‘celebrate’ Alfred Cooke and others like him, and to cast the celebration as an act of historical memory. It’s like celebrating American pilots who achieved ‘victories’ in Vietnam. Who celebrates Charles Hartman and Clinton Johnson, although there too, fifty years have passed? Such celebrations would be regarded as absurd, outside fringe communities of military enthusiasts. They would be absurd not because Vietnam was a ‘bad’ war and the Indo-Pak war a ‘good’ one, but because American society has developed ways of talking about war – debate, protest, criticism, analysis, retrospective vision – that, however imperfect, enable meaningful judgments of ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ and ensure that the memory of war is not the preserve of ‘jingoes’ alone. There are serious, thoughtful histories of the Vietnam War that make it impossible to mistake Rambo for the real thing for very long. In India, without such histories to provide context, pose hard questions and generate introspection, remembering and recording the exploits of individuals like Cooke becomes fodder for the anti-liberal politics of the day.

Stories like Cooke’s should not, however, be dismissed as unimportant. Critics of militarism and ‘macho nationhood’ must understand that these are attractive stories: that there is indeed something appealing about the narrative of a young pilot who fights off multiple enemies, lands, has to be lifted from the cockpit because his body has gone limp, and can barely remember his experience, leaving gun-camera footage to fill in the blanks in his memory. That appeal is central to the erotics of nationalism and citizenship; the male citizen is normatively a military fanboy. Moreover, the Indian nation-state is a particular kind of modern community: a democracy that dispensed early with liberalism, preferring authoritarianism and technocracy as its dominant ethos. Its elites have long been enamored of war, but rarely deviated from the arc between sentimentality and self-pleasuring fantasy. In that setting, the rhetoric of ‘victory’ and ‘glory’ is especially pernicious: there is something reckless and intoxicated about it that resembles but exceeds the notorious ‘innocence’ of American militarism. The clearest danger it poses is not the threat of war, but that of normalizing illiberal democracy, with its visions of traitors, fifth columns, sabotaged majorities and uniformed chains of command. It becomes particularly important, then, to be mindful of the company stories keep, and to compensate actively for the guilty pleasures of celebrating victory, beginning with recognizing it as a guilty pleasure.

There is, obviously, no such thing as innocent military history – or innocent history of any kind – in the modern age, when national communities immediately claim and use that history for their own purposes. The insistence on innocence is itself a political position. Telling war stories as a feel-good exercise is like telling police stories (which also have their share of heroics and sacrifice, and their constituencies of police fans and families) without talking about the politics of policing: it invariably becomes a reactionary exercise. One must, in those circumstances, inquire about the purposes and tactics of remembering the particulars of war.

I want to end, therefore, with a suggestion for how the story of Alfred Cooke can be remembered without conceding it to fascism. Cooke and other Anglo-Indians in the air force (there were many) had to deal with the racism of their ‘authentically Indian’ fellow-officers, who did not always try very hard to hide their contempt for what they saw as the low-born bastards of empire. That racism, while not as devastating as what Muslims have faced, was a semi-acknowledged fact of life in independent India, and it was closely related to the majoritarian understanding of Indianness. It left a guilty trace in the movies (Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar, K.S. Sethumadhavan’s Julie, Aparna Sen’s 36 Chowringhee Lane), and in the sizeable community of Anglo-Indian ex-IAF officers in Australia (who have traded one marginal condition for another). The way to remember Cooke is to tell his story – and that of other ‘celebrated’ Anglo-Indians from 1965, such as Pete Wilson and the Keelor brothers – in the context of that part of the modern Indian experience, alongside the stories of exclusion, discrimination, early retirement and emigration.

That contextualization would be resisted immediately as ‘divisive’, ‘parochial’ and ‘communal’ by the majoritarians who insist upon the fantasy of undivided nationality (the familiar 'don't call them Anglo-Indian officers, they're simply Indian officers' objection) even as they exclude and discriminate, in order to delegitimize minorities who complain or organize. But for that reason alone, it would restore soldiers – who, like athletes, are supposedly ‘above politics’ – to politics, forcing the recognition that the innocence of heroism is already political. It would, in the process, withhold a powerful piece of historical memory from the forces that drive the very real fascist predicament in India today, and place military history in the service of justice and a livable nationhood.

September 21, 2015