This year is the 100th anniversary of World War I, and the 50th anniversary of the US escalation of war against North Vietnam. In both cases, small incidents escalated into horrific wars because of jingoistic bravado and lack of cool heads.
This holds lessons for India, which has border clashes with China and Pakistan. Narendra Modi is an unabashed jingoist and Pakistan basher.
If he becomes PM, he might react aggressively to every border clash. He will be egged on by jingoistic anchors, ex-generals and ex-diplomats, demanding retribution to salvage India’s honour.
Modi must learn from WWI and Vietnam to avoid over reaction and escalation. A similar lesson comes from the Henderson Brooks report on the 1962 Sino-Indian war.
In 1914, Germany was the greatest power in Europe, buttressed by an alliance with the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This scared its neighbours, France and Russia, who forged a mutual defence pact. This pact was joined by Britain, which feared German competition in control of the high seas and colonial empires.
Some analysts at the time thought the two opposing alliances would provide balance and stability in Europe. But then the Crown Prince of Austria was shot by a Serbian anarchist in the Balkan city of Sarajevo.
The Serbian government was not responsible, but Austria sought revenge by invading Serbia, which was formally protected by Russia.
When Austria attacked Serbia, it sucked ally Germany into the war. When Russia entered on Serbia’s side, it sucked in France and Britain too. The empires of Britain and France joined the fray, making this the first-ever World War, and the bloodiest in history till then.
Patriotism on the Sleeve Cool heads could have checked the assassination of the Crown Prince from escalating. But Austrian jingoists wanted revenge, and Russia swore to protect its Slav brother. Jingoism took one country after another into the war. The war settled nothing, and created bad blood that eventually led to World War II. Only after that did Europeans finally opt for mutual forbearance and peace.
When World War II ended, France regained colonial control of Vietnam.
But with Chinese help, Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh defeated the French army at Dien Bien Phu and gained control of North Vietnam.
The Americans propped up sundry leaders in South Vietnam, seeing communism as a global threat that had to be contained everywhere.
But only a few US military advisers were deployed in Vietnam.
Then, on August 2, 1964, a brief naval clash occurred between North Vietnamese torpedo boats and the USS Maddox. Jingoistic fervour surged in the US. Two days later, on August 4, the USS Maddox reported being fired on again, and unleashed a barrage of shells. But this was actually a false alarm: freak weather had produced radar images that were mistaken by the USS Maddox for torpedo boats. But the jingoistic reaction of the public and the media provoked then-President Lyndon B Johnson to say that the US had been attacked and would retaliate. Thus did an imaginary clash escalate into a war that ultimately killed 58,000 Americans and lakhs of Vietnamese, and caused Johnson’s downfall.
The official Henderson Brooks report on the 1962 Sino-Indian war, long been kept secret by the government, was recently leaked by journalist Neville Maxwell. This showed how border clashes in the late 1950s with China escalated into unpremeditated war. After a clash at Kongka, Ladakh, that killed nine Indian soldiers, jingoistic Indian media and politicians demanded retaliation. Then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru felt unable to continue efforts for a negotiated peace.
As Difficult as Throwing Out Instead, he decreed a “forward policy”, creating military posts at the border as shown by Indian maps. He told a cheering public that he had ordered the Army to “throw out” the Chinese. These border posts lacked manpower, arms and logistical support, but Nehru blithely assumed that the Chinese would not react. He was dead wrong.
One Step Forward, Two Back In October 1962, one forward Indian post was unintentionally set up slightly north of the McMahon Line, which India claimed was the border.
The Chinese hit back hard. Indian troops put up little resistance. The Chinese chased the Indian troops, but then halted. They had no plans for occupation, and so withdrew unilaterally behind the McMahon Line.
In truth, there was no Chinese invasion. Rather, Nehru’s “throw them out” policy provoked strong but limited Chinese retaliation. This was misinterpreted as invasion.
A Modi government must learn from these three wars. Keep a cool head after minor clashes, and don’t let jingoism push you into war. Remember also that former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee resisted immense popular and military demands to escalate the 1999 Kargil battle to other areas where the terrain was more favourable for India. Result: Vajpayee triumphed, unlike the German Kaiser, Johnson or Nehru.