Soldiers know honour, but it’s time for social media users to discover it too

The only thing I heard my father always say around servicemen was ‘Jai Hind’. It means something to them. I hope we can teach our young why it should mean something to them too

Vamsee Juluri December 13, 2021 13:39:23 IST
Soldiers know honour, but it’s time for social media users to discover it too

Representational Image. ANI

Why do we respect soldiers? Why do we feel such grief for them even when we do not know them personally? And why is it that even as most of us mourn a tragedy, for some it’s a time to display shameless glee?

I have no quick answers from the perspective of either politics, or psychology. But I have a well of emotions, strangely enough, about people who I did not know in person, whose loss somehow feels very real to me at this moment. And I think one reason for this feeling is the issue of honour.

Honour is a word we don’t hear much in the media today, except in ironic or negative contexts (like “honour-killings”). I recall some talk about honour in my old school, and presumably, schools still talk about such things. But on the whole, in modern societies, we don’t have much of a conversation about this abstract ideal at all. Except, of course, when we find ourselves weeping for soldiers on television.

Media and Collective Grief

My understanding of this phenomenon comes from an interest in the role of mass media in the shared experience of collective grief, community and identity. Media scholars have talked a great deal about the mass grief that followed the death of Princess Diana in a car crash in Paris in 1997. Closer home in India, I recall my hostel-mates taking out a memorial procession around campus in the 1980s when the great MGR passed away. But there is something unique, I think, about the nature of our relationship to the image of soldiers and their families, in contrast to that of other figures.

I think that while a deep part of India has remained rooted in a sense of humble respect for the military (as we saw in the moving images of the people in Tamil Nadu lined up to shower petals on the procession of vehicles carrying the remains of the respected General and others), there are others who might see such respect as manufactured, jingoistic, even opportunistic.

The most famous example of such thinking perhaps was the statement made a few years ago by the daughter of an officer who gave his life for India in the 1971 war (“Pakistan did not kill my dad, war killed him”). That statement was widely mocked, but for many young, urban elites in India (and perhaps non-elites too, such as the victims of the inevitable mistakes and horrors that unfold around conflicts such as the tragedy in Nagaland), the sort of grief that some of us feel seems like pure propaganda at play for them.

The reality we must acknowledge now is that we can no longer assume that there is a universal or near-universal consensus in India I think, about our attitudes towards the military, and towards war. Each side believes only too easily that the other is full of propaganda, not us. And in this age of information warfare and ceaseless social media manipulation, the reality of propaganda too is something we must recognise, if we are to arrive at a better understanding of our relation to those who serve, and those who are asked — in our names — to risk their lives.

Two American Stories

I would like to share two examples of young peoples’ thinking about the military — and the media — from my own experience teaching in the American context. In the early 2000s, one of my students wrote a sharp critique of how American media and civic culture make a fetish about their love for the armed forces, using it to suppress any questioning of American militarism abroad. This essay was written in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and just before the disastrous American war on Iraq over the pretext of WMDs. There was near universal support for the Iraq war, and much of the supposedly liberal media like the New York Times had got on the MIC gravy (or, to put it more darkly, grave-y) train. Questioning a war was equated to disrespecting the life of a soldier, and my student did a fine job of separating the issues.

And since that time, the suppression of debate and dissent by what scholars have called the “Military-Industrial-Communications-Complex” has become even starker. An actual military veteran and serving National Guard officer, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, was silenced thoroughly by the US mass media for bravely speaking out against the cynical state of the wars-for-profit nexus between politicians and weapons businesses before the last elections. The “militainment” industry in the United States has reached peak propaganda levels now, appropriating and hiding behind fashionable “woke” slogans. Ironically, they named a warship for an LGBT icon recently even as the lives of the same marginalised community in Afghanistan were recklessly endangered by their messy retreat.

The second example I wish to share is about another former student of mine who recently reconnected with me to chat about his plans to join the military. We chatted at length via Zoom, and I realised that while there is room for the critiques of how the US war business cleverly uses advertising tricks to recruit young working-class minorities into giving their lives for endless wars, there is also a need to recognise, and respect, the seriousness that some people, like my student, have given to their lives and actions by deciding to join the military.

I am reminded of the movie Lakshya which tried to express some of that process, but was in the end perhaps more successful in voicing the dilemma (mein aisa kyu hun?) rather than the resolution. It is that resolution, in both senses of the word, though, that I felt I saw in my student, and his decision to apply to be an officer. It reminded me, simply embodied in front of me, something that I realised we hardly talk about, much less train our students or children in, any more. And that was the idea of honour. He wanted to be an officer not because he wanted to play with guns but because he saw it as a proper way to live one’s life.

Honour and Communication

I cannot presume to explain a soldier’s experience, understanding, or sense of honour any more than as a civilian with an interest in the state of our lives and relationships with each other today, call that society, or culture. I believe that what we feel, at this time, as we witness the collective expression of grief around the loss of a respected soldier and public figure, should not be devalued at all as mere TV spectacle or jingoism. It marks instead a deeper yearning to relate to ideals and values seen less and less in an over-communicative, social-media-saturated, and ultimately, un-serious society.

As a student of media and communication, that is the one lesson I hope we can find here. Honour, as soldiers see it in their work and life, and honour, as we civilians can try to see it, in our work and lives.

That includes, of course, communication.

Social media profiles, networking, talking, texting, tweeting, blogging, podcasting, YouTubing, all of these are things we are living and defining our lives and maybe even lifetimes with today. We do it for fun, or for work. For vanity, or for some purpose or cause. Or maybe, we do it just to vent, or to express mean sides we can’t show elsewhere under the cover of anonymity. Whatever our reasons, our online lives, our monuments of words and emojis going out every day from our screens into the universe, these too should be done in the spirit of the lives of those we profess respect and admiration for.

This is important for not simply personal improvement reasons too. There is a “national interest” in honour in communication we need to understand.

Propaganda as a Battlefield

There is much talk these days about information warfare and psy-ops, and yet, most of us present ourselves with such little reflection, and study, and practice, when we go out with fingers tapping on our screens. We know how vastly outplayed India is on the “narrative” war globally, and yet almost all we have done these past few years is vented about it on social media, sometimes usefully, but most counterproductively.

Narrative battles take serious investment, and sometimes, in popular causes or issues, the nature of the popular perhaps precludes such investment, institutionalisation, and co-ordination. We simply don’t have it. On the other hand, among empires and those with hopes of restoring former empires, there are histories of propaganda that far outweigh the mere virtual presence of a wild and angry social media citizenry. On their side are a hundred years of military-media-academia initiatives, corporate-foundation managed schools, billionaire megalomaniac reshapings of mass beliefs and identities; these are the things I study and worry about as I write these words.

But, in the lives and the shared public ceremonies of respect for lives that were lived with seriousness, purpose, and codes of honour, we have a chance to think again of how serious we are too about what we do. In recent times, many online patriots and “RW” social media handles have ventured out far and wide from the Indian bubbles, engaging with Native Americans, European pagans, and also other South Asians. Sometimes, these engagements are stimulating, other times, we shoot ourselves in the foot, unable to understand what it means to be serious when it comes to communication, especially in a wider, non-Indian context.

These are seemingly two very different worlds, that of the soldier and that of the self-styled cyber-warrior. But the world of the cyber-kshatriya cannot be serious if it looks only within its own for examples. Honour has to be learnt from those who have lived hard, with, and for honour.

In my life, there were many such elders. My uncle, who retired as Air Vice Marshal many years ago. My cousin, a Major in the Army. And my father, who served in the NCC. I wish I could say with all the reverence I could to all of them, “Jai Jawan!” But the only thing I heard my father always say around servicemen was “Jai Hind.” It means something to them. I hope we can teach our young why it should mean something to them too. And we surely can, when we learn to live online as we do elsewhere with honour.

The writer teaches media studies at the University of San Francisco. Views expressed are personal.


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