Air Vice Marshal Arjun Subramaniam (Retd) Author of A Military History of India Since 1972: Full Spectrum Operations and the Changing Contours of Modern Conflict
What is the backstory behind A Military History of India Since 1972? And why did you decide to write this book?
A Military History of India since 1972 is a definitive work of contemporary Indian military history that is written from a joint perspective. It is a comprehensive account of India’s resolute, responsible, and restrained use of force as an instrument of statecraft and how the military has played an essential role in securing the country’s democratic traditions along with its rise as a responsible power of consequence. The book is also about how the Indian nation-state and its armed forces have coped with the changing contours of modern conflict in the decades since 1972. These include the 2016 “surgical” or cross-border strikes across the Line of Control with Pakistan by the Indian Army’s Special Forces, the face-offs with the Chinese at Doklam in 2017 and in Ladakh in 2020/21, the preemptive punitive strikes by the Indian Air Force against terrorist camps in Pakistan in 2019, and the large-scale aerial engagement between the Indian Air Force and the Pakistan Air Force the following day. These conflicts also include the long-running insurgencies in the northeast, terrorism and proxy war in Jammu and Kashmir, separatist violence in Punjab, and the Indian Peace Keeping Force’s intervention in Sri Lanka and the Kargil conflict. In short, there is nothing that has been missed out on the landscape of conflict in contemporary India. Considering the abiding interest in the West about the nuclear situation in South Asia, there is a chapter on the development of India’s nuclear capabilities.
The crossover narrative style of writing combines engaging storytelling with the academic rigor of deep research and analysis. Considering the robust India-US Strategic Partnership and the increasing number of exercises being conducted involving the two militaries, this is one-stop ready reckoner to understand the Indian military for policy makers, military leaders, and young officers in the US, particularly from the Indo-Pacific Command and Central Command.
Is there one short story from your book you would like to share?
Can you imagine the surreal experience of opening and sustaining a High-Altitude post at 20,000 feet on the Saltoro Range that flanks the Siachen Glacier, not for weeks, but for almost six months? Read in Chapter Six about how Captain Navkiran Singh Ghei, a young paratrooper, and five hardy soldiers from the Ladakh Scouts did exactly that in early 1986 and survived despite being periodically cut off from logistics sustenance for weeks together. Not only did they survive, but they also directed artillery fire onto nearby Pakistani posts at a lower altitude. The author writes: ‘Ghei recalled that for the first three days they could not see beyond a couple of feet in the appalling weather and whiteout conditions and had to make do without a ‘pee or a crap’ for several days. Deprived of sleep, suffering from hallucinations, and surviving on milk powder and the odd paratha (Indian bread), Ghei lost weight and suffered partial memory loss by the time his six-month vigil ended. After the team returned and reported the conditions, the post was abandoned and never manned again.
What books would you recommend for a Junior Officer ready to go to his or her first operational command?
At the first level, I would strongly recommend two books for young commanding officers or those on the threshold of command. The first is Dereliction of Duty by H.R. McMaster and the second one is War from the Ground Up: Twenty-First-Century Combat as Politics by Emile Simpson. The first book is on several reading lists in the US and is a scathing indictment of the Vietnam War through both the political and military lens. The second one is by a British infantry officer from the Royal Gurkha Rifles who spent two tours in Afghanistan and is now a Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. The books draw on personal experience from the frontline, situated in relation to historical context and strategic thought, to offer a re-evaluation of the concept of war in contemporary conflict.
At the second level, I will recommend two offbeat books. The first is Blink by Malcolm Gladwell that offers insights into instinctive decision making. The second is an all-time favorite of mine by Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. This second book must be read to keep the spirit of adventure, risk-taking, and doing things differently alive.
What is the biggest takeaway that you hope a reader will learn from A Military History of India Since 1972?
- Much as traditional historians and social scientists have tried to project India as peace-loving democracy, the reality is much different. Different to the extent that I would say India is a warring democracy. Not in a revisionist or expansive sense, but in a defensive or protective sense.
- India’s armed forces have played an extremely important role in India’s evolution as a strong, stable, and vibrant democracy. A facet that has been underplayed in contemporary Indian historical discourse.
- No other country in the Post WW-II era has experienced the entire spectrum of conflict in varied terrain as India’s armed forces have.
- There has been inadequate doctrinal articulation on joint and integrated operations. The Indian Army, Indian Navy, and Indian Air Force have always pulled together and demonstrated resilience and the ability to push back against revisionist or aggressive adversaries.
What lessons can a junior officer take from your book?
Should a young officer aspire to learn more about the Indian military in all its dimensions, he or she need to look no further than my two offerings – India’s Wars: A Military History 1947-1971 (US Naval Institute Press, 2017) and my latest book and a sequel, A Military History of India since 1972: Full Spectrum Operations and Changing Contours of Modern Conflict.
What advice would you have for a mid-career military officer who is considering writing a book?
Pick an idea that you are passionate about. It could be a campaign that excites you or a leader who inspires you. Survey the literature that is available. Do not worry if others have written about the subject earlier if you can offer a fresh perspective. Decide your readership; this will dictate your style. The next step is to talk to mentors, colleagues, and other writers. Then get down to writing a project/book proposal. If you are a first-time author, it may be a better idea to complete the first draft and send it to a few publishers to gauge their response. That is the easy part. Should your proposal be accepted, the editorial and peer review process demands humility and the willingness to incorporate changes in your manuscript. The hardest part as a serving officer is to find time to research and write. If you can wrangle a sabbatical, great! Or else burn the midnight oil and brace yourself for little sleep for months or even years. It can be done. I wrote my first three books while on active duty and the fourth one soon after I retired.
What are you reading now?
I am currently reading H.R. McMaster’s latest book Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World, Red Star over the Pacific by Toshi Yoshihara, and Airpower in the War Against ISIS by Benjamin S. Lambeth.
This year class of 2021 earns their commission and heads to their first command. What specific recommendations do you have for them as they embark on this lifetime of leadership?
Professional excellence, focus, ethical leadership, and leading from the front should form the basic framework for you to build on.
What books do you recommend which influenced your thinking on leadership?
As a young cadet, the book Rommel the Desert Fox by Desmond Young was an inspirational book. Also, the book Defeat into Victory: Battling Japan in Burma and India 1942-1945 by Field Marshal Viscount Slim who commanded the famous 14th Army in the Burma Campaign of World War II. Call Sign Chaos by Gen James Mattis and Bing West is a recent favorite of mine in the realm of inspirational, ethical, and decisive military leadership.
Are there any authors, living or dead, that you would name as influences?
Give us three “Good to Know” facts about you. Be creative. Tell us about your first job, the inspiration for your writing, any fun details that would enliven your page.
- First job – flying MiG-21s. Twenty years flying fast jets including the MiG-21 and Mirage -2000, flying instructor, PME instructor and doctrinal expert.
- Military history buff. Mad to do a PhD while in active service, even crazier to write a big almost 500-page book as a two-star officer. No regrets at all.
- Chucked up the good life as a two-star officer to live out of suitcases on a shoestring budget at Harvard and Oxford to write this book. Nuts to teach grad students at Fletcher and do all those corrections. Nuttier to go back home and teach undergraduates. Bottom line is that I have loved a life of flying, learning, teaching and now mentoring.
General Mattis talks a lot about using reading as a tool to learn from other people’s experiences. Can you provide a specific example or story where reading has helped you learn from others’ experiences?
There is a military term called ‘reinforcement of failure’ – Hitler attempted what Napoleon failed to achieve and failed himself to breach the Russian tundra. The Americans failed to force victory in Afghanistan much like the Russians and the British before them. History teaches several lessons, and this is one that I have been careful to watch out for, both professionally and personally.
What is next for you and your writing projects?
I am mulling over completing this series on contemporary Indian military history by putting together a slim volume that extracts significant strategic and operational lessons from the various wars, campaigns, and battles I have written about in detail in my first two books. I am also researching for a possible biography on one of the Indian Army’s most under-rated General (not disclosing the name).
One liners from the endorsements inside
“A worthy successor to his first volume, Subramaniam continues his deeply researched and sweeping account of modern Indian military history.” –Wayne Lee, Distinguished Professor of History, University of North Carolina
“With a deft hand and the perspective of a military professional, Subramaniam provides a detailed yet vivid and insightful account of the operations of India’s armed forces.” – M. Taylor Fravel, Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science and Director, Security Studies Program, Massachusetts Institute of technology
“His riveting account reads almost like a war novel at times.” – Benjamin S Lambeth, non-resident Senior Fellow Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and author of Airpower on the war against ISIS
Air Vice-Marshal (Dr) Arjun Subramaniam is the President’s Chair of Excellence in National Security at NDC. He is a retired fighter pilot from the IAF who has flown MiG- 21s and Mirage-2000s. He has commanded a MiG-21 Squadron and a large flying base and held several operational, staff, and instructional assignments in the IAF. He is an airpower doctrinal expert having crafted the current IAF doctrine in 2012. He was awarded the Ati Vishisht Seva Medal for distinguished service by the President of India in 2011. A PhD in Defence and Strategic Studies from the Univ of Madras, he has been a Visiting Fellow at The Harvard Asia Center and Oxford Universities, and a Visiting Professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Ashoka and Jindal Universities. Currently, he is also an Adjunct Faculty member at the Naval War College. He has lectured extensively at a wide range of Universities, think tanks, and war colleges in India and abroad including Harvard, MIT, Georgetown University, Oxford, Carnegie Endowment, and the International Institute of Strategic Studies. His current areas of focus are international and regional security, contemporary Indian military history, airpower in integrated operations, and the India-China security relationship. He is the author of four books including ‘India’s Wars: A Military History: 1947-1971’ and its newly-released sequel titled ‘A Military History of India since 1972: Full Spectrum Operations and the Changing Contours of Modern Conflict.’