Sunday, 12 June 2011

Broadsword Book Review: Lt Gen J.F.R. Jacob, "An Odyssey in War and Peace": A failed attempt at rewriting history




An Odyssey in War and Peace
Lt Gen. J.F.R. Jacob
(India: Roli Books, 2011)
189 pages
Rs 350/-




Lieutenant General JFR Jacob’s second book, like his first, should be given a wide berth. An exercise in unabashed self-aggrandizement, Jacob shores up his reputation by destroying others’, a ham-handed attempt that ends in failure and leaves one gritting one’s teeth.

The innocent reader should have been warned in 1997, when General Jacob published “Surrender at Dacca: Birth of a Nation”, an implausible chronicle of the Bangladesh campaign of 1971 that essentially argued that the official history was cockamamie. Jacob unblushingly claimed that he had masterminded that campaign; while his boss, and his boss’ boss --- eastern army commander (Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Aurora) and the army chief (General, later Field Marshal, Sam Manekshaw) --- were incompetent figureheads who garnered the credit.

Now, Jacob has come out with a wider-ranging paean of self-adoration. In chapter after unrelenting chapter, Jake (as the author styles himself) recounts his army career. Moving with Jake from one posting to the next, the yawning reader quickly discerns a pattern: each boss is an incompetent wastrel with only one thing going for him: Jake’s arrival onto the team. Predictably Jake quickly sizes up the situation, bulldozes his plan through his dim-witted superiors, and pulls off a rescue act for which posterity should be grateful.

“Jake and I, we broke the naxals”, he quotes West Bengal Chief Minister Siddharth Shankar Ray as telling “all and sundry” after anti-naxal operations in West Bengal. Even the moderately well informed newspaper reader would wonder when and how the naxals got back on their feet after Jake was done with breaking them. Don’t bother looking for the answer in this book.

For those looking for slander, Jacob obliges at every page-turn. One boss, Major General Reggie Noronha, is described as a “coward” who “loved his liquor and insisted that [Jacob’s] officers and their wives should attend the numerous parties” at his mess. Another one of Jacob’s commanders in Ladakh was “suffering from gout and did not move out of his headquarters”, leaving Jake to run affairs. The southern army commander, Lt Gen LP Sen was “a pucca brown sahib [who was] more interested in attending the races in Bombay and Pune than in attending office or visiting combat units and formations”. And Jacob’s commander in 1971, Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Aurora, is ridiculed as an ineffectual wimp who planned the travel of his wife to the surrender ceremony in Dacca in 1971, even as Jacob bulldozed the Pakistani commander into surrendering with 93,000 soldiers!

Jacob’s memoirs are located in a militarily interesting era from World War II; through the 1947-48 Kashmir conflict; the 1962 Sino-Indian war; the 1965 war with Pakistan; to the triumph at Dacca in 1971. Most soldiers of that period would have a story to tell. Sadly, Jacob clouds those events with his obsession with himself. Having been left out of battle in 1947-48 (he was in the artillery school in Deolali, Maharashtra); of the 1962 war (posted at Staff College, Wellington, Tamil Nadu), and in 1965 (back again in Deolali), a military psychologist would understand Jacob’s attempt to snatch all the credit for the 1971 Bangladesh campaign, independent India’s most comprehensive military victory.

Jacob’s bete noir is the hero of 1971, Field Marshal SHFJ Manekshaw, modern India’s best known and acclaimed military commander. Most people who knew Manekshaw concede that his talent as a raconteur immeasurably enhanced his public charisma. But for Jacob, Manekshaw was a mere creation of a “media campaign”. He describes Manekshaw variously as anti-national; anti-government; anti-Semetic; verbally indiscreet and professionally indifferent. Jacob claims that Manekshaw had no combat experience other than “a brief spell” in 1942. Manekshaw’s famously colourful account of how he won a Military Cross for gallantry after being badly wounded in Burma is dismissed as “Manekshaw’s flair for the dramatic.” As proof of Manekshaw’s failings, the author cites the infamous court of enquiry ordered into his “anti-national” behaviour by the defence minister of that time, VK Krishna Menon, allegedly at the behest of his protégé (and virulent Manekshaw-hater) Lt Gen BM Kaul. Ironically, this same incident is usually invoked to illustrate Manekshaw’s uprightness.

Jacob recounts some shocking conversations with Manekshaw, unverifiable since the latter is dead. When Manekshaw was named army chief, he appointed Jacob the Chief of Staff (second-in-command) of the crucial eastern command. Jacob alleges that Manekshaw told him in a phone call that, “he had very little confidence in [Aurora].” When Jacob asked Manekshaw why then was he appointing Aurora to such a key position, the future field marshal allegedly replied, “I like to have him as a doormat.” Readers familiar with military custom and tradition would find this hard to swallow.

Independent India has produced dozens of combat heroes, young men and women as gallant as any in the history of warfare. But we can boast of a mere handful of world-class generals. Jacob’s vainglorious autobiography provides a psychological insight into how some generals put self before everything else, including the reputation of many who are no longer alive to answer and before an institution that emerges in an appalling light.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Why push an opinion about the book... into each readers mind... if you are so hing grounded... should have let it to each reader... Jake/Shukla/Manekshas can't stand each other... My country... India's ill fate...

Anonymous said...

There is a sweet spot for Veteran's writing memoirs. They tend to write a most honest and upright version, and possibly a more reliable one if they attempt it in their 60s or 70s. In their 80s and 90s hwoever all bets are off. The reliability factor goes down. The memoirs become more anecdotal than established facts and usually needs to be read with lots of fact checking. Just look at Jasjit Singhs biography of Marshal Arjan Singh. Very little meat from Arjan himself even though it is the 'authorised biography'

I am not surprised at the 'Self Dabba' in Jacobs book. After "Surrender at Dacca" this was always expected. Jacobs recent public utterings did nothing to dispel the expectations.

Jim

Anonymous said...

has Jacob ever gauged what are impressions about him by his contempararies before giving his own about others? He has been self centered and spineless through out his service and has been avioding call of duty.

Rezaul Hoque said...

Dear Sir,
I found your review on General Jacob’s recent book unusually interesting. With your consent, I shared it on Lt. General Jacob’s Facebook group page. I hope the group members will also find it interesting. Here is the link

http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=101072334173

Thanks.
Rezaul Hoque
http://rezaulhoque.wordpress.com/

esskay said...

re: Anonymous

Not to get into a disagreement, but this is a book review.

The opinion of the reviewer is the whole point!!

I'm pretty sure there are other reviews singing paeans to the book. As a reader of the review one must decide for oneself.

Critiquing a critique is pointless.

msbajwa said...

General Jacob's self-serving account of the Bangladesh Campaign coupled with his very obvious attempts to paint himself and his career in the best possible light while denigrating others, mostly his long-suffering commanders is of interest. But only as a prime example of how not to the quintessential officer and gentleman required by the Indian Army. Certainly very competent as a chief of staff, planner and executor of his commander's orders. a good leader himself he lets himself down very badly with this book. Surprisingly the tame media seem to have lapped up his account. To that extent his intention behind writing this book has been successful.