The death of the first Chief of Defence Staff of India, General Bipin Rawat, his wife and 12 other army and air force officials and personnel in a helicopter crash in Tamil Nadu on December 8 brought to notice the fact about the rising casualties being suffered by modern-day armies during the peace time all over the world, writes Soroor Ahmed

The death of the first Chief of Defence Staff of India, General Bipin Rawat, his wife and 12 other army and air force officials and personnel in a helicopter crash in Tamil Nadu on December 8 brought to notice the fact about the rising casualties being suffered by modern-day armies during the peace time all over the world. Early in 2020 the chief of Taiwanese army, along with two Major Generals were killed in almost similar way.

Unlike the wars in the pre-modern age, in the last century or so hundreds, may be even thousands, of armed personnel, which included top officials, were killed across the globe every year in non-combat functioning. In the pre-20th century world, warring armies would assemble at any battlefield – for example Panipat, Chausa, Plassey etc. in India – and the fate of one of them would be decided in a matter of hours or days. There would be little or no collateral damage. It is another thing that the victorious army would often indulge in plunder and loot after the battle was over.

Many times the invading army have to march hundreds of kilometres to reach the battleground and in the process sometimes lives were lost due to mishaps, sickness or even natural disaster.

But the role of armies – and even navies – started changing by late 19th centuries, when nation-states with fix boundaries came up, especially in Europe as well as South and North America. By the time of World War-I the whole scenario had changed. This was the first time that the air force was used in the battle.

Now the armies of almost all the countries – barring islands – would man borders throughout the year, even in the most inclement weather conditions as well as difficult and rough terrains.

Be it lofty Siachen, Ladakh, Hindukush, Alps (scene of treacherous battles during World War-I and II) or the deserts of Thar and Sinai etc. military personnel can be seen guarding the border of the respective countries in peace time. In the process a large number of them would perish even though not a single round of fire may have been exchanged. Many of them would fall ill or suffer from disease. Frost-bite is also common.

In the previous centuries armies would not have to undergo such a hardship though it is also true that they had to travel on foot or horses, camels and elephants for hundreds and even thousands of kilometres in rough condition. But once the battle was over most of them do not have to perform their duties. They would return to their homes and would be called for the next battle. But the present day armies had to spent their whole career in military cantonments or borders with some annual leaves.

In the same way now the navies and air forces of different countries have to make a constant vigil in their respective waters or air spaces. The navy personnel had to remain in the submarines in the deep ocean for weeks and months together.

Accidents often take lives of navy and air force personnel. Peace time crash of fighter aircraft is quite common. For example, single-engine Mig-21 had earned the sobriquet of ‘flying coffin’ or ‘widow-maker’ as half of 874 (that is around 450) such aircraft bought in and after 1963 have crashed killing around 300 pilots and 50 other people since 1972, that is after the end of Bangladesh liberation war in December 1971.

Helicopter crash carrying army, air force and navy officers and other personnel often take a heavy toll of lives. Even General Rawat had survived once such mishap six years back. In the past centuries during peace time armies would not lose such big generals.

It is not that the monarchs of the past did not carry expedition to far away land but everything would be over once the battle is finished. The present day distant ‘wars’ continue even years and decades after they had actually ended – for instance in Korean Peninsula. The aircraft carriers of different powers would criss-cross the earth without any break. The great powers, especially the United States, have their bases at various nooks and corners of the world. The men and women in uniform have to look after them even if there is absolutely no chance of war. Apart from borders, air and water spaces, there are many other installations, places of strategic importance, etc. which have to be guarded by the armies in very risky and dangerous conditions.

In this era of coronavirus one is reminded about the Spanish Flu which started in the last year of the World War-I killing something between 2.5 and five crore people all over the world. Some source even put the death toll at 10 crores. In India alone 1.5 crore people died between 1918 and 1920 due to this pandemic.

A large number of those killed all over the world were army personnel. In contrast only 1.6 crore people, including army personnel, died in World War-I.

The expression Spanish Flu is a misnomer as it was actually brought to Europe by the American soldiers who joined the war much later. Since naming it as American Flu would have raised objection from the good friend the United States, which came in the support of Allied Powers, the French and British, deemed it fit to name it after Spain which was actually neutral in the War.

According to the US official figure, 53,400 American soldiers died in the World War-I whereas 45,000 other men in uniform died due to Spanish Flu 1918-1920.

The Indian soldiers, who were forcibly taken to fight the War by the then British masters to Europe, brought this disease to India after their return to the country. The havoc wreaked by the Spanish Flu can be measured from the fact that the population of India actually fell in the decade between 1911 and 1921. As there was shortage of wood to perform the last rites, lakhs of bodies were simply thrown into rivers all over India. The scene was repeated early this year too when COVID-19 took a heavy toll of lives.

A large number of those who succumbed to this deadly virus a century back were young people and serving and former soldiers. It is not that soldiers did not use to die in epidemics in the earlier centuries, but their figure was less because the troop movement was not so fast and not so regular too.

The tragedy with the family members of those who died in pandemic 100 years ago is that they perished unsung with hardly anyone to remember. Dying in the battlefield however used to bring in some sort of pride and recognition.

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