Book review: Dying to Serve: Militarism, Affect, and the Politics of Sacrifice in the Pakistan Army

by Maria Rashid, Stanford University Press, 2020. 288pp. ISBN: 9781503610415

Plenty of social scientists and humanities scholars are preoccupied with the technics of warfare, such as lawfare, drones, “low intensity warfare” and the shifting spaces of war. Yet, attention to a traditional means of war, that is, the institution of the military and its constituting labor force, the soldier, remains necessary. Fordespite its ever-expanding technologies, war-making continues globally to require human bodies willing to do its violence work. Permanent war requires production of instruments—and subjects—of violence. Thus, it remains pertinent to consider questions such as: How does the military retain its power when it all-but-guarantees the death of its subjects? How do subjects of violence consent to endure violence to their own bodies, and also bodies of those they love? And broadly, what is the nature of modern militarism, and how is it (re)produced?

Maria Rashid’s Dying to Serve is fundamentally concerned with answering such questions. It works out how it is that people become complicit in human sacrifice in the name of a nation-state, and how the powerful Pakistan military brings this about. The Pakistan Army remains amongst the top ten most powerful militaries in the world, with an all-volunteer force of approximately 560,000 active-duty personnel (as of 2020), and a history of interference in political and democratic processes. Given that the Pakistan military keep its secrets close and often censures critique, the book is striking in the range of evidence it gathers from this institution, as well as in the critique directed towards it. While the book emerges from political science, Rashid also draws on a broad range of theoretical traditions in anthropology, critical theory, geography, psychology, and sociology, and employs a feminist ethnographic method. Its multiple analytical registers—of gender, class, history, and geography—will be useful to students of many disciplines, especially scholars of critical military studies; anthropologies of institutions, affect, and masculinism; and feminist research methods.

Thirteen months of ethnographic research in five villages in district Chakwal in the Pakistani Punjab, a historically military region, forms the heart of this study. It covers both the institutional practices of the Pakistan Army, as well as the practices and meaning-making that subjects engage in living and dying in military service. The work’s key premise is that affect is deployed as a technology of rule: statecraft is invested in governing the affective selves of subjects. The evidence and analysis shows how the military controls, suppresses, and invokes affects such as grief, fear, attachment, and loyalty through policies of recruitment, training, and compensation, and orchestrated spectacles of mourning, that, for Rashid, together highlight the military’s gendered governing practices. Illuminating these practices uncovers how political, affective, and gendered subjects of militarism are produced, and how collusive relationships—between the military institution and its subjects who stand to suffer significant losses (soldiers and their families)—are sustained. Ultimately, it shows how these relationships fashion the appeal and presence of militarism in contemporary society.

‘Dying to Serve is elucidating the materialist grounds on which militarism stands, undergirded by a historical colonial political economy that is reworked for contemporary Pakistani militarism.’

This political ethnography, comprising more than 100 interviews with a spectacular range of interlocutors, offers a gripping view of military events, institutions, and subjects, and takes us on an arresting, oftentimes harrowing, journey with the subaltern—“non-commissioned,” “junior commissioned,” and disabled—subjects of the Pakistan military. Chapter 1 introduces the author’s implication and interest in the book’s themes, and expounds on its theoretical and methodological interventions. Chapter 2 begins with a reflexive ethnographic snippet of Rashid’s attendance of a “Defence day” celebration in the manicured lawns of the Pakistan Army General Headquarters in Rawalpindi, alongside a couple thousand attendees. Readers are subsequently eased into what lies behind the stage through a critical examination of national military commemorations. Chapter 3, then, take us to district Chakwal, and attends to the historical and contemporary political economy of this rural region. It lays out how and why this place came to be a “martial” district during British colonial rule, and traces the afterlives of that history in the discourse, policies, and practices of the present-day Pakistan military.

The next three chapters are grounded in rural Chakwal, and study the affects produced in the “sipahi” (soldier), his family, and their village towards military training (chapter 4), death (chapter 5), and compensation (chapter 6). Rashid contends that these affects tie soldiers, their families, the army, and the nation together in a narrative where masculinity, sacrifice, and nationalism interplay and produce a militarizing sensibility in broader society. Yet, the analysis remains attentive to moments of disengagement from the project of militarism, and in this way, allows for the emergence of an ambivalent subject. In the same spirit, chapters 7 and 8 highlight moments where the relationship between the military and its subjects is tested; first via the figure of the disabled soldier (who did not die in battle), and then through the vexed relation of Islam with the “war on terror.” The concluding chapter recapitulates how affect serves as a powerful technology of rule that affixes relationships of oppression, but can also engender ambivalence. This is deemed not insignificant, especially when one considers the systematic compensatory and remunerative regimes firmly in place to maintain consent and legitimize the military’s claims on the bodies of soldier-subjects.

This book is based on the premise that subject formation is mutually constitutive between subjects and the powers that form them. The analysis takes place at a variety of scales: the national, district, village, household, and individual. These are portrayed not as nested, but as contradictory and dialectical. One of the strengths of Rashid’s narrative is the use of evocative imagery from each of these scales to explore how the affective and material relationships crafted within militarism implicate the post-9/11 Pakistani Punjab. This approach treats militarism as a sociological phenomenon that manifests in social relations and practices, encompassing modes of economic production, popular culture, and hierarchies of race, gender, and class. With deepening scholarly interest in views of power formations “from below,” this work is a welcome contribution to understandings of the social relations of war-making.

Grief features centrally in this text. How it comes to be inhabited by gendered subjects is painstakingly rendered; and moments where it “overflows” are carefully attended to for their potential to unsettle military-scripted narratives. The ethnographic examination shows, however, that such grief-laden moments “paradoxically become the very junctures that permit a return to hegemonic power” (p. 136). Thus, grief serves a powerful technique of governmentality, but significantly, also contains its contradiction. Women appear as key figures in these economies of loss, and in Rashid’s analysis, their affect is instrumentalized by the military towards creating a hallowed culture of military death. Similar to other feminist scholars of militarism (such as Joanna Bourke, Cynthia Enloe, Catherine Lutz and others), Rashid highlights the tenuous relationship between women, militarism, and nation, showing how the female subject is central to the masculinist imaginings of militarist discourse.

One of the most important contributions of Dying to Serve is elucidating the materialist grounds on which militarism stands, undergirded by a historical colonial political economy that is reworked for contemporary Pakistani militarism. Throughout the text, subjects’ material relationship to the military—first as the soldier’s stable employer, and after his death, through the paternalistic dispensing of compensation to next of kin—remains crucial, alongside the affect deployed for meaning-making and garnering sustained consent for war-waging. Utilizing recollections by families of dead soldiers, and reminders, or hauntings, of these men visible in village homes and public sites of commemoration, this work is a rich study of the critical role of affect as a medium that allows power to diffuse through society. Laying bare the “sacrifice” rural working-class people make for the project of militarism, this book offers a profound critique of the culture of militarism by exposing its economies of loss.

Zahra Khalid is a PhD Candidate in Geography at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.

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