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Silence, surgery in progress

There are great advantages of redefining military action as surgery — for one, it mobilises the rhetoric of health.

Written by Alok Rai |
October 21, 2016 12:05:26 am
india, pakistan, border firing, border tension, loc firing, cease fire violation, infiltration, vikas swarup, indian express news, india news Advantage of designating a military operation as “surgical” is that it mobilises the rhetoric of health — surgery restores the organism to a state of health. (Representational image)

What is the function of “surgical” in surgical strike? Because, as every true-blooded patriot knows, a surgical strike is, of course, good, but it is also fundamentally different from, say, a “cross-border raid”, let alone “infiltration”. Those are things that the baddies do. We, on the other hand, do surgical strikes.

Part of the appeal of a “surgical strike” — the phrase derives, of course, from US military jargon, where it serves similar, but not identical purposes — is that it implies “precision”. After all, a surgeon is not a butcher slashing about with a cleaver — actually, even a butcher is not a butcher! — but “surgeons” use “smart” instruments, scalpel-like, and if once in a while they encounter a wedding party, or, with macabre economy as recently in Yemen, a funeral, well, the damage is unintentional — and always deeply, sincerely, regretted — but it is, after all, merely “collateral damage”.

In fact, our flattery-by-imitation of US military machismo goes further. So the surgical strikes are directed at “launch pads”, whence come not rockets or missiles but — alas, this is, after all, South Asia — desperate “militants”, barely scraping a meagre living and almost certainly, remembering Manto, destined for a dog’s death, caught in the crossfire between two great military machines. But the great advantage of redefining military action as surgery is that it puts the implicit and necessary and entirely intentional violence beyond the pale of moral consideration. After all, one can hardly accuse a surgeon of causing injury, shedding blood. Too bad for the poor collaterals, as thousands have discovered in the theatres where the armies of the good strike, but always surgically. Look at Iraq, at Libya, Syria, Yemen — surgery has made great advances.

Another advantage of designating a military operation as “surgical” is that it mobilises the rhetoric of health — surgery restores the organism to a state of health. However, it is also a claim about the prior state — diseased, non-optimal — and also about the status after the “surgical” intervention. If the disease — intrusion, infiltration, counter-surgery, so to speak — persists after the surgical strike, then it is reasonable to infer that the surgeon was not very good. Heroic, of course — that comes with the uniform. Everyone who wears a uniform is a hero. Some of these heroes, unfortunately, become martyrs. But others grow big mustaches and continue being heroic — on television. Still, speaking for myself, I prefer my surgeons to be competent rather
than heroic.

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There are certain other implications that flow from the “surgical” designation. At a popular level, “surgery” — the dreaded “operation” — is what is resorted to when mere medicine fails. But there is more. Thus, the designation of an ailment as being addressable “surgically” is implicitly a claim about the nature of the ailment — that is, that it is sharply localised, and not something that derives from widespread causes, nor is itself widespread, nor has spread into widely-dispersed secondaries, as in late-cancers. In those cases, the doctor advises hospice care, because a surgical strike on the cancer is not possible. Thus, in such cases, the designation of an ailment as being amenable to surgery is of its nature, consoling and often, on one side and the other, tragically delusional as well as being fraudulent.

In the circumstances prevalent in our blessed — and tolerant, always tolerant — land, it is important to underline that I offer NO opinion as to the perceived reluctance of the government to make evidence of the surgical strike public: I merely notice it.

The deflection of all scepticism, even mere curiosity, into a question of national honour, soldierly martyrdom, etc — all of which must be true of course, but is also beside the point. However, in light of this perceived reluctance, I am put in mind of another intriguing possibility — that of a “surgical lie”.

This bears a certain resemblance to the Platonic notion of the “noble lie”. I cite that unreliable fount of infinite wisdom, Wikipedia: A noble lie is a myth or untruth, often, but not invariably, of a religious nature, knowingly told by an elite to maintain social harmony or to advance an agenda. Analogically, then, a “surgical lie” is one that is precisely delivered (and defended, as with the “patriotic” rhetoric noted above), and achieves the desired effect without the resort to any actual action involving guns, blood, lives. This is an immensely appealing idea, and suggests the relatively humanitarian possibility of a virtual war: Cricket comes close, but we could work on it.

However if, in this entirely hypothetical case, the “surgical strike” turns out to be a “surgical lie”, the further question to ask is: What could be the target, the desired object of such a “surgical lie”? Such an enquiry lies beyond the modest scope of the present grammatical intervention. However, I can say this much in conclusion: If, as is possible, the object of the “surgical strike” is the same as the object of the “surgical lie”, then the latter would be preferable in so far as it is, pursuing the implicit medical metaphor, bloodless. Thus, as in certain other “surgical” procedures, the desired result — pulverising gall-stones, say — is achieved merely by bombarding the site with sound waves. Even an Arnab has its uses.

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The writer taught in the department of English, Delhi University

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