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Stories about Siachen, the highest battlefield in the world, are legendary, some ironic. Soldiers testing their manhood to impress girlfriends often become impotent, the only colour is white and the enemy isn’t Pakistan but the weather gods. Occasional skirmishes and artillery barrages tinge the white with streaks of red. Dementia is frequently induced by the obsession of not losing an inch of ground, but securing more, the higher the better, the sky being the limit.
MacDonald recalls a Pakistani general saying: "India can withdraw a thousand miles and still be India. We can’t afford to withdraw an inch." An Indian general recently said: "We should agree to vacate Siachen, provided Pakistan deploys an infantry brigade there". And MacDonald recounts how a Pakistani general had second thoughts. "We should not have reacted to 1984 and let the Indians stay on the passes". In other words, let the Indians stew in their own juice.
The absurdity of this military enterprise began in the 1970s with "cartographic aggression" by Pakistan-sponsored mountaineering expeditions into the Siachen glacier. In a race for the passes, India pre-empted Pakistan in occupying them, triggering off the cold war in the summer of ’84. Lt Gen M.L. Chibber, the architect of Operation Meghdoot, told MacDonald that the operation was authorised to prevent a repeat of Aksai Chin, when in 1957 the Chinese secretly built a road in that area, presenting India with a fait accompli which led to war.
The culprits of Siachen are the cartographers. The original sin was committed in 1949 by them in Karachi while drawing the Cease Fire Line (CFL). They ended it at NJ 9842 and vaguely added: "thence north to the Glaciers". Surprisingly, this was not corrected in 1972 when the CFL was converted into the LOC. We live by the errors of the past. So the madness continued, clocking a quarter century, with the conflict escalating and spreading to the adjoining Kargil heights—Pakistan avenging Siachen.
MacDonald describes epic accounts of real and imaginary battles fought on a combination of altitude-induced madness and military discipline, scaling unimaginable heights of courage and bravery. Veterans emphasise the crux of victory and success in Siachen is holding out. And, as MacDonald says, "not losing an inch of ground because recapturing a post is virtually impossible". The sole exception is Bana Singh’s conquest of Pakistan’s Quaid post at 21,000 feet.
MacDonald gives the Pakistani and Indian versions of the Bana assault, both chilling. After two assault teams were beaten back, Bana and four others led the final charge, surprising the enemy but fighting for every inch, using bombs, bullets, hands and bayonets. MacDonald grilled Bana on how he reached the top. "You don’t think. This is the whole point about the army. You never think. You obey orders. You have to complete your mission," he said coldly.
The revenge for the loss of Quaid was inevitable. And Operation Quaidat "would become the nastiest battle so far on Siachen". The plan was a mix of James Bond and Arnold Schwarzenegger. MacDonald says: "It had to be done as the symbolism of military prowess mattered more than victory".
The book does not provide a strategic evaluation or a cost-benefit analysis. It tells stories of Indian and Pakistani soldiers and the mindless battles they fought in defending ground where "not a blade of grass grows". Jawaharlal Nehru used these words about Aksai Chin. But, lost in idealism, he did not prepare the army for war. MacDonald’s Siachen is "a place where even the Gods came to find peace", where one learnt humility and the cold truth: that mountains are the ultimate winners in this war.