The nation-state of Pakistan has had its fair share of wars – internal and otherwise – since its formation after the partition of British India in 1947. This has included four cross-border wars with India, countless anti-insurgency operations within the country, covert involvement and support of the Afghan Mujahideen during the 1980s, regular deployment of troops in combat missions abroad, and the more recent conflict within its own northwestern regions as a key ally in the global war on terror (WOT).

This penchant for war demands a ready and replenishable supply of troops, and yet the Pakistan Army has never had to resort to conscription and remains an all-volunteer force. According to 2004-2013 Pakistan Army Induction Data, an average of over 130,000 young men apply every year, of which only 38,000 are selected. The voluntary nature of enlistment in the nonconscription military of Pakistan has often been explained as a function of economic desperation.

In the rain-fed hilly tracts of Punjab – famed martial districts cultivated by the British Indian Army and subsequently by the Pakistani military – historical proclivity has also been cited as reason. Successful patterns of military recruitment in other provinces and districts post the national integration policy announced in 2001, and, most importantly, the Pakistani military’s emphasis on maintaining a certain appeal and image of the force hints at other explanations as well.

This desire to enlist and the apparent enthusiasm for war have been carefully honed over the seventy-one years since Pakistan’s genesis. The military in Pakistan – more specifically, the Pakistan Army – has ruled directly for roughly half of Pakistan’s existence and indirectly for the rest of the time through the domination of defence and foreign policy and the manipulation of domestic politics.

The boundaries between military and civil-political institutions is ever shifting, although rarely in favour of civilian dominance, and the military continues to stand as one of the most powerful institutions in the country, where it has had a de facto role in politics whether it is directly in power or there is civilian rule. The military’s ability to take up political space has been attributed to a number of factors, including its postcolonial history, with its hyperdeveloped Punjabi military apparatus that has been strengthened above and at the cost of other state institutions; its geostrategic importance during and after the Cold War; and its growing economic empire.

To understand the Pakistani military’s hold over the imagination and loyalty of Pakistani society requires changing our focus from the coercive power of the military that’s on display every time a military regime takes over to its ability to shape sympathy and opinion during as well as after military regimes leave. This is not to suggest that coercive power is not a primary determinant in the Pakistani military’s hold over populations or that resistance to the military’s intrusion into civilian domains does not exist.

The intent here, though, is to identify the more insidious ways that the military and its norms and aesthetics make their way into Pakistani society. This allows for an examination of how the military “produces politics rather than how it is related to it”. In doing so, the book turns away from attempts to decipher the much-studied and debated whys of the military’s dominance in Pakistan and instead contributes to an understanding of the hows by which the military creates its image as an institution that demands reverence and allows docile populations to emerge.

Militarism’s forays into Pakistani society are visible in social studies textbooks that glorify war and valorise Muslim warriors of an imagined past as well as military soldiers who seek martyrdom and to defend their country against traitors looking to dismantle the nation. Popular culture, songs, images, and literary texts further exalt militarist nationalism, and national rituals are replete with military symbols.

In a war song popularised in the 1965 war with India, a mother addresses her martyred son to say:

Pakistan is the land of sons like you
of whom mothers like me are proud
May you have my life,
Oh you who calls me Mother

Imaginings of the soldier and model citizen are heavily gendered. Masculine men protect the nation and the women, who are repositories of national honour. The latter in turn serve the nation by not only producing these soldiers but exalting and praising the men who die in wars to protect the nation. Rubina Saigol suggests that “this form of complementary visualisation of masculinity and femininity enables warlike nationalism to be imbibed by the citizenry which feels empowered by vicarious participation in the state’s nationalist triumphs”.

The militaristic state is scripted not just in songs and literature but also in physical spaces. Killing machines such as guns, missiles, fighter jets, and submarines, including the hills where Pakistan conducted its first nuclear tests, are inscribed into the daily lives of people as monuments in civilian public spaces. Pakistan Day is commemorated by holding a military parade every year on March 23, which marks the anniversary of the passing of the Lahore Resolution in 1940 by the All India Muslim League.

The practice of commemorating a designated national day that has little to do with military force or war by holding a military parade lends itself to a reading of how the state and society within Pakistan are militarised. The event – a display of military strength with troops from all three forces, the Pakistan Army, Navy, and Air Force – also includes an air show depicting the prowess of fighter jets and other military aircraft and a showcase of diverse arenas of military technology, including telecommunication, arms, and ammunition. It is attended avidly by civilians and telecast live across the nation.

Other, even more visible faces of the military in civilian society are its involvement in rescue operations after natural disasters and in law-and-order assignments in which they are tasked with controlling political upheavals. (Civilian governments in the past have called on the military instead of on civilian law enforcements to do this job.) The Pakistan Armed Forces are also called on to use their superior organisational and technological resources for public-welfare projects such as building roads, bridges, and so on.

In 2018, the military, on the request of the Election Commission of Pakistan, dispatched as many as 371,000 troops (including reservists and retired soldiers) to over 85,000 polling stations across the country to assist with the election process. All this and more, including the military’s propensity to set itself up as a religiously motivated force, allows the military to bill itself as the defender of Pakistan’s physical borders as well as its “ideological frontiers,” an ethos that is often repeated within military discourse.

The role of the military in Pakistan extends and spills over into political and social spaces in which it positions itself as a saviour, the ultimate guarantor of the permanence and continuity of the state, while various democratic and military regimes come and go.

Excerpted with permission from Dying to Serve: Militarism, Affect, and the Politics of Sacrifice in the Pakistan Army, Maria Rashid, Bloomsbury.