In 2015, what do we make of a statement that India “has not been to war for 40-50 years”? What do we make of the country’s Defence Minister, no less, making such a statement, and at a conference on border security? What do we make of the Defence Minister claiming that as a result of these “40-50 years” without war, the “army’s importance has diminished” and people’s respect for the army “has reduced during peacetime”?

The Defence Minister’s arithmetic, first of all, is seriously flawed. These “40-50 years” take us back to 1965-’75. As pretty much every Indian knows, India fought a war with Pakistan in 1965, another in 1971 and yet another in 1999. Those were our last three wars. Yet Manohar Parrikar has forgotten at least one of them, and possibly all three.

But flawed arithmetic and failing memory are just starting points in the surreal landscape Parrikar sees around him. Consider: What, after all, is the overarching goal of an army? It shouldn’t need more than a moment of thought to come up with the answer: keeping us at peace. Fighting when necessary, certainly, but above all, making sure that nobody thinks of waging war on our country. Why else, for example, do we parade our military might along Delhi’s Rajpath every January 26? Because we want any potential enemies to look at that muscle and know: this is a country with a strong army. We better think a hundred times before we attack them.

Sixteen years of peace

And that’s the context in which to consider our several years now without war. We haven’t gone to war since 1999, Mr Parrikar. That’s 16 years and counting. That’s a substantial enough number that it doesn’t need to be inflated to “40-50”. Because 16 years of relative peace –  given the decades of mistrust and hostility between India and Pakistan (and I’m not even mentioning China) – is a remarkable achievement by any standard. It’s the second-longest war-free period in our independent history, after all: not until 1987 could we first count 16 consecutive years of peace.

For these years without war, all of us owe and feel some gratitude to our army. Yes, even a Defence Minister who forgets its valiant efforts during war.

And this hints at the really difficult task a country that has waged wars faces. If our army fights for us when it needs to, and remains a credible deterrent to those potential enemies the rest of the time, there remains a responsibility the rest of us must shoulder: making and keeping peace. After all, it’s actually rather simple to wage wars, mainly because the great majority of us don’t have to do it ourselves. We can just order our army to go fight for us. But it’s infinitely more difficult to wage peace, because it requires the great majority of us to examine our own prejudices, attitudes and motivations.

Not easy at all. Which is why Defence Minister Parrikar implies, even obliquely, that we must fight wars so that we can “respect” our army. Because Defence Minister Parrikar seems less interested in the hard work of peace.

The Costa Rica example

Many years ago, Costa Rica chose to abolish its army. This, in a part of the world –  think El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, Panama –  that has been wracked for years by war. You can argue about why this happened and how Costa Rica sustained it, but what’s difficult to argue with is the dividend of peace. Given that it is surrounded by those war-ravaged countries, it’s entirely possible that had Costa Rica kept its army, it would have been sucked into one conflict or another. Instead, tens of thousands of its men who might have served in an army over several decades have helped build what Costa Rica is today: an island of peace and progress in a wasteland of war-wrought misery.

Circumstances differ, of course; and perhaps India cannot similarly abolish its army. But when Defence Minister Parrikar suggests that we somehow don’t respect the army because we haven’t fought wars, I’d like to say this. Keeping the peace, if we manage it, is this country’s ultimate tribute to every fine young man who joins the army.

Because with an honourable and lasting peace, we know he won’t die fighting for this country. We know he can and will instead help build the strong, wise and compassionate India of his and our dreams.

We know he will live for India.