The Battle of Bhutan

The drive from the Tsonga Dzong to Jakar is close to three hours. We will have traveled over 200 twisting and turning kilometers to get there from Paro. On the map the straight-line distance is 120 kilometers. Bhutan is a country in which the saying “you can't get there from here” is almost true.

The countryside is all mountain and valley, the very opposite of mid-western America's gigantic basin, a geographical blessing that has made it possible for 2% of the country to grow 100% of its food, freeing the rest of us to do things like writing blogs. 80% of the Bhutanese are farmers. Whoever said geography is destiny got it right. Bhutan looks as if God tore a sheet of green paper out of her notebook, crumpled it up and dropped it into a wastebasket called Earth.

“Now,” she said, “Let's see you grow something on that.”

The long drive is conducive to story telling. Chencho, our guide, tells us about the battle in 2005 when Bhutan drove 3,000 members of the Assam Liberation Front out of the country. Since 1999 the encroachers had been conducting sorties into India, blowing up bridges and then retreating for safety into Bhutanese territory. The government had tried for six years to negotiate to no avail. In the end Bhutan, wisely refusing an offer from India to send 30,000 troops, went south with 3,000 of its own men. In one week the Bhutanese routed the Assam fighters, killing 200 and taking several thousand prisoners, all at a loss of 12 of its own soldiers. The fourth king and the younger brother of the fifth king fought alongside the Bhutanese army. Their presence underscored just how high the stakes were. This was a war for nothing less than the preservation of the homeland. It is not hard to see why the Bhutanese fought so well.

I went into the Kyichu Monastery in Bhutan. In one corner of a prayer hall where monks sat chanting I saw a dusty Russian Kalashnikov AK-47 automatic rifle leaning against the wall. I asked Chencho what a weapon was doing in a temple. Chencho said that such weapons were in temples throughout Bhutan. They were used in expelling the Assam militants. The Bhutanese consider the weapons to have been blessed by the gods for having given them victory. That is why they belong in a place of worship, along with statues of the Buddha. One of my companions remarked that putting the weapons there after a war was far better than putting them there to acquire a blessing in anticipation of war.

In The Soul to Battle Victor Davis Hanson quotes General Sherman as saying, “There is a soul to an army as well as to the individual man, and no general can accomplish the full work of his army unless he commands the soul of his men, as well as their bodies and legs.”

Hanson argued that an intense ideological commitment to a cause is crucial to military victory. He describes three wars in which the victorious army, because of its “soul to battle” overcame tremendous odds. The generals were Epaminondas, who fought the Spartans, Sherman, who fought the rebel south and Patton, who, against all advice from his counselors, drove through the heart of Europe to Berlin. Each of these generals was committed to destroying something they and their men found deeply repugnant. In the case of Epaminondas it was the system of Spartan slavery called helotry; for Sherman, it was slavery in the American South; for Patton it was another form of slavery, genocidal Nazism.

The king of Bhutan and his soldiers fought for the territorial integrity of their own country, a country that had never been conquered, a country whose dzongs had never been breeched.

It is instructive to think about this in light of the Iraqi war. The author of The Soul to Battle might argue, I'm guessing, that the war is going badly because the enemy is willing to blow itself up whereas our side isn't.

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