Book review: Challenging martial histories


This is a book review that was published in The Friday Times (June 19-25 2009 issue)

This was a hot May afternoon when I found myself at the book launch of Flight of the Falcon. I had no plans to be in Islamabad until the author informed me of the launch, an event to be remembered in the culturally stifling environs of Islamabad. I have known Air Commodore (retired) Sajad Haider for years. He is an exceptional man, able to connect across generations. The articulate and hospitable Haider can hold forth on any subject under the sun without cavil. As a young man, I had heard the delightful, adventurous and sometimes sad accounts of his stint with the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). In many ways, the rise and fall of the PAF is a mirror image of Pakistan’s institutional trajectory, depicting how good we are at making a hash of things and persecuting our heroes.

Flight of the Falcon essentially sums up Haider’s grand story of valour, tribulations and commitment to the country. As he told me, this book “is my endeavour to fulfil my small responsibility towards my country. During the 1965 and 1971 wars with India, which I participated in as a commander leading the No 19 Squadron of the Pakistan Air Force, and as head of the fighter tactical wing respectively, I was a witness to history in the making.” During the 1965 war, Haider had collected the best fighter pilots and put them under the “warriors” training regime. The results achieved by his squadron were spectacular: an unmatchable six Sitara-e-Jurats were bestowed on the pilots, including the fighter-author. The 19th Squadron carried out the most difficult missions of the 1965 war and these have been documented by British, Indian and Pakistani experts. Whilst most accounts recall the operational episodes narrated by second-hand sources, Flight of the Falcon attempts to provide a candid account of these two controversial wars from the cockpit of a fighter air craft. Interestingly the book challenges the conventional mantra of victory trumpeted by state histories: in both the wars, there was no clear winner, and the book chronicles that honestly.

Haider holds that after four decades, the truth about what happened must come out without any embarrassment. “We owe it to our future generations, particularly today’s young commanders and students of military history, to set the record straight,” he adds. Not surprisingly, reticence to carry out an honest analysis of the lessons of the wars against India is rooted in the effort to protect the incompetent and short-sighted leaders whose mistakes cost the lives of many gallant men, not to mention the tragic break up of Pakistan in 1971.

Flight of the Falcon is not just a dry historical account. It is an eminently readable autobiography as well. Sometimes, the episodes appear stranger than fiction, especially when Haider’s air chief framed him in a conspiracy to overthrow the government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and charged him with treason and with inciting mutiny. We also learn how the Shahinshah of Iran, Raza Pahlavi, told Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to punish Haider for denigrating him. The sensational bits make the book impossible to put down. There is the incident where Zia ul Haq lectured the armed forces, trying to explain the reasons why he had carried out a military coup, and why the nation was not fit for democracy. The author retorted, “The pride with which I have worn this uniform and defended my country with my life has been denigrated to the point where I see contempt in the eyes of Pakistanis who had once adored the sight of this very uniform. As part of your constituency we are now the conquerors of Pakistan rather than its defenders.” Of course, Haider lost his career and Zia was reported to have said that he wanted to see Haider with a begging bowl in his hand! […]