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Force Magazine
Guest Column - Force Magazine
Through the Indo-Pacific
India can look at Vietnam as an attractive proposition for maritime constructive engagement
Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan (retd)
By Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan (retd)

Phi thuong, bat phu (Vietnamese Proverb: Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained)

As John F Kennedy famously said of the relevance of historical awareness, “History is a relentless master. It has no present, only the past rushing into the future. To try to hold fast is to be swept aside.” This utterance retains its significance even in our own age — despite the great dynamism and rapidity of change that define it.

Sadly, the Indian military leadership in general and the navy’s leadership in particular have, except for some occasional and pious lip-service, turned their backs upon history and most young officers dismiss history with a single derisory term — boring. In truth, of course, there is no boring history…. only boring historians! Be that as it may, this is an institutional error that has already cost us dearly and one that I fear will continue to do so.

As we explore the potentialities of maritime military engagement (what the Indian Navy calls ‘foreign cooperation’) we would do well to carefully examine and analyse how the distant past as well as the more recent one have unfolded in our maritime areas of interest. Such an examination is crucial in that it tells us what worked for us in the past (which we might replicate to a greater or lesser extent) and what didn’t (which we might change or discard) in order to understand how we ought to prepare for the future in terms of our maritime strategy.

India’s politico-military intelligentsia has been nurtured for so long upon a severely dumbed-down diet of thought that it seems unable to recall that ‘prediction’ is really an extrapolation of ‘retrodiction’. In ‘retrodiction’, one uses present knowledge to verify past events. Once a ‘pattern’ of factors that yielded the event is identified, one then uses the pattern to ‘predict’ a future occurrence of the event. A celebrated example is how Christopher Columbus, stranded in Jamaica in 1504, was saved from angry natives by referring to the Ephemerides — a book that provided positions of the stars and planets at given times. ‘Retrodiction’ was used to verify that lunar eclipses had occurred whenever the earth, the moon and the sun came into conjunction and the time interval between every such eclipse was recorded. Using the Ephemerides, Columbus then accurately ‘predicted’ that a lunar eclipse would occur that very night and told the natives that the gods would show a glimpse of their anger at the treatment being meted out to him and his men. When the ‘red’ moon (characteristic of a partial lunar eclipse) was, indeed, seen, the natives were convinced and as a result, Columbus and his men were saved from death by starvation.

This same process of ‘retrodiction’ helps us in dealing with countries with whom we have had ancient and mutually beneficial ties that need to be revived and strengthened to deal with contemporary geo-strategic challenges. To express the same thought in symbolic or allegorical terms, if one is to use the telescope of the present to gaze at the future with any degree of expertise, one must remember to occasionally look through the object-lens of the telescope and gaze at the past — even if it seems distant and relatively insignificant.


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