THE POTTER’S WHEEL
LIFE IN THE ARMY
Have you ever seen a potter going about his work? First he care-fully chooses the clay, poking it, pushing it, feeling it between thumb and forefinger. After making his choice he wets it just so, with the exact amount of clean water, kneading it into fine dough with just the correct consistency. He then puts it on his potter’s wheel and spins it at the right speed, then fastidiously fashions it into shape. Next he places it in the kiln, heated to the correct temperature. After the exact amount of time-not a moment before, not a moment later-he takes it out of the oven. Now the piece is ready.
This is exactly how a soldier is made. How good he is depends on how good the potter is, how good his choice of clay was, and how good his hand was on the wheel. A cadet in a military academy is like clay on the wheel. When he is shaped, he is let loose in the oven of army life. How good a soldier he becomes depends on the fire that bakes him every day of his life in the army.
I was only eighteen when I entered the Pakistan Military Academy (PMA) in 1961. Winning a spot was a cinch for an athletic, intelligent boy. To begin with, there was a written test in Karachi. I was selected for further tests and went up to Rawalpindi by train and then on to Kohat in the North-West Frontier. The tests were physical, mental, psycho-logical, and medical. At one stage during the psychological tests I was told to write whatever I was imagining at the time, whatever came to mind as I looked at a blank picture frame. There were socioeconomic discussions. I was put in command of five people and given a task, like clearing a minefield. I was pretty good at all that. I completed the obstacle course nearly twice in the time allotted. Finally, we were inter-viewed by a commandant. I didn’t find the interview difficult. I know I did well.
During the testing process I shared a room with P Q. Mehdi, who later became an air marshal and our air chief. I remember we saw a movie called Savera, which means “Dawn.” I was selected and we reported to the PMA.
The PMA is a historic place. It has verdant lawns and beautiful red-shingled colonial buildings in the lap of the Himalayas in a place called Kakul, near the town of Abbotabad, named after a British commissioner called Abbot. Imagine our excitement-a batch of fresh-faced young cadets in their new civilian clothes and immaculate haircuts-as our truck rolled in. The senior cadets were waiting for us like predators. Now imagine our shock when our smiles were met with deafening commands-“Crawl under the truck; now climb over it.” in and again came the orders, over and under the truck, over and under. “So this is the army,” I thought to myself when I was on one of my crawling “expeditions” under the truck. “I will go along. They can’t break me.” When our clothes were completely soiled, we were made to do somersaults in the mud, down a slope, and then back up. If our mothers had seen us they would have been horrified.
The senior cadets let us have dinner; then they crowded us into an anteroom and made all seventy or eighty of us squeeze into the fire-place, one on top of another. We should have made the Guinness Book of World Records. Next we were taken for haircuts, army-style. They simply sheared us like sheep. We looked extremely odd. They made us do all sorts of indescribably silly things, like balancing a metallic tub of ice-cold water on our heads in the dead of winter, which in Kakul is very cold. If the tub falls, not only do you get drenched and freeze, you are given another equally terrible punishment. I had been told to expect hazing-or “ragging” as we call it in Pakistan-and was prepared for it, but it was a terrible experience nevertheless.
That first night I fell onto my bed and was out like a light, overcome by conflicting emotions-from excitement to incredulity to exhaustion.
I dreamed of my parents’ comfortable home in Karachi, St. Patrick’s, FC College, and the Bengali girl.
Not many boys break down under ragging, and I took it in stride. It lasts for only the first ten days. I learned to outsmart the raggers.’ I would do whatever they said-like front rolls-slowly, so as to exert myself as little as possible; or I would simply hide in the bathroom until the ragging was over. I knew that they were not allowed to touch us. I knew too that when I became a senior I would be ragging the new cadets myself When my turn finally came, I didn’t rag much, and I was never cruel. I ragged with a purpose: to instill discipline and respect for authority in soldiers-to-be. Soldiers become a breed apart, a breed that willingly dies for its country without question.
It was in the PMA that I actually started studying seriously. Fortunately, I learned that if I applied myself, I could excel. We were taught all kinds of subjects-science, mathematics, geography, military tactics, map reading, and of course, weapons training and drill. We were also taught how to command men and get the best out of them. We learned how to absorb psychological pressure and develop physical endurance. Above all, we learned about making decisions in a crunch, and no ordinary crunch: the kind that could mean the difference between life and death yours and others’. If the men under you don’t trust your decisions, they will not have the confidence to go into battle under your command. A military academy is a great place to learn how to be a man who can deal with a crisis, provided it is a good military academy. The PMA is the best in the world.
I did well in the PMA and was one of the top cadets in my course, one of the ten sword carriers. If not for my nonchalant attitude and my tendency to react badly to irrational authority, I would have done even better. Frankly, I was quite an ill-disciplined young man-quarrelsome and irresponsible. I was one of four candidates short-listed to go to Sandhurst, England, to complete my training, but another cadet, Ali Kuli Khan Khattak, was selected. He retired as a lieutenant general and chief of general staff when I became army chief, but I suspect that his retirement, which was optional, had more to do with disappointment at not becoming chief himself, which is perfectly understandable.
I was sometimes careless. Once during an outdoor exercise my platoon commander asked me to look at the other cadets and tell him what was missing from my uniform. I looked, but could not figure out what they had that I lacked. He asked me to touch my “damn head.” It was bare, without a helmet. I was marched in the next day, for punishment. “Quick march, right turn, right turn, halt, salute,” screamed the drill sergeant. The platoon commander was so impressed by my drill that without imposing any punishment he ordered the sergeant, “Good drill; march him off.”
In fact, my physical bearing and drill were so good that I passed my “saluting test” on the first try with a special commendation from the adjutant. “Which cadet college do you come from?” he asked. When I told him I was from Forman Christian College and not from a cadet college, he was quite surprised. Later, during a parade rehearsal, he singled me out for a drill demonstration to the whole battalion of senior cadets. This got me into immense trouble with my seniors for “having the audacity to show them proper drill.” It became the cause of many punishments at their hands whenever they saw me.
On another occasion, however, I was nearly thrown out of the PMA. In our final term, just before we were to graduate, there was a drill competition of the first-term cadets in which the senior cadets, as spectators, were expected to wear black socks. Some of the seniors wore the wrong color. The battalion commander called me and ordered me to note down all their names and serial numbers-“and put your name at the top,” he thundered. Our punishment was to run nine miles. When we came to a loop in the road some of us cleverly decided to take a short-cut and save about 200 yards (180 meters). Unknown to us, we were being closely watched through binoculars. About fifteen of us were caught. Inquiries started, and the whole thing became quite serious. Academy officials were determined that we should be thrown out for taking the shortcut-even though six of us who had done so were sword carriers who were to lead the graduation parade! Luckily, good sense prevailed and we were spared expulsion. Instead, our course grade was lowered. I was the battalion junior under-officer, and my position in the class would have been very high on merit, but as punishment we were pushed down six positions. So even though I ranked
fourth in my course, I was placed tenth. Other junior under-officers got moved up six positions and thus graduated above us.
The experience at PMA was an to an overhaul-being taken apart and put back together differently. Gaining acceptance into the school was like being chosen as the right clay. The PMA wet us-the clay-and placed us on the potter’s wheel, ready for fashioning by the potter’s hand. Once fashioned, we were all set to be baked and hardened in the kiln. I was now ready for the army, guided by the maker’s hand.