‘War Above the Clouds:’ Fluid Landscapes of the ‘Dodgy’ Soldier

Sanaullah Khan //

A soldier guarding a post on the Siachen Glacier. Taken from War Above the Clouds (1996) by Martin Sugarman.

The Siachen Glacier is one of the longest non-polar glaciers in the world. It was first discovered through a series of European expeditions, which consisted of officers of the British Army, geographers associated with the Royal Geographical Society (RGS), as well as geologists, mineralogists and meteorologists, in the early 20th century. The knowledge about the Siachen Glacier was accumulated through a process of new discoveries and successive corrections to the previous records, partly out of scientific interests but also to assist the British surveying practices in the region (See Workman 1912; Dainelli 1932; Neve 1910; de Fillippi 1911; Mason 1928; Longstaff 1910; Workman 1914; Arnold 2000; Grout 1990). After the partition of India, the occupation of the area now known as Gilgit-Baltistan by tribal fighters from Pakistan would divide Kashmir into its Pakistani and Indian held parts. A boundary, later to be known as the Line of Control (LoC) separated Indian and Pakistani held parts of Kashmir, but the areas including the Siachen Glacier which had lain beyond the last known point on the line (NJ 9842) were left undemarcated (Zehra 2018; Sugarman 1996).

In 1984, the Indian forces occupied the glacier in the Operation Meghadod. Shortly afterwards, the Pakistani army deployed its troops to the surrounding ridges known as the Saltoro Range. There have been many thousands of casualties due to deadly crevasses and avalanches, artillery firing, frostbite, or illnesses such as High-Altitude Pulmonary and Cerebral Edemas (HAPE & HACE). Pakistani soldiers, officers and doctors who participated in the conflict on the highest battleground in the world from different periods starting from 1984 to 2019 talk about the development of military infrastructure on the Siachen Glacier and in the towns and villages nearby, in response to the requirement of providing expedited medical care to the soldiering body. The chain of evacuation has evolved over time and involves decision-making in which combatants mediate the transition of a soldier into a patient. The question of the front and the rear has been very important in the history of psychiatry in the military, where the emphasis has been on separating soldiers based on the seriousness of the ailment and returning them for service in the most efficient manner possible (Leys 2000; Fassin & Rechtman 2009). It is through this relationship between the front and the rear that I understand the management of evidence for psychiatric and physical ailments among soldiers serving on the Siachen Glacier.

The disappearing of soldiers into crevasses has enabled a range of landmarks to be erected to memorialize the dead; this also made a fluid terrain somewhat predictable for the administration of control. The complex geography of the region has become somewhat familiar for the military through over 3000 deaths since the 1984. Most soldiers have lost their lives as a result of avalanches, falling into crevasses, and artillery shelling from the Indian side. There is a continuous movement of soldiers from one post to another, and this is coordinated through the military infrastructure that has been developed over the past few years. Soldiers I interviewed expressed the different ways in which they would try to give order to their lives, prevented unpredictable responses to certain stimuli and events as well as avoided the monotony of soldiering on the glacier (Goldstein 2000). Constant supervision and precaution, in the handling of weapons and protective gear, are meant to reduce any casualties. Soldiers themselves also try to give some semblance of order to their lives, but have to ensure that in the process they don’t isolate themselves too much. In their attempts to give order, some cases reported to me suggested that the soldiers inadvertently shrunk their milieu to an extent that they would no longer considered “normal” or fit for service on the glacier. This is how psychiatric cases were detected and authorized by other soldiers and officers in the form of complaints to the medical staff about the lack of engagement and interaction with the rest, followed by the medical staff located in a village a few miles away ordering the shifting of the soldier from the post to the hospital through helicopters. 

To ensure that one does not shrink the milieu as to exclude any interaction with others, health is not given in advance but has to be achieved by establishing new norms and achieving them (Canguilhem 1992). The medical staff encourages the soldiers to share every feeling and sensation. This leads to the development of soldierly intimacies to ensure that the one does not ignore any sensation which could be a sign of something serious such as frostbite, an edema or infections, simply because acclimatization to the terrain and the extreme weather may have made their bodies reduce receptivity to the strains that soldiering on the glacier offered psychologically as well as physiologically. In these intimacies the soldier’s private was inadvertently opened for others. Closely tied to this were the biographical elements which were also necessary for the soldier’s disciplining. The officer’s role became important; sometimes a lot more important than the medical doctor. This is because the officer became an anchor for medical intervention to understand, evaluate and to make a judgment about the soldier’s loyalty and dedication to serve on the glacier (Ahrenfeldt 1958).

The management of evidence thereby brings officers into relationship with soldiers and creates particular ways of managing them, by anchoring medical expertise at the site of emergency situations. Here evaluations about medical conditions invariably leads to the category of the ‘dodgy’ soldier, who stands at the boundary between life and death but could also be trying to evade duty. The honesty of the soldier is determined through a relationship with speech. In some cases I found that the truth about one’s condition was based on how it was verbalized. Sometimes honesty could be known retrospectively through the silence of the soldier who had died. One of the younger officers I met shared with me an experience of a senior officer who had ‘headaches,’ but did not share his symptoms and was later found dead. Another soldier who had served with his uncle had complained about his headache, and the officer had known that the former had a history of evading duty, and could not trusted with his word. However, it turned out that the judgment was wrong and the soldier was found dead. I suggest that these evaluations about honesty are made at the boundary between life and death because of the nature of symptoms and how they are understood by the medical staff, who lump them broadly in the category of “non-specific symptoms.” Such an evaluation of one’s condition also brings to the fore the figure of the dodgy soldier who could simply be trying to evade duty. Paradoxically, it could also reflect the anxiety of the medical staff to accurately diagnose the soldier’s condition. In my interview with a medical doctor who had served on the glacier I realized that his anxieties around diagnosing the patients correctly and on timely bases had actually been expressed through the figure of the dodgy soldier, whose condition a military doctor with a different clinical experience could not readily diagnose.


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Zehra, Naseem, From Kargil to Coup: Events that Shook Pakistan, Sang-e-Meel Publications, 2018.

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