Cowards don’t make history

Last year, around this time, the agitation against the Kudankulam nuclear plant was making front page news. After government’s emissaries failed to convince the locals about the project, an emotive approach was attempted: the government sent a son of the soil, a famous scientist and who had been the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.

After his meeting with the locals, he said, “We are all caught too much with the disease of fear and danger, history is not made by cowards”. His comment reminded me about another historic incident.

On July 20, 1969, when the Apollo 11 moon mission was approaching its landing site a computer overload alarm sounded. Steve Bales, 26, the guidance officer, later recollected that those 15 seconds felt like eternity, as he had to decide whether to abort the mission or not. Bales did some quick thinking on what could have happened to cause the malfunction but could not think of anything and he decided to do nothing. The alarm rang five more times but he did not do anything. The rest, as they say, is history.

As much as he deserved the kudos, credit is also due to the organisation for trusting someone so young with such a critical task. This can only happen when merit is the deciding factor in selection and placements.

The landing of Curiosity on Mars is perhaps a continuation of that fortitude. Remember the famous dialogue from the movie Apollo 13, “Failure is not an option” when the ground controllers planned the recovery of the spaceship and its three astronauts. They succeeded, as did many others who have dared to take informed risks in this imperfect world.

Yet many of us keep looking over our shoulders for guidance to others to take decisions. In Air Force parlance, it’s called being 'tail clear,' the Americans say ‘check six’, referring to the number six of a watch while the naval officers call it ‘yard arm clearance’; hardly the attitude that can encourage growth in a society.

Society has a system of rewarding physical bravery — the Param Vir Chakra, Ashoka Chakra et al — but it is bravery of the intellectual kind that influences people for centuries. Imagine if Bales had aborted the mission; the American lunar exploration story could have been different. During the Normandy landings during World War II, the forecast was that the weather would be really bad on the days the Allied Forces were planning the amphibious assault.

Six thousand ships were waiting for orders to sail on June 6, 1944. They knew that the next correct combination of the Moon and tide would happen only on June 19 and any change of plan could have alerted the Germans. Having deferred the landings by a day already, General Dwight D Eisenhower took a calculated decision to launch on June 6. It is well he did that, for on June 19, the longest Channel storm for decades caused five times as much damage to Allied ships than the Germans had caused since the invasion!

Closer home, Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw’s firm stand against launching the attack on erstwhile East Pakistan in April 1971, because the army needed more time to prepare, is part of India’s army folklore — that too was a brave ‘decision’ of sorts, happening as it did contrary to the wishes of the establishment.

India is 65 years young. Six decades are infinitesimal in the life of a nation and we have many a challenge ahead of us. The need of the hour is to encourage Indians to remain free from “….the disease of fear and danger” as “history is not made by cowards.”

Manmohan Bahadur is an Air Vice-Marshal of the Indian Air Force

The views expressed by the author are personal


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