The United Service Institution (USI) describes itself as the oldest think-tank in Asia. Set up by the British, it opened in Simla in late nineteenth century. Soon after Independence, it moved to New Delhi. Though under considerable pressure from lack of resources in the early years, it managed to nurture successive generations of Indian military leaders into military matters and mores. Its journal, the USI Journal, claiming to be the oldest military affairs journal in Asia, has been a ubiquitous presence in military stations across the country, with this reviewer once spotting it in a tent of the company commander at a remote United Nations peacekeeping operating base in Gumruk, Pibor County, Jonglei State, South Sudan. (As an aside, the company commander received a paralyzing wound in a rebel ambush the following day but recovered enough to command his infantry battalion, though propped up by two crutches.)
This is only to illustrate the USI Journal as a popular professional journal, supplementing the USI’s efforts at imparting professional military education, a military culture and a more widely, a strategic culture. A collection of articles from the journal at its 150th anniversary is thus a thoughtful commemoration of its sesquicentennial year.
The USI sensibly chose Squadron Leader Rana TS Chhina (Retd.), head of the Center of Armed Forces Historical Research, that is lodged in the USI, to undertake the mammoth task of sifting through the 150 years of the quarterly publication (monthly for a brief period some 125 years ago) to cull out the articles that best captured their respective age and its concerns. Rana as an expert on colonial military history, with an award of an Honorary Member of British Empire to boot, was best placed to pick out the articles in the pre-Independence era. Having been a crack helicopter pilot with the Indian Air Force (‘crack’ because in the mid-eighties he held the world record for the highest landing for his class of helicopter, probably in Siachen), he was also well-placed to spot articles that shaped the post-Independence period.
Rana has put together a collector’s item, covering 150 momentous years of military history in South Asia. His was a challenging task, since there is so much that has happened in the years the journal has kept a meticulous watch on military affairs in the region. Not only did the army get institutionalized in the early part of the period but its sister services joined it soon thereafter. Not only did the Indian military fight in the two World Wars, but participated in four wars, two high-intensity military engagements (the Indian Peace Keeping Force and the Kargil War), UN peacekeeping and several counter-insurgency operations since. Rightly, Rana does not restrict his collation to the operational part, but defining military history widely, he also includes a sociological picture of the manner the services have evolved, embedded in the wider flow of national security. Capturing the grand sweep of history witnessed by the USI in 439 pages has been remarkably done. Alongside, he has taken care to reproduce in an unexpurgated form the articles as originally published to convey the essence of a particular period.