Gilbert: Colby Award

May 4, 2016

Norwich University’s William E. Colby Award is given annually to a first-time author in recognition of a book that has made a major contribution to the understanding of military history, intelligence operations, or international affairs. 

The award comes with a $5,000 honorarium, and winners have included Karl Marlantes for Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War, and Dexter Filkins for The Forever War. This year, it’s been awarded to Nisid Hajari for his book Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition

Hajari’s book considers both India’s Partition, which happened on August 15, 1947 and led to the creation of Muslim-majority West and East Pakistan (later Pakistan and Bangladesh) and Hindu-majority India, and the related violence. More than a million people were killed, and an estimated 15 million Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims were displaced, making it perhaps the largest mass migration in human history. 

Norwich University’s Colby Military Writers’ Symposium Executive Director Carlo D’Este called the book “noteworthy, superbly readable, and very timely,” adding that Partition “has powerful implications for the vital interests of the United States in one of the most unstable and dangerous regions of the world, where extremism and terrorism prevail.”

The story of Partition helps us better understand not only the fragile and dangerous India-Pakistan divide, but also some of the greatest security threats we face today, including jihadi terrorism and nuclear proliferation. 

But the book has even more to teach us. Upon receiving the award, Hajari observed that “The passions that fueled the Partition riots . . . had been stirred up by men – modern, generally irreligious men… and in the years since, politicians and the media on both sides have kept tensions on boil for their own purposes.”

And he went on to argue that it’s enormously dangerous for politicians to rally support by preying on people’s racial, religious, or other prejudices because “passions easily stirred up are nearly impossible to quell. . . . [and] they leave behind a legacy of bitterness and suspicion that makes it difficult if not impossible for citizens and communities to find common ground again.”

Hajari reminds us in the broadest sense that history deals with the actions of human beings.  Humans can respond in different ways to the challenges and opportunities that arise. People – society - can move forward or backwards, act wisely or unwisely. Leaders matter; leadership matters. Humans cause problems, yes, but we must remember we can solve problems, too.