It is a battlefront resembling a sci-fi nether world: Snowbound soldiers, short on oxygen, gasp their way down a frozen trench. No man's land is a heaving, creaking river of ice. Across the way, the enemy bristles with guns and artillery, but the more immediate danger is from frostbite and altitude sickness.
So goes army life on the 50-mile frontline of the Siachen Glacier, an all too real place along the border between India and Pakistan, a restive line of confrontation topping out at 20,000 feet above sea level.
Along with a few other spots, it is proof that even in an age when famine and massacre are instantly beamed to your living room from just about anywhere, there are still some war zones you'll probably never glimpse.
"The ones you never hear about are the ones that camera crews have the hardest time getting to," says military analyst James F. Dunnigan, co-author of "A Quick and Dirty Guide to War," an exhaustive review of the world's armies and conflicts, last updated in 1996. "Some ink-stained wretch might visit every now and then, but that's about it."
Which is not to say that these obscure wars aren't worth paying attention to. Besides the singular appeal of exotic locations, their stakes often are anything but trivial.
A flare-up of fighting on the Siachen Glacier between India and Pakistan, for instance, could trigger the world's first nuclear attack since the bombing of Nagasaki. While the world's general public might never pay heed, its diplomats and policy-makers are attuned to the slightest tremor. Neither is the Siachen Glacier India's only high-altitude combat line you've never heard of.
The border with China is also contested, and several adjoining regions are periodically bubbling with local uprisings and insurrections. Take a look at this excerpt from a year-end wrap-up of the world's armed strife. Written last December by David Guest, it is a veritable buffet table of military hors d'oeuvres:
"India's rivalry with Pakistan broke out into artillery duels in February. Fighting broke out again in Jammu-Kashmir in April when police raided a suspected rebel hide-out. Elections forced on the province caused more violence, spilling over into Delhi.
"In September, heavy fire erupted between Indian and Pakistani forces in the Siachen Glacier region. Indian forces also crossed into Bhutan and attacked a base for guerrillas who have waged a secessionist campaign in the neighboring state of Assam since 1979. Separatist rebels in the northeastern state of Manipur ambushed a police convoy in April."
Tension and sporadic fighting remain on all those fronts, largely ignored elsewhere, although India and Pakistan did generate a blip of publicity in the United States last year when they opened peace talks. Otherwise, about the only war-related news item to emerge recently from the region was this brief wire service account: "SRINAGAR, India, Nov 4 (Reuters) -- India said on Tuesday it had installed the world's highest public telephone booth on the 20,000-foot Siachen Glacier in Kashmir. The Indian Defense Ministry said that soldiers fighting to keep the last post of a disputed 450-mile Himalayan border in Kashmir with Pakistan can now phone home."
Oh, and incidentally, the story added, "At least 2,000 Indian army soldiers have lost their lives and more than 10,000 have been crippled in the fight to control the glacier which Indian troops captured in 1984, army officials said."
Indeed, says Dunnigan, India's lofty border with Pakistan and China might well be "the only battlefield in the world where you have more casualties from asphyxia and frostbite than from fighting."
Then there's the case of West Papua New Guinea, officially a part of Indonesia known as Irian Jaya. Half the the world's big mining companies would love to sink their drill bits into the soil, and millions of dollars in investment could hinge on its future stability.
But for now it's too troubled. The main problem is the Indonesian government, which for 34 years has employed varying degrees of brutality in trying to subdue the numerous local populations, some of which are neolithic cultures. One estimate holds that at least 43,000 people have been killed in the fighting to date.
Indonesia's foe is known as the Free Papua Organization, a name that suggests far more unity than the reality -- a bewildering array of more than a thousand tribes, clans and mini-cultures, many as small as 100 persons, but each with its own language.
"Something like 20 percent of the world's languages are spoken there," Dunnigan says. "You don't ever know whom to deal with because it's a truly chaotic environment."
Furthering the chaos is the occasional outbreak of tribal fighting, some of it occurring less out of acrimony than from centuries of tradition: war as a ritualistic rivalry, an Army-Navy game with higher stakes.
The fighting in Irian Jaya briefly grabbed the world's attention last year when the Free Papua insurgents seized hostages, mostly because four of the hostages were British. All were freed in a raid by Indonesian troops, and the world moved on to other things.
When London's Guardian newspaper decided to follow the hostage-taking with a closer look, it found the place so impenetrable that its correspondent's lengthy report made only a stab at accounting for recent events, stating: "There have been rumors of large-scale troop assaults on villages and a planned offensive against [rebel] strongholds and refugee camps."
In the United States, such places seem even more obscure than they do in the rest of the developed world.
International news outlets such as the British Broadcasting Corp. usually try to stay abreast at some level.
From time to time, they seem to adopt one of the "little wars" as their own, as with their sometimes exhaustive coverage of the Tamil Tiger uprising in Sri Lanka. But American media tend to not pay the slightest attention unless American troops, tourists or students end up in harm's way.
Even that isn't always enough.
In 1859, the American military adventurer Frederick Townsend Ward turned up in China as the trainer and chief strategist for the imperial army, which was fighting the Taiping rebellion, a bloody civil war in which more than 10 million people had already died.
Ward established the force that became known as "The Ever Victorious Army," and after he was killed in fighting in 1862 he was enshrined as a national hero, a status he maintained until the Communists took over, expunging him from the historical record and literally digging up his grave.
Ward's achievements and heroic death went virtually unnoticed
in America, partly because he made his name while the American Civil War was going on.
No one wanted to hear about Ward when there was "Unconditional Surrender" Grant or "Stonewall" Jackson to lionize, so he remained largely obscure for the next 130 years, until historian-novelist Caleb Carr wrote his 1992 biography, "The Devil Soldier."
Pub Date: 12/21/97