INSIGHT AND FORESIGHT

May 3, 2014

MYTHICAL SOLDIERING

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I always marvel why men are willing to die? As a ground combater, I bear witness to this motivation and willingness. Religious beliefs in martyrdom are indeed a factor, but then why do soldiers of other religions willingly brave dangers and die in line of duty. 

All countries have their own Unknown Soldier. The purpose is to honour the collective spirit and keep that fire of motivational sacrifice burning. An unknown soldier is much beyond a cliché. Soldiers are indeed unknown. 

There could be many explanations offered by psychologists and sociologists but the one that touches me most is the nobility. Soldiering is the noblest profession of them all and epitome of professional idealism. A soldier defends his country and readily sacrifices his life so that others live in safety. All good soldiers are romantics in pursuit. Romanticism is writ large. Training exercises, sports competitions, endurance runs and celebrations; the bugle calls at reveille, the retreat and the last post. The hoisting and lowering of flags, the change of guards or the clatter of helicopter wings bringing back last remains of a soldier from the battle field are beyond symbolic. They inject a flow of adrenaline in the blood stream. This sudden surge and harnessed hyper energy is unknown in civilian life. It conquers fear and pushes a soldier charging into the unknown. 

Soldiers are unknown because their countrymen know so little about them. They are never introduced. Heroes remain mythical characters inasmuch as the organisation they belong to. What is behind that barbed wire or the check post is what irks imagination of onlookers? Behind the façade of ceremonialism and prestige lies exclusivity that appears mysterious to an outside eye. It may also invoke an odd critic. This aura will never be known to outsiders. The meanders, peaks, valleys, travails, fortunes, misfortunes and glory are corporate traits indigenous to all armies; these fortes make them professional and efficient fighting machines. 

A musical video by a commercial bank on the occasion of Martyr’s Day conveys what thousand volumes in a library cannot. Filmed on the playback by Ustad Amanat Ali, the video encapsulates almost all aspects of a soldier’s life. It shows soldiers from a child to a martyr and survivor; families, the long and adventurous rides back home and the simplicities that amuse soldiers they seldom have the chance of living through. As an epitome, it shows how behind every soldier are a family, wife and children who endure moments of the isolation and the long wait for a reunion ‘to be or not to be’. 

Motivation and nobility of a class unknown urges youth to flock to the armed forces and submit to an entirely different way of life in teenage. These are village boys, urbanites, rich, poor and those coming from family traditions. These youngsters are in formative years and yet to pass through the moments of life, street smartness and social evolution their peers would experience in colleges and universities.  They are trained, groomed and moulded into an entirely different and exclusive entity. As they grow, they are distinctively different from their civilian peers especially in the simplistic views of life. They are ‘the little soldier blue’. 

Mental toughness, honesty and admission of failure are basic qualities of their selection. This toughness is based on the criteria of not only how much can you endure but also how much extra you can do in trying and challenging circumstances. The ability to accomplish the extra distinguishes good soldiers. While physical fitness comes through training, the basic instincts of mental robustness are polished into sharp leading edges that come handy in extreme performance. Soldiering is like extreme sports in splendid isolation. One who overcomes the tiring sinews and fading resilience emerges a winner. Trying circumstances such as these, attributes of honest failure or that extra grain of resilience come handy in producing the extra ordinary episodes of individual or collective valour. 

Unlike soldiers a century ago, who raced into massed suicidal frontal assaults, modern soldiers are expected to perform in large regimental groups as also in isolation where their initiative and survival instincts are put under the ultimate test.  Each youngster is trained under a regimen to become a disciplined street smart soldier, a burglar, assassin, a poacher or a rescuer. If soldiers do not acquire these traits, they will never be able to infiltrate behind enemy lines, lay cunning ambushes and raid enemy positions with stealth, speed and lethality, nor be able to operate as rescue squads.  Soldiers create their own rallying points to build courage when valour seems to fail; to regain faith when despair abounds; and to create hope when it is forlorn. 

Over time, they acquire a distinct corporate style of unit life, regimental traditions, camaraderie, spirit de corps and acquisition of a new home and family. Steadily, military life replaces the family life. When they marry, their spouses are also gelled into the traditions. Ultimately the military becomes the first home. Good militaries world over represent a welfare system that imbues confidence in men. Militaries look after their soldiers and their families. They have evolved a cradle to grave welfare system that rivals the best welfare states.   

The entire psychology of soldiering is built around the concept of sacrifice and country before the self. “The honour of the country is paramount; that of the men one commands the next; and self, the last”. As General Douglas McArthur explains, “a professional soldier must lie in wait all his life for a moment that may never come, yet be ready when it does even to the peril of his life”. 

I have seen them go, come back smiling and go about the normal life. I have seen them physically impaired and eager. I have seen them comatose for months invigorated by an elixir. These Unknown Soldier come and go but the spirit lives on. 

For every freckled soldier, the present will continue to bear a semblance of the past. Whenever I hear the whine of an approaching helicopter, the clatter of its rotor blades, the faint echo of the last post and the rattle of blanks, it reminds me of our martyrs. I see a train of fallen colleagues clad in virgin white with ultimate honour. I instinctively rise with remarkable alertness and call to battle. Then I realize that I am only dreaming. The life moves on. 

Brigadier (Retired) Samson Simon Sharaf is a political economist and a television anchorperson. Email and twitter: samson.sharaf@gmail.com

 http://www.nation.com.pk/columns/03-May-2014/mythical-soldiering

 

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