Symbolism, soldier lore and regimentation

Symbols have driven armies for as long as the history of warfare. Standards and flags of the army, legion or king have always been rallying points to give direction during battle and provide motivation to the soldier by reminding him of his cause.

Major Gen Amrit Pal Singh (Retd)
Ex-Chief of Logistics, Ladakh region

THE inauguration of the National War Memorial in New Delhi on February 25 has fulfilled a long-felt need of a symbol of national pride and homage to those heroes who laid down their lives in the line of duty. Symbolism has tremendous relevance in terms of motivation, sacrifice and sense of duty in a soldier’s mind. It also binds and rallies nations in times of crisis or disasters.

Symbols have driven armies for as long as the history of warfare. Standards and flags of the army, legion or king have always been rallying points to give direction during battle and provide motivation to the soldier by reminding him of his cause. The tradition of presentation of ‘Colours’ and ‘Standards’ to units for bravery and conspicuous service is relevant even today, as the President of India presents ‘Standards’ to units in an elaborate ceremony. All Standards are placed in the ‘Quarter Guard’, which is the ceremonial epicentre of the unit — also considered the fountainhead of discipline and regimentation — and is saluted by all dignitaries who invariably visit the Quarter Guard.

Josh to the soldier is a term that he lives for and is ready to die for. This feeling is inspired by camaraderie, determination, duty and sacrifice. In India’s multicultural army, bonding among soldiers, officers and their weapons comes with a deep sense of belonging to the same flag and fighting for the same cause. Newly recruited soldiers and officers undergo the ‘New soldier’s cadre’ in units immediately upon joining their first assignments. These cadres conduct psychological and physiological exercises along with extensive training to achieve physical fitness, learn battle craft and drill team sprit into the greenhorns. That’s also where the new soldiers learn about the ethos and traditions of the regiment.

The customs of a unit are passed on from one generation to the new one as a matter of ritual and with great symbolic veneration, lest the new generation fail to grasp their centrality to the core of a unit’s dastoor. The unit Mandir-Masjid parade at the Sarv Dharm Sthal (all-religion prayer hall) is exactly that — more a sacred parade than just a prayer — and customary for all to attend right from the commanding officer to the juniormost jawan. The saying ‘pray with them and play with them’ is not without a deep meaning for the soldier in any unit and is something that the army prides itself on.

Officers in most units undergo a rigorous initiation into the unit officers’ mess where, apart from etiquette, the history of each and every trophy of silver and medal rack is taught to a subaltern and tested by the second-in-command of the unit. It’s serious business, elaborate in conduct. The young officers not only undergo the day’s training, but also in the evenings learn about the unit’s history and customs at the officers’ mess. There is invariably an extra push to the initiation of the young officer to make him feel that he can not only match his jawan in daily training, but can also do more than that. This makes him gain confidence of being able to earn their respect, for it is this respect and faith in their officers that makes the impossible possible — ask the units that captured Tiger Hill and other famous peaks in Kargil and Drass against insurmountable odds.

The battle cry or war cry of a unit is another symbol that ignites the soul and epitomises camaraderie and steely determination. The heart-rending rendition by the little daughter of Col MN Rai of his Gorkha Regiment’s war cry at his funeral is something that brings goosebumps till today because it stands for the never-say-die spirit that permeates a body of troops when they take on a task. The scene has also been immortalised lately in a blockbuster Bollywood film on terrorism and has made the ordinary citizen conversant with the concept of a war cry and its deeper meaning for soldiers and their families. The various accoutrements that adorn a soldier’s uniform are a symbolic aspect of the Army’s special place for unit history and helps create a bond between the regimental band of brothers. 

Then there is soldier lore, or call it folklore of soldiers. The story of McSweeney’s bells which now adorn the Quarter Guard of an illustrious cavalry regiment, are daily checked for cracks or an increase in the existing cracks. Old soldier’s tale has it that whenever the bells have developed a new crack, the regiment is called to battle — cracks developed in 1965 and 1971 and they fought some of the fiercest tank battles in both wars. 

Of course, there are more interesting and strange traditions and customs in some outfits. We all enjoy listening to stories of paratroopers downing their drink and then chewing the glass it came from — just to wash the drink down! The cavalrymen pride themselves on being covered in grease and oil as they work and crawl under their battle tanks till their tank passes muster in the equipment check parade.

The ceremony of honouring fallen soldiers draped in the Tricolour is yet another poignant yet symbolic gesture. The symbolism involved in honouring these martyrs through solemn rituals of wreath-laying and reversal of arms to the bugle call of the ‘last post’ reinforces a serving soldier’s belief of the honour of the supreme sacrifice. It provides the families with that balm which reduces the pain and gives them a reason to lead their lives with immense pride and dignity despite their inconsolable grief. 

As the nation grows and develops, avenues abound for young men today and while hi-tech and white-collar employment lures many, there is still a huge oversubscription to the military. A recent survey distinctly pointed to the armed forces being the number one trusted organisation in the country. The forces get their inductees from the same social fabric which populates other civil organisations. What distinguishes them, though, is the transformation a boy undergoes to a man and how secularism and unit identity take centre stage in his persona. Symbolism and discipline that exist in the armed forces produce responsible citizens and highly impassioned and motivated soldiers, who are ready to lay down their lives for their belief in a just cause. The unit pride and the nation come first — always and every time.

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