MUMBAI: Earlier this month, ET reported on a proposal from the armed forces that was sent, via the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, to all airlines. It suggested that passengers should observe 30 seconds of silence on planes carrying the remains of military personnel who have died in combat.
Many might readily make this motion of respect. Some might feel annoyed at the imposed gesture or creeped out at flying with corpses (though planes often carry them).
The cynical might suspect attempts to divert attention from the recent scandal of soldiers’ bodies being dispatched wrapped in cardboard rather than proper coffins. And quite a few might wonder why our jawans’ bodies are going as cargo on private carriers rather than in a special military plane.
But the proposal does fit a general trend of showing — or at least, appearing to show — utmost respect to the remains of those who have died in the course of military duty. This isn’t just in India. The US has its solemn ceremonies of flag-draped coffins and salutes from the President. Israel takes this to another level, making incredible efforts to retrieve the remains of those who died in enemy territory.
Armies have formalised the process. In his essay ‘A “Good” Military Death’, the anthropologist Eyal Ben-Ari notes how “the armed forces of industrial democracies have established special administrative apparatuses — military experts in handling death — to assure such fatalities do not threaten the proper functioning of units and to guarantee the wider public’s continued support of the military.”
Such practical considerations partly explain why special care is taken of soldiers’ bodies, as is the fact that politicians often use them for propaganda purposes.
Yet it isn’t all cold calculation either. Respect for the military dead comes instinctively to most of us, not least because the dead were usually young and brave. The epitaph at the War Cemetery in Kohima gives all the reason we need: “When you go home tell them of us and say/ For your tomorrow we gave our today.”
Yet reverence for soldiers’ bodies is a relatively new historical development. Through centuries of warfare, little concern was paid to them. Generals and admirals might be taken home to be buried with marches and monuments, but few bothered about the troops.
Victors might bury or burn their own with some care, but those on the other side were disposed of — after stripping their valuables — more out of fear of diseases from their rotting corpses (and sailors, the world over, usually just went into the sea).
This was partly just practical at a time when repatriating remains was too difficult, except for an elite few. But practicality took an odd turn in the early 19th century when it was discovered that bones made good fertiliser.
Napoleon’s wars had left vast numbers buried across Europe and now these bodies were dug up to be ground into manure. Soldiers’ teeth were collected separately to be used in the developing field of dentistry — Waterloo Dentures were what some sets came to be called later.
Yet the 19th century was also when such attitudes changed and the one catalyst was the American Civil War. As a war fought between neighbouring citizens, rather than foreign enemies, it may have increased the obligation to take care of the dead in a better way. The huge armies raised were largely volunteers whose families expected to bury them when they died, and the new rail networks simplified sending bodies home.
Most battles were fought in the warm South where bodies decomposed fast. This forced the authorities to look for ways to preserve them, and industrial production made available chemicals for embalming. The American profession of undertakers was born on the battlefield.
Finally, the Civil War was one of the first media wars, with reporters and photographers documenting all aspects, like stories of soldiers’ bodies going home, and this helped set the template.
The British, fighting colonial wars abroad weren’t ready to repatriate remains, but found another reason to require respect for soldiers’ bodies. It became a way to distinguish their ‘civilised’ way of war from the uncivilised habits of opponents.
“The Oriental soldier of the present day… has no notion of mercy to a fallen foe,” wrote the Daily News in September 1882. After describing how Afghans stabbed bodies all over “like a piece of pork ready for the spit”, the report concluded by demanding that foreign rulers be told to teach their troops to respect the bodies of opponents.
The practice of disfiguring the bodies of soldiers has never quite gone away, as incidents like the dragging of the corpses of American soldiers through Mogadishu in 1993 or recent incidents with Indian soldiers on the border with Pakistan shows. But revulsion at the practice led to conventions on treatment of the dead being formalised with the Hague Convention of 1907. This further helped cement the idea that soldiers’ bodies require respect and repatriation, even from their opponents.
World War I was the next big challenge for handling the war dead. As with the Civil War, the scale of the dead was staggering, but the relative proximity of combatant nations in Europe made sending home the bodies possible, even if a huge challenge.
How to handle dead Indian soldiers had posed a particular challenge in the War. The British saw them as a formidable advantage, but realised that they had to be well treated to prevent problems back in India.
A further push to do so came from the Maharajah of Bikaner who became the only non-white member of the Imperial War Cabinet. He insisted that Indian customs had to be followed in dealing with the dead, which meant burial for Muslims and cremation for Hindus and Sikhs.
In Europe at that time, cremation was hard to do, sometimes even illegal. There are stories of clergymen requiring Indians who died in Europe to be converted on their deathbeds so that they could be buried.
But for Indian soldiers, norms were changed. Cremation grounds were established on battlefields and also in the UK, at a location near Brighton close to the hospital where Indian soldiers were sent for treatment. Over 50 Hindu and Sikh soldiers were cremated there, with full rituals observed, and after the war a memorial chhatri was built on the site, which still exists.
This practice continued during WWII and for some time after. Indian soldiers who died while abroad on peacekeeping missions were specially cremated with full honours — The Times of India carried a picture of one such funeral in Korea in 1953, and in Gaza in 1960.
But in 1963 and 1965, India criticised China bitterly because Indian soldiers who had been killed and collected by the Chinese were simply cremated by them without any funeral rites and their ashes just handed over.
A BASIC PROBLEM
Soldiers’ bodies pose a basic problem for military establishments. Despite the development of drones, cyber-warfare and other techniques to reduce the risk of casualties, at some point there will be bodies. And the sacrifice that these bodies represent commands real respect but it also invites the possibility that the reason for the sacrifice will be queried, that anguished families and friends might not stick to the dutifully grieving script and start asking questions.
Instead of being grateful that the dead soldier was well treated, they might ask how or why the soldier needed to die at all. The need to counter this could be why military establishments double down on the rituals and the respect. Fire the gun salute loud enough, fly the flags, present the arms and tributes — and require 30 seconds silence in planes — and perhaps people won’t ask awkward questions.
Just occasionally though a gesture gets through, as the great American cartoonist Herbert Block (Herblock) once showed.
In 1947, the American military was making elaborate plans to send soldiers’ bodies home from Europe. Herblock wondered if helping the huge numbers of displaced people made more sense, so he drew a cartoon where a ghostly American soldier knelt down next to a forlorn refugee child.
“They didn’t ask me who gets to make the trip kid,” he says. Herblock later wrote that the cartoon was heavily attacked, particularly from people who didn’t seem to be actually related to dead soldiers. But one letter he got was from the mother of one of them.
The cartoon had made her think, she said, and now she was going to sponsor or adopt a displaced child. It was a response that probably showed more real respect to her son’s memory and what he died for, rather than anything that might have been done with his body.
Introduction: A soldier serves the armed forces of a country. The importance of soldiers in India is very high in defending and protecting it’s borders. Every country has its own soldiers for her defense.
The soldiers play the most significant task in defending and protecting the borders of India. A soldier is the most disciplined and faithful person in a nation. A soldier obeys the orders of his commanders. A soldier keeps nightlong vigilance on the borders even the face of great dangers. He stands heroically before his enemies.
The soldiers also play an important role in controlling the unruly civilians. The security and the stability of our country also depend on them. A soldier’s no doubt is very difficult and hard.
A soldier sacrifices his life bravely for his motherland. It is he who has to live miles away from his family. While defending his country he goes into the jaws the death. His life is not a bed of roses; it is a bed of thorns. For him, defence of country is most important in his duties and responsibilities.
The role which Indian soldiers have played during the four Indo-Pak War is exemplary. During the Kargil war of 1999, our soldiers fought bravely and defended our country. A soldier fights in the most difficult terrains on the hills and mountains, plains and forests.
The soldiers also helps the civilian population as well. The Indian soldiers acts in accordance with the noble military traditions.
They conduct the rescue operations during natural calamities such as earth-quake, cyclones, floods, etc. Our army had successfully evacuated and saved lives of thousands of people during the recent flood at Jammu & Kashmir. They also set up relief and medical camps to help the affected people.
India is a powerful country. There are lakhs of active soldiers. The Indian military forces is the third largest in the world. The Indian Armed Forces consists of the Army (land bases), Air Forces (air-space and aerial warfare), Indian Navy (naval) and Indian Coast Guards (maritime).
Conclusion: A politician, a writer, a school teacher play their own roles through their abilities, but the role, which a soldier plays while safeguarding the frontiers of the motherland, is most important and unique. A soldier lives for the nation and dies for her dignity. We all should feel proud for our soldiers.
Category: Essays, Paragraphs and Articles, Important India