Respecting a soldier’s code of honour
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the United States of America, his first pit stop of symbolic diplomacy was to invoke the American conscience by paying homage at the Arlington National Cemetery – this military cemetery houses the national heroes and brave hearts of America including the Indian-American astronaut, Kalpana Chawla. One among the 400,000 odd graves is of Captain Humayun Saqib Muazzam Khan (September 9, 1976 – June 8, 2004) – a US Army Captain of Pakistani descent who had died in a suicide car bomb attack in Iraq, while trying to save the lives of his fellow soldiers. This gallant action had earned the 27-year-old Ordnance officer, the decoration of the “Bronze Star” and the “Purple Heart” that is given for those “wounded or killed in any action against an enemy of the United States or as a result of an act of any such enemy or opposing armed forces”.
Now, the fractious and deeply polarised debate leading up to the presidential elections in the United States has inadvertently brought back focus on Captain Humayun Khan’s legacy and its peripheral import on the buzzy electoral discourse. His name was first invoked late last year by the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton to posit her anti-divisive credentials against the Republican Donald Trump when she eloquently stated: “If you want to see the best of America, you need to look no further than Army Captain Humayun Khan. He was born in the United Arab Emirates. He moved to Maryland as a small child. He later graduated from the University of Virginia, before enlisting in the United States Army.”
The political ante was further raised when Captain Humayun Khan’s parents were brought to the Democratic National Convention to punch holes in the no-holds-barred and anti-immigrant (also anti-Islamic) campaign of Donald Trump. Not one to take it lying down, Donald Trump retorted back by escalating the feud and alluding to the silence of Humayun Khan’s mother while on the convention podium, and attributing the same to their Islamic faith.
The politicisation of the electoral narrative has willy-nilly given a soldier has a political (in this case, religious) “prefix” to his/her identity as a soldier, beyond the flag that he/she serves under, and runs the real risk of returning from the battlefront, wrapped in only one flag – the national flag. The debate has expanded the identity of Captain Humayun Khan from a simple US Soldier to a “Muslim” and therefore, its political interpretations – a trustworthy identity for one political candidate and a pejorative identity for the other.
It is a statistical fact that the military veterans in the United States tend to be more Republican than Democrat. But this latest war of words has left many Republicans and Veterans red faced. They have criticised Donald Trump’s insensitivity towards the grieving “Gold Star family”. This sleight of the soldier moved the “Veterans of Foreign Wars” to state, “Election year or not, the VFW will not tolerate anyone berating a Gold Star family member for exercising his or her right of speech or expression”.
The inherent soldier in the senior senator from Arizona, John McCain (also the 2008 Republican nominee in the Presidential elections) came to the forefront when he said about his fellow-Republican, “I cannot emphasise enough how deeply I disagree with Mr. Trump’s statement. I hope Americans understand that the remarks do not represent the views of our Republican Party, its officers, or candidates”. Himself a decorated Vietnam veteran, the Naval aviator, and a prisoner of war (his plane was shot down and he was captured and tortured by North Vietnamese, that has left him with lifelong physical limitations), John McCain alluded to the sacred and deeply personal sense of faith-agnostic spirit that binds a soldier by adding, “Scripture tells us that ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’ Captain Humayun Khan of the United States Army showed in his final moments that he was filled and motivated by this love. His name will live forever in American memory, as an example of true American greatness. In the end, I am morally bound to speak only to the things that command my allegiance, and to which I have dedicated my life’s work: the Republican Party, and more importantly, the United States of America”.
Increasingly, political parties across the countries try to appropriate electorally rewarding nationalistic credentials by posturing a pro-soldier stance. However, in mature democracies like the Western nations and India, the Armed Forces play a decidedly apolitical role and remain confined to strict professional conduct. This deliberate insulation from the political humdrum ensures the perpetuation of unique codes of conduct, camaraderie, and an inert sense of age-old ethos that are bereft of the prevailing societal morass and degradations. Honour, nobility, and devotion find an invariable expression across all Armies, Regimental motto’s and war cries – if it is Semper Fidelis (Latin for “always faithful”) for the US Marine Corps, it is “Service before Self” for the Indian Army, and ‘Iman, Taqwa, Jihad fi Sabilillah’ (English for “A follower of none but Allah, the fear of Allah, Jihad for Allah”) – similar and uncompromising codes to defend the flag of the nation.
Military history is replete of reciprocal honour and dignity amongst the soldering fraternity, afforded both sides of the border – Captain Karnal Sher Khan of the Pakistan Army was posthumously awarded the Nishan-e-Haider (highest gallantry award of the Pakistan military) for his bravery in the Kargil war, on the recommendation of the Indian Army who viewed Captain Sher Khan’s gallantry as a soldier-to-soldier respect, and not out of any political, religious or personal prism of animosity or bigotry.
The most touching story of the sub-continental vivisection and bloody wars between the two countries is when Brigadier ML Khetarpal (father of India’s pride and Param Vir Chakra awardee in the 1971 Indo-Pak war, Second Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal) decided to visit his birthplace in Sargodha, Pakistan after 30 years of his son’s martyrdom. Unknown to Brigadier Khetarpal was the past of his host in Pakistan, Brigadier Khawaja Mohammad Naser of the Pakistan Army, who went out of his way to personally supervise Brigadier Khetarpal’s visit – a last day confession by Brigadier Khawaja Mohammad Naser about being the man who thirty years earlier in a battlefield had fired the last and fatal tank shot on Arun Khetarpal’s tank, was met with a bittersweet recognition of the hard realities of a soldier’s life that still salutes, respects, and recognises the opponents courage and dignity in battle. Later, Brigadier Khawaja Mohammad Naser sent a poignant note along with the photos of Brigadier ML Khetarpal’s visit with a note that read, “To: Brigadier M.L. Khetarpal, father of Shaheed Second Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal, PVC, who stood like an insurmountable rock, between the victory and failure, of the counterattack by the ‘SPEARHEADS’ 13 LANCERS on December 16, 1971 in the battle of “Bara Pind’’ as we call it and battle of “Basantar” as 17 Poona Horse remembers. --Khawaja Mohammad Naser, 13 Lancers, 2 March 2001, Lahore, Pakistan”.
The strings that bind a professional soldier to the other, even one serving another flag, is often inexplicable to the political classes who are not very clear on the difference between a professional soldier and a mercenary. A soldier is a complex entity that is woven with values of nobility and codes that transcends armies, continents, and allegiance to various political dispensations. Therefore, explaining the disgust of a die-hard Republican like John McCain on the sullying of a fallen American soldier or the respect afforded to a gallant warrior by professional armies on both sides of the Indo-Pak LOC. Unfortunately, the more recent instances of mutilating bodies and tell-tale signs of torture are reflective of the advent of political, religious and other regressive strains that are not becoming of a professional soldier.
Politicians across the spectrum pay lip service and would happily encroach, impact, and erode a soldier’s code of conduct and sense of professional fidelity to their regiment and to the flag of the nation, to suit their ulterior aims of igniting negative passions for electoral gratification. Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is the Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. The views expressed are strictly personal.