battlefield etiquette

In the midst of the battle of Kurukhshetra, Karna has a flat tyre and guess what he does? He tells the enemy (Arjun and his charioteer, the Hindu God, Krishna, the blueish guy with the halo on the right side of his head), “Gimme a hand, Bud”.

Guess what happened then? Well, you have to read this piece to find out…

When Saddam Hussein was finally caught cowering inside an underground bunker in 2003 and sentenced to die, many nations in the EU opposed the decision to execute him. India too suggested that there were other non-violent ways to mete out justice and that violent vengeance was immoral, specially since the invasion of Iraq had itself been  based upon a lie.

But India’s stance was ironic, since it has an opposing ethical precedent…..

In the great epic, Mahabharata, when a defenceless Karna’s chariot wheel got mired in the mud in the middle of the battle of Kurukhshetra, he tried desperately to extricate it, but failed. Noting that the Pandava hero, Arjuna, was gaining on him and getting ready to slay him, Karna asked him to hold his fire and give him a hand.

Coming to an adversary’s assistance in those days was a component of what was known as battlefield etiquette, which required that when a fighter had been placed unwittingly in a position of disadvantage, his antagonist had to hold further fire until he had recovered and the playing field had been leveled. Something similar plays out in boxing today, I understand – punching a fallen opponent is against the rules.

Back in 5561BC (the date that vedic scholars think the Battle of Kurukshetra happened), battlefield etiquette was a very important component of the chivalry in the Indian apparently.


In fact, battlefield etiquette was common all over the ancient world. In Homer’s epic, Iliad, the Athenian fighter, Ajax the Greater, chucked a huge stone at the Trojan hero, Hector, with such force that it dislodged Hector’s helmet and crushed his horse. Since he was still mounted on his own steed and had his helmet on, Ajax deemed it unfair to continue. He dismounted and paused to let Hector gather himself together, a decision that would cost him his life. Hector recovered his balance and strength in the brief interlude and they fought fiercely hand to hand, until Ajax was killed by a glancing blow from the haft of Hector’s sword.

In today’s world, Ajax would be derided as a stupid sucker. But not in 850BC Troy, Ajax was elevated posthumously to the pinnacle of chivalry and spoken of with adulation and awe by both, the Spartans and the Trojans.


But I digress… Getting back to the Mahabharata, on hearing Karna’s plea for help, Arjuna immediately rose to get off his chariot and give Karna a hand, when all of a sudden Arjun’s charioteer – the blue guy – revered Lord Krishna (who was at once Arjun’s master and servant), stopped him.

Instead of commending Arjun’s sense of chivalry, Lord Krishna reminded him that Karna was on the side of the bad guys and that it is not against battlefield etiquette to kill a man who has supported evil all his life. Arjuna lamely turned back, took aim and killed Karna.

What do y’know. Under his beatific smile, Krishna was a calculating, Machiavellian sleaze ball. Not the first time that there was a jerk as a God, though. Remember the Christian God who ordered Abraham to slaughter his innocent son, Isaac, for no reason other than to prove his faithfulness?


No thanks to Krishna, battlefield etiquette still makes its presence felt – albeit sporadically – in the unlikeliest of places…….

Spring, 2009

A hamlet, 20 miles south of Spin Boldak


The night had been so brilliantly moonlit, it was almost like day. The hamlet they had surrounded was bathed in a diffused glow. They would have waited for the next new moon but there was no time.

Abu Salam was leading a TTP (Tehrik-e-Taliban) squad that had bivouacked for the night in the bushes surrounding the cluster of adobe huts, just north of the border with Pakistan. The hamlet was nestled inside a cleared circle on a vast terrain covered by a dense thicket of waist-high shrubs that seemed ideal for concealment from a ground-based adversary, but completely exposed to an aerial attack by fixed-wing ground attack aircraft like the AC-130 gunships and A-10 Warthogs or even choppers like the Apache or Black Hawk.

There was big game tonight and the Emir, Baitullah Mehsud himself, was by his side, toting a Stinger missile launcher to deter aerial support interference. The Stinger’s dull black mat finish hadn’t been scratched yet. Although it was an older version that Raytheon had stopped making a long time back, it was still brand new. It had been stowed away unused, in an Islamabad warehouse operated by the Satan’s own rep on earth, Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI.

The Stinger was a remnant of American largesse of the 80s and today it would be used to kill Americans. Salam smiled grimly at the irony. Raytheon didn’t know. Raytheon didn’t care.

Inside the hamlet were two dwellings – one a large square adobe home with a courtyard in it’s middle and the other a small outhouse which had three Delta Force operatives from the US Special Operations Command and an Afghan interpreter in it.

The insurgents lay there, forming a neat circle round the hamlet, a battle-hardened TTP fighter every five yards or so. The fight with the Russians and the training from the ISI had taught them discipline. The Americans inside that outhouse might have drawn some consolation from the fact that they were about to be annihilated by a fighting force that paralleled their own professionalism. What this bunch didn’t have, in terms of equipment and technology, they made up for – in commitment to a cause.

The owner of the compound, a grizzled Pashtun warlord who had fought the Soviets with Salam, had been a notoriously fickle-minded guy who had first decided to side with the Americans on receipt of a bagful of $100 bills and then, after taking the money, he had changed his mind. The Delta Force team had been dispatched along with an interpreter with orders to either get him back on their side or finish him off.

As Abu Salam felt the discomfort of the ground – still hard and cold from the winter, two of the Americans came out of the outhouse and started walking toward the bushes, possibly to take a leak. That’s when all hell broke loose. 7.62mm rounds began spewing out from the fanatics’ AK47s and the two Americans crumpled to the ground.

What followed was the moment that Abu Salam recognized why the Emir deserved to be called – the Emir.

The two fallen Americans had momentarily stopped moving and a lull set in, followed by a sudden deafening silence and as Salam stared at the scene below, suddenly another American emerged from the outhouse. He walked resolutely toward his fallen comrades, his steps unhurried – as if he was on an evening stroll. He reached one of the prone Americans, the one closest to him. He calmly slung him over his shoulders, hefted him with a huge shrug and started back toward the lee side of the outhouse. He was a target that begged to be taken down.

For a moment, Abu Salam’s Talib colleagues, including the Emir, were dumbfounded by the bravado. By the time they could gather their wits, the American had disappeared behind the adobe wall of the outhouse.

The Talib weren’t even done releasing the breaths they had been holding, when the shape appeared once again.

This time, the American walked in an even more measured pace, covering ground the way only someone who believed completely in himself would. As he advanced toward his fallen comrade, the Talib gaped, their faces aghast and their mouths hanging open in astonishment.

One fighter – no one knows for sure who – let out a burst. The American stumbled and fell. He still had a few yards to cover, but that was when the Emir let out one single shout – wadrega! (stop!)

As the firing fell silent, the Talib gunmen watched astounded as the American, mortally wounded, started crawling toward his buddy. Their eyes unbelieving, they watched him reach his pal and come to rest right next, his one good arm now engulfing his friend in a hug.

Abu Salam raised his AK to finish the infidel off, but suddenly he felt the muzzle shoved aside. It was the Emir.

‘Enough,’ said Baitullah Mehsud, ‘Don’t ever forget. We are all fighters and this is a brave one. Let him choose his time to die.’

After waiting a while, the Talib cautiously climbed down from their perch and approached the two fallen Delta Force men lying there in that macabre embrace. The Emir reached down and held his finger under the American’s nose, the one who had come out to help his fallen comrades in arms. Mehsud felt his breath coming out in short ragged bursts. Given the extent of his wounds, he estimated the soldier had only seconds.

“Leave them alone,” said the Emir, “Give the infidels the chance to take him away. He has earned the right. We shall return, for another fight, another day…”

Then, as he turned to rise, the Emir’s eyes fell on the dog tag on the still breathing American. He stared at it a while and then stooped and removed it from the American’s neck. It said –

Giovanni F. Ricci


RH Negative



Today that dog tag rests inside a beautifully hand crafted teak and glass jewelry box on top of a TV cabinet in a small town called Lawrence, mid-way between Topeka and Kansas City in the United States, the home of an elderly couple. Somehow it had found its way from a dusty Afghan hamlet, via an Islamabad army installation and then finally to America on a C130 Hercules transport aircraft that had taken off from Shamsi Air Force Base , in Baluchistan, 12 time zones to the east.

Next to the jewelry box is another piece of metal attached to a gold-braided silk tape. It is the Congressional Medal of Honour, America’s highest military award for bravery in the battlefield. How the presidential citation had been so accurate, given there were no witnesses, remains a mystery till this day.