Wartime etiquette


When Saddam Hussein was finally caught cowering inside an underground bunker in 2003 and later 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 wasn’t moral, specially since the invasion of Iraq was itself 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 get’s mired in the mud in the middle of the battle of Kurukshtra, he tries desperately to extricate it, but fails. Noting that the Pandava hero, Arjuna, is getting ready to slay him, Karna asks him to hold his fire and give him a hand.

Coming to an adversary’s assistance in that age was a component of what was known as battlefield etiquette. It 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 levelled. Something similar plays out in boxing today, I understand – punching a fallen opponent is against the rules.

But back in 5561BC (the date that vedic scholars think the Battle of Kurukshetra in the Mahabharata happened), the sense of fair play was a very important component of the Indian ethos.

In fact there are instances of battlefield etiquette all across the history of the ancient world. In Homer’s epic, The Iliad, the Athenian fighter, Ajax the Greater, chucks a huge stone at the Trojan hero, Hector, with such force that it dislodges Hector’s helmet and crushes his horse. Since he is still on his own steed and has his helmet on, Ajax deems it unfair to continue. He dismounts and pauses to let Hector gather himself together and they fight hand to hand, until he is killed by Hector.

In today’s world, Ajax would be derided as a schmuck, but not in 850BC. But I digress……

Getting back to the Mahabharata, on hearing Karna’s plea for help, Arjuna immediately pauses and begins to dismount from his chariot to go give Karna a hand – when all of a sudden Arjuna’s charioteer, the revered Lord God Krishna – instead of commending his sense of chivalry – reminds him of Karna’s own lack of etiquette when he killed Abhimanyu and participated in Duryodhana’s insulting of Draupadi. Krishna convinces Arjuna that it is not against battlefield etiquette to kill a man who has supported ‘evil deeds’ all his life. On hearing his master’s exhortation, Arjuna immediately turns back, takes aim and kills Karna.

What do y’know. Under his beatific smile, Krishna was a calculating, Machiavellian God.

And 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. 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 hamlet, a few miles north of the border with Pakistan. The hamlet was nestled inside a cleared circle on a vast terrain covered by dense thickets of waist-high shrubs that were 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 and Warthogs or choppers like the Apache or Black Hawk.

There was big game tonight and the Emir of the TTK, Baitullah Mehsud himself was by his side, toting a Stinger missile launcher to deter aerial support interference. The Stinger’s dull black mat finish looked factory fresh. 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 Pakistan’s intelligence agency – the ISI, sponsors of the Tehrik.

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 give a fuck.

The insurgent group 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 in professionalism. What this bunch didn’t have, in terms of equipment and technology, they made up for – in commitment to a cause.

Inside the hamlet were two dwellings – one a large mud and brick home with a courtyard in the middle and the other a small outhouse which had three Delta Force operatives and an Afghan interpreter inside it. The owner of the compound, a grizzled Pashtun 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 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. The pebble-strewn terrain around the unsuspecting Americans got peppered by 7.62mm rounds from the fanatics’ AK47s. The two Americans slumped, lifeless.

What followed immediately after made Abu Salam recognize why the Emir deserved to be called – the Emir.

The two fallen Americans had stopped moving and there was a sudden deafening silence. As Salam stared at the scene below, another American emerged from the outhouse and walked toward his fallen comrades, his pace unhurried but brisk. 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.

Abu Salam and his 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. They could still take him down. A lose mud-brick structure was no match for the insurgents’ Russian made RPG-32 grenade launchers.

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

This time, the American covered ground a wee bit quicker, slightly hunched so as to present a smaller target. He stopped in front of the other fallen comrade and the process repeated itself – the Talib staring, their faces aghast and their mouths gaping open.

The American still had a few yards to cover before he got to his fallen comrade, when one of the insurgents – no one knows for sure who – let out a burst. The American stumbled and fell.

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 inches from his fallen colleague.

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 die – in peace.’

They waited a few minutes and when the American hadn’t moved, they climbed down from their perch and approached the two fallen men.

The Emir reached down and held his finger under the American’s nose and felt the soldier’s breath coming out in short ragged bursts. Just above his Adam’s apple, the AK-47’s soft-nosed round had torn off much of his throat, shattering his spinal cord and the base of his medula oblongata. Given the extent of his wound, the Emir estimated he had seconds left. The American looked almost serene – like as if this was how he had always hoped he would die. In a flash, the Emir realized that maybe the total victory that the Talib had dreamed of wouldn’t happen so easily.

“Leave them alone,” Mehsud called, “Leave the infidel 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. He gingerly lifted the soldier’s head and removed the tag from the American’s neck. On one side was

David F. Dornberger


RH Neg



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. Somehow it had found its way from a dusty hamlet 12 time zones to the east, via an Islamabad army installation and then – after a brief stopover at the Ramstein Air Base in Germany, finally to America on a C130 Hercules transport aircraft.