As a soldier, I always marvel at why men are willing to die in warfare. As a ground combatant, I bear witness to this motivation and willingness. Religious beliefs in martyrdom are indeed a factor, but then why do soldiers of other religions willingly brave dangers and die in the line of duty.

All countries have their own Unknown Soldier. The purpose is to honour the collective spirit and keep that fire of motivation burning. An unknown soldier is beyond a motivational cliché. Soldiers are indeed unknown.

There could be many explanations offered by psychologists and sociologists but the one that touches me the most is the nobility. Soldiering is the noblest profession, and the epitome of professional idealism. A soldier defends his country and readily sacrifices his life so that others live in safety. All good soldiers are romantics. Training exercises, sports competitions, endurance runs and celebrations; the bugle calls at reveille, the retreat and the last post. The hoisting and lowering of flags, the change of guards or the clatter of helicopter wings bringing back the last remains of a soldier from the battle field are beyond symbolic. They inject a flow of adrenaline in the blood stream. This sudden surge and harnessed hyper energy is unknown to civilian life. It conquers fear and pushes a soldier charging into the unknown.

Soldiers are unknown because their countrymen know so little about them. What is behind that barbed wire or the check post is what irks the imagination of onlookers. Behind the facade of ceremonialism and prestige lies exclusivity that appears mysterious to the outside eye. It may also invoke an odd critic. This aura will never be known to outsiders. The meanders, peaks, valleys, travails, fortunes, misfortunes and glory are corporate traits indigenous to all armies; these fortes make them professional and efficient fighting machines.

A musical video by a commercial bank on the occasion of Martyr’s Day conveys what a thousand volumes in a library cannot. Filmed on the playback by Ustad Amanat Ali, the video encapsulates almost all aspects of a soldier’s life. It shows the soldier from a child to a martyr and survivor; families, the long and adventurous rides back home and the simplicities that amuse soldiers they seldom have the chance of living through. It shows how behind every soldier, there is a family, a wife, children who endure moments of the isolation and the long wait for a reunion to be, or not to be.

The motivation and nobility of a class unknown urges the youth to flock to the armed forces and submit to an entirely different way of life as teenagers. These are village boys, urbanites, the rich, the poor and those coming from family traditions. These youngsters are in  their formative years and yet to pass through the moments of life, the street smartness and social evolution their peers experience in colleges and universities.  They are trained, groomed and moulded into an entirely different entity. As they grow, they are distinctively different from their civilian peers especially in the simplistic views of life. They are ‘the little soldiers blue.’

Mental toughness, honesty and the admission of failure are the basic qualities of their selection. This toughness is based on the criteria of not only how much they can endure but also how much extra they can do in trying and challenging circumstances. The ability to accomplish that ‘extra’ distinguishes good soldiers. While physical fitness comes through training, the basic instincts of mental robustness are polished to sharp edges used in extreme performance. Soldiering is like extreme sports in splendid isolation. One who overcomes the tiring sinews and fading resilience emerges a winner. Trying circumstances such as these, attributes of honest failure or that extra grain of resilience come handy in producing the extraordinary episodes of individual or collective valour.

Unlike soldiers a century ago, who raced into massed suicidal frontal assaults, modern soldiers are expected to perform in large regimental groups as also in isolation where their initiative and survival instincts are put under the ultimate test.  Each youngster is trained under a regimen to become disciplined and street smart, a burglar, an assassin, a poacher or a rescuer. If soldiers do not acquire these traits, they will never be able to infiltrate behind enemy lines, lay cunning ambushes and raid enemy positions with stealth, speed and lethality, nor be able to operate as rescue squads.  Soldiers create their own rallying points to build courage when valour seems to fail; to regain faith when despair abounds; and to create hope when it is forlorn.

Over time, they acquire a distinct corporate style of unit life, regimental traditions, camaraderie, spirit de corps and the acquisition of a new home and family. Steadily, military life replaces family life. When they marry, their spouses are also gelled into the traditions. Ultimately the military becomes their first home. Good militaries world over represent a welfare system that imbues confidence in men. Militaries look after their soldiers and their families. They have evolved a cradle to the grave welfare system which rivals the best welfare states.  

The entire psychology of soldiering is built around the concept of sacrifice and country before self. “The honour of the country is paramount; that of the men one commands the next; and self, the last”. As General Douglas McArthur explains, “a professional soldier must lie in wait all his life for a moment that may never come, yet be ready when it does even to the peril of his life”.

I have seen them go, come back smiling and go about their normal lives. I have seen them physically impaired and eager. I have seen them comatose for months invigorated by an elixir. These Unknown Soldier come and go but the spirit lives on.

For every freckled soldier, the present will continue to bear a semblance of the past. Whenever I hear the whine of an approaching helicopter, the clatter of its rotor blades, the faint echo of the last post and the rattle of blanks, it reminds me of our martyrs. I see a train of fallen colleagues clad in virgin white with ultimate honour. I instinctively rise with remarkable alertness and call to battle. Then I realize that I am only dreaming; that life moves on.

The writer is a retired officer of Pakistan Army and a political economist and a television anchorperson.