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To cry and to pray!

It is amazing how many times we have seen, heard and read about men killing in the name of God, writes Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta.

india Updated: Nov 11, 2005 18:54 IST

It was pretty shocking to see. The Iraqi insurgents’ video showed how the insurgents shot a downed pilot in cold blood, all the while intoning "Allah-u-Akbar", in a revenge attack for the marines killing the wounded insurgent in a Fallujah mosque. Quite shocking, no? In another video, somebody was invoking the name of God, while going about lopping an Egyptian’s (accused of being an informer) head off. It is amazing how many times we have seen, heard and read about men killing in the name of God. But this isn’t your usual, “killing is bad”; “God has nothing to do with killing” or “guns have nothing to do with God – it’s men who kill” note. It has everything to do with a very specific phenomenon, the battle cry. As its name signifies, it is usually bellowed before, during or after a battle. As it turns out, battle cries usually relate to gods/goddesses, country, leaders or regiments (or the equivalent). It was fascinating to review and research this phenomenon and I would like to share this with you.

Deep in the dim and distant past when I moved to Manchester, I carried two books with me. The first book was a solid 700 page tome on advanced statistics (how sadly boring of me) and the second, a tattered, dog eared, much thumbed second hand book called as “Battle Cry” by Leon Uris. I read and re-read this book so many times (Battle Cry, not the Statistics book – come on, I am not that sad) mainly because it was a fascinating exposition on how a US marine unit is created from young callow youths, moulded into one of the most professional and feared fighting units in the world, its fabled “esprit de corps” and their heroism. Well, I also read it to get over my experiences with boiled meat and two vegetables, but that is not the point. The author talks about the 6th Marine Division, the yells of “raiders”; “Huxley’s Whores”; “recon” and “marines” as battle cries. It seemed variously to be a call for action, a way to encourage the men, a way to stiffen courage, a way to bring all together, a way to overcome fear, and so on and so forth. This is an example of a battle cry which is driven by regimental pride and belonging, as well as personalisation of a leader.

We have seen examples of such behaviour all the way back to the Roman Legions, the Greek phalanx and the Turkish Janissaries. It is usually found in extremely tight knit and/or elite armed units with a long proud history and it has been adopted many times in the regimental motto as well. As soon as the regimental (or equivalent) pride disappears, the battle cry disappears as well. Leader personalisation battle cries are a function of charismatic leadership, it is getting rarer these days with the increase in technology, distancing of the officers from the soldiers, soldiers from the enemy, but it still exists in small sized infantry units. But in the old days, when countries, as we know them now did not exist, this was far more common. The armies were more defined by charismatic leaders (kings or war band or tribal leaders) who went into battle screaming his (and in some rare cases – her as in Jansi ki Rani, Durgavati, Joan of Arc and possibly Maggie Thatcher’s?) name.

Other battle cries of this ilk relate to the rebel yell, a call taken up by troops fighting on the side of the Confederacy during the American Civil War. The cry was sufficiently demoralizing to the Union, that if a Union soldier was caught making the sound as a prank, then the standing orders of the Union Army required that the soldier should be shot. “Remember the Alamo” was another famous battle cry used by Sam Houston when Texas was won. This is an example of a strictly time limited battle cry, where a particular cry (like in crusades) would be used to achieve a limited objective. Another example is that of the Syrians in the Ottoman Army when they bellowed Belisarius! Belisarius! (Constantinople! Constantinople!), as they were going to go attack and capture Constantinople of the Byzantium Empire (now Istanbul).

The Vikings screamed and imitated animal sounds, during battle, to intimidate their enemies. One of their cries was "Ahoy!" which has now taken on a much kinder meaning in common usage. The other example is from Japanese war history where attacking the kamikaze and ordinary pilots battle cry was "Tora, Tora, Tora!" which means, "Tiger, Tiger, Tiger!". They would also shout “Banzai” as well, which means literally ‘may you live ten thousand years’ and was used in salutation of the emperor and not just as a battle cry. . Battle of Britain pilots would bellow “Tally-ho” as a sign that the enemy has been sighted and battle will commence.

The French revolutionaries used “Liberty” as a battle cry. But quite often, “follow me”, “charge”, “after me” were battle cries used by officers wanting to lead by example, we have disparate evidence of this battle cry being used by English Armoured corps officers in the North African Campaign, in various WW II battles, by Palmach in Israel, etc.

But it is crying out God’s name which seems to be the most common. During the Middle Ages, the English Kings use the motto "Dieu et mon droit" ("God and my right") as a battle cry, for example Edward III's rallying cry at the Battle of Crécy. In Spain, during the Reconquista from the Moors, they cried "Santiago", looking for holy protection from St. James, the patron saint of Spain. The French knights of the Middle Ages used "Montjoie! St Denis!", while the Crusaders used the cry “Denique coelum!” (‘Heaven at last!’). At the Battle of Hastings, the Saxon army officers cried "Olicrosse!" and "Godamite!", while the regular foot soldiers cried "Ut! Ut! Ut!" ("Out! Out! Out!"). The Normans' cry was "Dex Aie!" ("God aid us!"). This was last used by the Royal Guernsey Light Infantry during the First World War.

I have already mentioned the cries of ‘Allah-u-Akbar’, but when one sees the other religious ground in India, we see huge examples of battle cries. "Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal" is the battle cry of Sikhs who, by virtue of their religion, and their location in North West India, were involved in many wars and battles against the Muslim invaders, the British etc. The British Indian Army (and its predecessor, the British East India Company Presidency Armies) have a very long history. In addition, these regiments were usually arranged and organised on the basis of religion and region. So you would have Bengal Regiments, Madras Regiments, Sikh Regiment, Mahar Regiment, Maratha Regiment, so on and so forth. You would hear cries such as “Jai Bhavani”, “Jai Durga”, “Jai Kali” and “Jai Jagdamba” (strangely enough, the cries seem to be requests to the Goddesses for safety and protection).

It was a fascinating exercise to read all these collated research snippets about battle cries. If one closed one’s eyes, one could almost hear these cries, the sounds of battle, the screams and groans of the wounded, the ringing of swords or the sounds of explosions, smell the stench and the smoke and feel the horror of war. You could almost hear the battle cries floating over the mass of struggling men, down the ages, who have whipped themselves up into a frenzy, almost berserker rage. I wonder what would have happened at night, when tired, hungry, bloodied men would be sitting around their camp-fires, hearing the hyenas and dogs tearing apart the dead, looking at empty bed rolls, and wondering about the families of the dead soldiers. Not much use for a battle cry at this stage is there? Strange indeed are the ways of men at war. Eleanor Roosevelt talked about war being the worst way to solve a problem saying: "I can not believe that war is the best solution. No one won the last war, and no one will win the next war."

All this to be taken with a grain of salt!

(The opinion expressed herein are strictly the author's and do not reflect the positions, official or otherwise, of any firm or organisation, that the author is associated with at the present or has been in the past or may be in future. Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta, currently lives in the City of London and works there in various capacities in the Banking Sector.)

First Published: Nov 11, 2005 00:00 IST