‘For the Ashes of his Fathers, And the Temples of his Gods’. Or is it something else that makes a soldier fight? – Part I

By Sonia Bhatia and Kamaldeep Singh Sandhu

‘Horatius Cocles defending the Bridge’ by Charles Le Brun (1619 – 1690) – Google Art Project (Credit Image: Wikimedia Commons)


In the 6th century BC, during a battle between the armies of Rome and Clusium, a Roman officer Publius Horatius took a suicidal stand defending a bridge on river Tibre. His actions injured him permanently but saved the day for the city, as the delay he caused was enough for the bridge for to be damaged by the Romans, thus preventing the enemy from crossing the swollen river Tiber.

Later in the 19th century, Thomas Babington Macaulay, inspired by this Roman tale of bravery, wrote a poem ‘Horatius’ in his dedication, narrating the often-quoted lines, ‘… For the ashes of his fathers, And the temples of his Gods…’ These lines have influenced plethora of narratives inspiring generations of young men and women to fight for their motherlands both in and out of armed forces.

One can argue that these narratives do ignite passion and romanticism to serve and to protect the society from which one emanates. However, when it comes to the actual battlefield, when bullets are flying overhead and buddies are getting killed or injured, what is the motivation that drives a soldier to kill and to die? Thomas Macaulay’s Horatius suggests a viewpoint that a soldier is motivated by the desire to protect his family, friends and society in general and thus performs such extreme acts of violence. In the contemporary era, the language used in the recruitment drives, news reporting, obituaries, commentaries on military ceremonies, etc also advocates this viewpoint. It forces us to think that the spirit needed for deliverance or sacrifice during wartime is usually derived from ideology, political ideals and, above all, nationalism.

From a soldier’s point of view things are very different. At an individual level, soldiers, like any other human being, seek meaning to their job and do so by more visible and immediate things such as by ‘pursuing relations of estrangement and identification with others’,[1]  especially with whom they live and work on daily basis. For a soldier, what matters is his squad, company, battalion or at most his regiment. Based on Tarak Barkawi’s latest book, ‘Soldiers of Empire: Indian and British Armies in the World War II’, this two part article aims to carry this debate further.


Primary Group Theory

Shils and Janowitz in their seminal essay published in 1948, based on the study of captured prisoners of war of Wehrmacht, argued that it is a soldier’s relationship with his primary group, that is his section, platoon and company, which goes far to explain why he responds to one appeal and not to another.[2]

‘He [a soldier] was likely to go on fighting, provided he had the necessary weapons, as long as the group possessed leadership, with which he could identify himself, and as long as he gave affection to and received affection from the other members of his squad and platoon. In other words, as long as he felt himself to be a member of his primary group and therefore bound by the expectations and demands of its other members, his soldierly achievement was likely to be good’.[3]

The average age of a soldier, when he joins his battalion for the very first time is about twenty years. This is also the age at which he starts carving out his own identity for the very first time. While he may identify with the customs and ideals of his family, his identity is still very malleable. As he leaves home to serve his country, his background and upbringing continue to have an impact on his speech, accent, food preference etc. These traits however are dwarfed in front of the adaptations he makes willingly with a susceptible young mind ready to be impressed upon by his peers and environment. It creates a distinct identity for him as he serves alongside other men of various backgrounds and beliefs.

For soldiers, the idea of fighting, living and dying for the motherland/fatherland or for the cultural possessions of the fatherland, is a relatively distant thought. In Indian Army, for example, officers and soldiers are groomed under strong regimental ethos to serve for ‘Naam, Namak aur Nishaan’ (reputation, loyalty and standard/identity) of their battalions and regiments. While ideas such as nationalism, patriotism, country, nation, ideology and politics are commonly used to articulate the required social and political narratives; when in actual operations, these ideas are overshadowed by soldiers’ relationships with each other, their will to survive and succeed. Tarak Barkawi has argued that during the Second World War, the shared political beliefs did not shape soldiers’ discipline and cohesion. Their actions were shaped by what was more immediate – deprivation, fatigue, fear for limb, for oneself and others near him.[4] This issue, therefore, inherently becomes one of the critical considerations for battle effectiveness.


Battle effectiveness

But how does it matter? As long as soldiers have the required motivation to do their job, why is this distinction necessary and this debate critical? In the fast changing socio-economic context it is pertinent to be aware of the dynamic motivations of a soldier, especially for the military leaders. The Indian Army Infantry Regiments are a case study in hand. Since independence in 1947, the Indian Army has won many conventional battles. Besides good strategy, tactics, training and logistics, one of the most important battle-winning factor has been the cultural and linguistic cohesion at the unit and sub-unit level. Hence, until recent years, the recruitment for the infantry regiments was carried out from specific social groups and regions. The military elites had resisted the political pressure to recruit from all communities, under one pretext or another, in order to maintain the class composition of its infantry battalions. The army’s leadership was determined to preserve these compositions, because it saw them as crucial to its effectiveness and cohesion based on ‘intimate sense of kinsman-ship and traditions’.[5] However during the last few years, the army has started recruiting from all communities for its infantry regiments.  So, what will be the binding factor for the units, which were so used to bonding based on kinship and common language dialect, when troops from different regions and languages start joining?

Fortunately, the universal fact is that the cultural identities of soldiers in a group are malleable. The Second World War proved that when the army was disrupted, disordered and re-ordered due to the heavy losses suffered initially, the British realised that their worries about the martial races and mixing classes were ill-founded. [6] Soldiers become attached to their unit identities through serving in those units.[7] For instance, in 2/13th Frontier Force Rifles, Jats were incorporated into its Sikh company due to wartime recruitment shortages .The Jats ‘fitted well with the Sikhs’. When the time came to revert to an all Sikh company toward the end of the war, the Jats asked if they could convert to Sikhism in order to remain with the battalion.[8]



Nationalism and fighting for the flag may seem as the ultimate motivation for a soldier. It is, however, the operating environment generated factors – which include a vivid account of passion for survival that they share with their comrades, about conviction of the cause, their dependability on each other, clarity of each other’s perspectives, strengths and weaknesses, and more importantly, the faith that they stand by each other – that truly act as a driving force. The military effectiveness will always remain dependent upon effective group formation at the lowest levels of squad, section, platoon and company. The empirical evidence suggests that as long as a military sub-unit has good training and strong leadership, it will be ‘fit for battle’ irrespective of its cultural, demographic or linguistic composition.


(…To be continued in Part II)

Raised in an army household, Sonia Bhatia is a Post Graduate Diploma holder in Public Relations and Human Resource Management from the University of Madras. She graduated in BA, Health and Nutrition from Delhi University. She has been brought up in a traditional Army family which has seen generations of men and women serving in the Army and the Air Force. Her experiences and interests have been close to the social structure of the Army Regimental life. She also has five years of work experience in Human Resource Management in the corporate sector, which enriched her with the contrast of the social structure that exists outside the army. She is married to an Army officer and continues to uphold the values she has learnt, while imbibing the same in her two children.

Kamaldeep Singh Sandhu is a doctoral student at the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London. He is currently researching on India’s defence diplomacy in the 21st century. His other research interests include South Asian security and military culture. Kamaldeep is an alumni of National Defence Academy, Pune as well as Army War College, Mhow. He has served as an officer with the Indian army’s Parachute Regiment for ten years. Thereafter he graduated in MA, ‘War in the Modern World’ from the department of War Studies at King’s College London in 2014. You can find him on Twitter @kamal_sandhu78


1 Barkawi, Tarak, ‘Soldiers of Empire: Indian and British Armies in World War II’, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2017, p.159

2 (Shils and Janowitz 1948), p.380

3 (Shils and Janowitz 1948), p.284

4 (Barkawi 2017), p.82-83

5 Wilkinson, Steven I., ‘Army and Nation: The Military and Indian Democracy since Independence’, Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2015), p.115

6 (Barkawi 2017), p.80

7 (Barkawi 2017), p. 271

8 (Barkawi 2017), p.56

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