Mahabharata is replete with tales of valour and altruistic sacrifice of life, but they all fade in comparison to the act of bravery of Abhimanyu. Knowing fully well that he knew only the way in to the Chakravyuh and not the exit, he embarks on the mission which is suicidal by any stretch of imagination. The taboo of suicide is not attached to this act of his as it was for the greater good of the clan or for the principles of good over evil. The famous battle of Thermopylae was another suicidal mission led by King Leonidas I of Sparta with his 300 against the Achaemenid Empire of Xerxes. These acts have gone done in annals of human history as incomparable acts of human bravery. Suicidal missions of such nature have been part of the folklore of each army including the Indian Army, be it Ishar Singh at Saragarhi or Shaitan Singh at Rezang La and in the near past Operation VIJAY has many such heroic deeds which are now synonymous with bravery and supreme sacrifice.

However, the use of suicide as a weapon was institutionalized by the Japanese in World War-II with the Kamikaze pilots. The Japanese culture of the time had a notable tolerance of suicide, 1872 Military Code for the Imperial Navy and Army (Kai-Rikugun Keiritsu) institutionalized this by mandating death for any soldier who should attempt to survive defeat. Might not this cultural and military expectation be sufficient by itself to account for the participation of pilots when Japan was clearly confronting very likely defeat in the near future? This may easily draw parallel to the tradition of ‘Kesariya’[1] used by Rajput rulers in medieval India when faced with surety of defeat. Occasions on which individuals or groups willingly give up their lives with certainty to the benefit of others have been sufficiently frequent throughout history that the possibility of their having firm evolutionary roots in the ancestral past needs recognition.

On the contrary, when a suicide bomber blows himself up to cause casualties it is termed as an act of cowardice and terrorism. While the motivation to undertake this act of suicide is not accepted in the same vein as the acts mentioned above. The reason for this dichotomy may scaffolded on two reasons, it’s not an act of war where in a conflict is raging and the second may be the use of such bombing against civilian targets. In the same context would then the attack by a Taliban suicide bomber on an US convoy find similar recognition as that of a Kamikaze pilot; after all the act is targeted at a military target and in the context of a hybrid conflict how could have the US invasion of Afghanistan not be classified as a War. The art of suicide bombing was perfected by LTTE in the recent past and since then the ideas has been widely incorporated as a hybrid vector of war waging by non-state actors to generate asymmetries in a conflict where in the technology and numbers are stacked up against them. Self-sacrificial heroism will be particularly likely in desperate circumstances when there is, nevertheless, believed to be at least at least some chance of avoiding defeat or winning as a result of some small number of individuals’ sacrifice.

The commonly held assumption that suicide bombers are driven by direct experiences of deprivation and flagrant injustice is not supported by any strong evidence. The equally popular belief that they must be severely mentally disturbed is also not confirmed by studies of those bombers who have survived. Further, it is clear that suicide bombing is not limited to one religious group. Therefore, although there are ideological and religious aspects to the belief systems of many bombers they do not explain why any given person would actually carry out the attack. There is thus a value in giving more attention to the psychological and social psychological processes by which individuals become radicalized to the point that they will take their own lives as part of killing others. These may be summarized as a ‘Samson Syndrome[2]’ after the Biblical example of a final act of self-destructive vengeance.

Suicide attacks have become the defining act of political violence of our age. From New York City to Baghdad, from Sri Lanka to Israel, few can doubt that they are a pervasive and terrifying feature of our politico-military landscape. Oxford University sociologist Diego Gambetta in his book Making Sense of Suicide Missions[3], focuses on recent phenomenon of suicide bombers but is silent in case of militaries in modern time training units/sub units for such suicide missions. While the conventional conflict and its manifestation in today’s geo-political dogma has its limitations but to rule out such TTPs by adversaries may be at our own peril. The concept of Tu Hao Brigade in PLA is a concept premised on such a dialectic which aims to use one formation as a battering ram to break through enemy’s defensive line and sacrifice themselves while doing so. This brigade aims at carrying out passage opening operations for the follow up forces to saturate the battle space and seek Quick Battle Quick Resolution (QBQR). The troops of these formations are commended for their gallantry even before they come to battle and in a more macabre sense struck off the strength of the armed forces even before the first shot is fired. It is appreciated that the troops which faced Indian Army at Rechin La and Rezang La on the night of 30 August were the ill fated ‘Tu Hao’ troops.

One video clip recently emerged on social media which showed PLA troops weeping while traveling and the caption to the video was implying that these are the troops moving to LAC[4]. The only conjecture one may draw is that if these were the troops of a ‘Tu Hao’ unit then they had all the reason to feel sorry for themselves. China with a one child policy has been experiencing metastasis of demographic patterns. Two major trends can be observed; first, the dependency ratio in the country is artificially high. The aging population and the shrinking labour force is a burden in 4:2:1 families ie families where the parents are also single children. Another consequence has been the fundamental change in the psychological make up of single children. They have been dubbed as ‘little emperors’[5] due to the excessive attention they receive from their grand parents and parents. Scientific studies show that single children born after the implementation of the forced planning policy were less altruistic and trusting, more timid, less competitive, more pessimistic and less conscientious than the Chinese who were born just before the policy. Despite the psychological metamorphosis of its soldiers, China continues to maintain Tu Hao units and brigades. However, efficacy of such formations would be suspect. The limitations in human resources could be the weak link in the military campaign planning. China’s demographic challenges are only set to intensify over the next few decades, a temporal quagmire that coincides with the Chinese ambitions of becoming a global power. The task of building a technologically advanced, motivated army to will remain an uphill task.

[1] pg 228 accessed on 01 Oct 2020.

[2] Mark Atteberry, The Samson Syndrome, Thomas Nelson, 2003, pg 24.

[3] Diego Gambetta, Making Sense of Suicide Missions ,Oxford University Press, 2005 pg 46.

[4] accessed on 17 Sep 2020.

[5] Minnie Chan, ‘Soldiers of the one-child era: are they too weak to fulfill Beijing’s military ambitions?’, South China Morning Post, 05 February, 2014,, accessed on 30 September 2020.

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