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Analysis / Mahabharata

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The Kurukshetra War - an examination of what happens when Warriors are forced to become Soldiers

Throughout this epic, the one thing that came up time and time again was the concept of ‘’kshatriya dharma’’ or code of the warriors. The princes were all considered warriors, and it was a matter of honor for them if they adhered to this code. Wars were intermittently fought, but more often these wars were actually duels between princes, with the victors being awarded the losers’ territory or tribute. However, losing a duel and having your kingdom conquered wasn’t considered to be a dishonor - losing to a better warrior while still adhering to the code and putting up a decent fight was still considered honorable. Therefore wars never ended with a great deal of devastation and misfortune.


Until Kurukshetra.

That war also started out just like any other typical Kshatriyas war. There were intricate Rules of Engagement about who to duel, when to duel, how to duel, barring warriors from ganging up on a lone enemy, halting warfare at sundown etc. These rules were laid down by Bhishma, who, despite fighting for the Kauravas, was actually fighting as a Lawful Neutral - inflicting only sufficient damage so as to keep the conflict stalemated. However, after he is taken down on day ten, the conflict ‘’changes’’.

The seeds for this change was actually laid before formal commencement of battle by Krishna, when Arjuna was hesitant about fighting his own kin and even his own guru Dronacharya (more on him later). Krishna flipped the concept of ‘’Kshatriya dharma’’ (warrior code of conduct) to ‘’dharma Kshatriya’’ (warrior fighting for justice) and said that this wasn’t just an ordinary warrior duel, but a war over ideology. Arjuna had to fight not just for control of a kingdom, but for virtue to prevail over evil. He was therefore turning Arjuna into a ‘’soldier with a mission’’. This meant that if the Warrior code was preventing virtue from triumphing over sin, it lost precedence to the greater good of vanquishing that evil foe. He was teaching Arjuna that The End Justifies The Means as long as that ‘’end’’ is noble. This is the type of thinking we expect from soldiers today.


Then there were all the so called “underhanded and dishonorable” tactics both sides used, but would be perfectly acceptable in modern day conflicts.

Dishonorable Act on Day 10 - Bhishma’s Slaying

Bhishma was effectively an Invincible Hero who could not be killed due to his boon of being able to choose when he can die. As a Lawful Neutral, he didn’t go all out to defeat the Pandavas and win the war, but he didn’t let the Kauravas be defeated either. His “strategy” was to turn this conflict into a Forever War that no side could win - until both sides grew weary and sat down to negotiate. In order to further this strategy of intentional impasse, he imposed complex Rules of Engagement that in many cases allowed for a warrior to be defeated without having to be killed note . However, an impasse is still an impediment to total victory. Krishna understands this and devises a “clever plan” to completely neutralize Bhishma - via Loophole Abuse.


Arjuna comes out on Day 10, hiding behind Shikhandi who was the princess Amba in a previous life. Because he used to be a woman, Shikhandi himself is effectively invulnerable as Bhishma forbids anyone from attacking him. Using Shikhandi as cover, Arjuna riddles Bhishma with arrows, pinning him to the ground and immobilized for the rest of the battle. While this act was roundly derided as a cowardly act, the tactic used is a viable tactic in dissimilar unconventional warfare today.

What Arjuna did was to use a tactic routinely used by insurgents today - launch a devastating attack, but disperse among a friendly population before the enemy can retaliate. An enemy acting with scruples will not launch an indiscriminate reprisal attack on the population that is sheltering the insurgents because doing so would upend the political aim they are trying to achieve via warfare. A Warrior who sees warfare as a great challenge against a worthy opponent will also not launch this kind of reprisal attack as that would be dishonorable. Only an Unscrupulous Hero, Well-Intentioned Extremist or an outright villain would launch a reprisal, caring not for collateral damage. The Kauravas warriors aren’t at that mindset yet, which is why Arjuna’s tactic succeeds.

The “Unforgivable” Act on Day 13 - The Ganging Up on Abhimanyu

And on the thirteenth day, the Kuru princes ganged up on a sixteen year old boy and stabbed him to death!

But what was that sixteen year old boy doing? He wasn’t some noncombatant, nor was he a Child Soldier meant to be pitied and rescued instead of fought. He was a military age (just barely) male who had conducted a classic behind enemy lines commando raid. The reason he conducted this raid was because the Kauravas had altered their strategy on Day 11. That alteration in strategy is further discussed in the section below on Dronacharya. Basically the Kauravas dared the Pandavas to attack them, turtled up into a seemingly impregnable formation and lured the Pandavas’ best Warrior Arjun away with a diversionary attack. The objective was to defeat and capture Yudhistira, the rather weak eldest Pandava, then ransom him for victory.

However, this strategy was spoiled when Abhimanyu penetrated the formation by his lonesome, and started wreaking havoc among the Kauravas leadership structure. Because the Kauravas had to go all out to deal with him, they failed in their objective of capturing Yudhistra. However, his penetration of that formation is also a harsh lesson on conducting commando raids - that a raid will always leave a commando team (or single commando) cut off in enemy territory, outnumbered and outgunned, without friendly reinforcements anywhere nearby. The other Pandavas were prevented from reaching Abhimanyu and extracting him. Therefore an extraction and exfiltration is a vital part of any commando mission, because it ensures that your highly trained commandos are available to conduct more raids for you. Because Abhimanyu couldn’t exfiltrate, he was in peril.

As for the “ganging up on him”, look at the tactical picture from the Kauravas’ perspective. Their plan to defeat and capture Yudhistra utterly failed. Their impregnable formation has been penetrated and this very highly skilled warrior is winning duel after duel, slaying Kaurava after Kaurava. Unless he is stopped, he will inflict such massive damage that the Kaurava army may well be depleted to the point that they could conventionally lose the war in the coming days. And that once again displays another aspect of special forces - an individual special forces operative is much more trained and effective than a rank and file soldier, or even an officer. That extra training and effectiveness is what allows commando teams to succeed at raids. But against superior numbers attacking all at once, even the best commandos fall. In fact, cutting commandos off from their avenues of escape, then overwhelming them with superior numbers is the only way that a regular army can neutralize enemy commandos. That is why the Kauravas ganged up on Abhimanyu - they had no other option.

Dishonorable Act on Day 14 - Obscuring the Setting Sun

On Day 14, Arjuna goes on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge, targeting Jayadratha for the death of his son Abhimanyu. He vows to kill Jayadratha before the sun sets, or failing that, immolate himself. While this kind of oath may be common in warrior societies, Day 14 shows how this can actually be a tactical detriment - because you ‘’not only announced to the adversary which target you need to kill, but also a deadline for killing it’’! Your enemy can now turtle up and Hold the Line against you till your own self-imposed deadline is reached!

Therefore, Krishna has to do something to compensate for this tactical disadvantage. He used the weather to his advantage.

As the sun is about to set, Arjuna has smashed through the defenses that the Kauravas set up to protect Jayadratha. However, time has almost run out and Jayadratha still has a few warrior princes clustered around him. Due to inferior numbers, Arjuna cannot defeat all of them conventionally and kill Jayadratha by the deadline. So, according to the lore, Krishna used his divine ability to obscure the sun, fool Jayadratha and his defenders into believing they had won and lower their guard, then reveal the sun once more, giving Arjuna the perfect opportunity to strike and kill Jayadratha. Sure, divine intervention to help you is good and all, but the important tactical lesson here was that sometimes an unprepared enemy is the easiest to attack. And nothing forces armies to change their posture like inclement weather does. In this instance, nightfall was the inclement weather. In the Trenton raid, George Washington attacked during a blizzard when the Hessians never expected to be attacked. In The Six Day War, the IAF struck Egyptian airfields right when the pilots were stood down and having breakfast. Arab forces then struck back at Israel during the Yom Kippur holiday. Pre-dawn raids are carried out for the same reason. Yes, it wasn’t warriorlike to attack Jayadratha when he had disarmed, but in the end he was killed.

Dronacharya - a Soldier among Warriors

Yudhisthira’s “Unpardonable” lie on Day 15

On Day 15, Dronacharya, the Soldier among Warriors is seemingly invincible. In a short period of time, he dispatches both King Viraat who admonishes him for fighting on the battlefield instead of teaching princes in his ashram, and his old frenemy King Drupad (the father of Draupadi). The Pandavas realize that they cannot conventionally defeat him. Arjuna can render him temporarily unfit to fight, but as long as he is able to return the next day, this will turn into a Forever War at the least. Or if Arjuna is distracted for a long time (by Karna for example), Yudhistra gets captured and the war is lost. So, they have to come up with some way to neutralize him permanently.

Bhima, upon Krishna’s urging, kills a war elephant named Ashwathama. Ashwathama just happens to be the name of Drona’s beloved son. Bhima then starts roaring “I killed Ashwathama, my guru! I killed him!” Dronacharya doesn’t believe him at first, and demands to talk to Yudhistra, who has a reputation for being absolutely truthful all the time. When Dronacharya asks Yudhistra if this rumor of his son Ashwathama’s death is true, Yudhistira replies “Yes!” [[note: Yudhistira was technically truthful, as someone named Ashwathama did die. It just wasn’t "Dronacharya‘s son Ashwathama". [[/note]]

A devastated, despondent Dronacharya throws his weapons away, dismounts from his chariot and just sits down on the ground in shock and grief. He has clearly passed the Despair Event Horizon. Drishtadyumna, the son of the recently slain Drupad immediately also dismounts from his chariot, draws his sword and executes Dronacharya by decapitation right then and there. His father is avenged!

When this event takes place, nearly everyone seems shocked and appalled at what the Pandavas did. Even Bheeshma seems utterly shocked that Yudhistira The Paragon of Virtue would stoop this low to win a battle! But was this act so reprehensible and irredeemable so as to consider that Virtue itself died that day? Or was it just good soldiering?

What kind of warfare is it where you spread a malicious lie about an old man’s son dying, and then execute that defenseless old man in cold blood while he is deep in the throes of grief and shock? ’’’Psychological Warfare’’’! Very effective psychological warfare through the clever use of disinformation to sap an adversary’s will to fight, and then “executing” a tactical action while the effect of that disinformation is most profound. Psychological operations often use disinformation, propaganda, the generation of disturbing stimuli such as pictures and sounds to lower enemy morale. Think back to the infamous Tokyo Rose and Axis Sally warning American infantrymen during World War 2 that their wives or girlfriends were sleeping around on them while they were risking their lives. Think back to American troops blasting rock music in Panama to fray Noriega’s nerves to get him to surrender. Even outside warfare, this tactic is used, like for example “sledging” in cricket, or catcher trash talk in baseball. Psychological warfare may not be an honorable way to fight, but it is an effective way to win. The Pandavas' shame at having used this tactic is because they are still in the process of transitioning from honor-bound Warriors to results-oriented Soldiers.

This example also gives us another object lesson in employing disinformation as a weapon - disinformation or any other psy-op only has a limited window of effectiveness, and even within that window, cannot by itself defeat an enemy. Eventually, an enemy will either uncover your disinformation or counteract your propaganda, so you must take advantage of lowered enemy morale before this occurs. Dronacharya would have eventually found out that his son is in fact, alive, and he would have come back into the fight with a vengeance. So he had to be killed while he was grieving. His execution also demonstrates another aspect of psychological warfare - lowered morale alone cannot defeat an enemy. Only violent actions such as killing, maiming or capturing will. Therefore psychological warfare must be used to ’’support’’ actual warfare, not replace it.

Bhima Desecrating a Corpse on Day 16

On Day 16, Bhima fulfilled an oath he swore during Draupadi’s Attempted Rape by flaying Dushasana’s chest open, drinking some of his blood and then taking some more blood for Draupadi to wash her hair in. Was this an unforgivable act of desecration?

Desecration of corpses has been something that has zigzagged into and out of acceptance. Its effectiveness as a tool of psychological warfare is undeniable - the sheer terror caused by the Vikings' infliction of the “blood eagle” (very similar to what Bhima did) is a testament. But, this can also backfire by motivating the enemy to fight harder, as was seen in how white settlers responded to scalping by Indian tribes - with genocide. Duryodhana was so incensed by what was inflicted upon his brother, that he refused to sue for peace even if it meant the complete destruction of him and his army. This kind of backlash is why armies these days avoid the mutilation of corpses.

Dishonorable Act on Day 17 - Shooting “defenseless” Karna

On Day 17, Arjuna finally engages Karna in an archery duel. In the midst of this duel, Karna’s chariot wheel gets stuck in the mud and partially sinks into it. Karna dismounts to free the stuck wheel, and as he is struggling with it, Arjuna shoots him dead. The remaining Kaurava allies spin this as an act of cowardice - after all, the Rules of Engagement forbade a chariot borne archer from attacking a defenseless dismounted opponent. Sure, a curse manifested that ensured Karna’s death in this manner, but this incident also serves as an important lesson in maneuver warfare.

Maneuver warfare is more commonly known these days as tank warfare, but in actuality, the same principles apply to any battle fought while on any kind of vehicle. Naval warfare, fighter combat aka “dogfighting” are also examples of maneuver warfare. And one very important aspect of this kind of warfare is mobility - the ability to move when you need to and get where you need to go. Which is why instruction on maneuver warfare are as much about vehicle maintenance as it is about mobile tactics. Tank crews train extensively on digging their vehicles out of rough terrain, as much as they train on tank tactics. In fact a probably apocryphal theory exists that every armored division has maps coded with all areas that are unsuitable for operating tanks in. A chariot isn’t just a platform for royals to be carried around in, or a way to distinguish royals from common soldiers so different warriorlike rules of engagement can apply. It is a vehicle used for maneuver warfare. Therefore it has to be used in a manner mindful of maneuverability, including being mindful of terrain. And knowing what to do if your vehicle gets stuck in the mud. Karna’s (and his charioteer’s) inability to deal with this lead to his demise.

This engagement also demonstrates why the chariot ultimately fell out of favor for cavalry warfare in the classical era. They are unwieldy like all articulated vehicles, the wheels had no suspension, thereby limiting their maneuverability in rough terrain, and they tie up multiple horses - horses, which can be more effective repurposed as cavalry mounts. Horses by themselves would later emerge as the long time standard for maneuver warfare.

Bheema’s Low Blow on Day 18

On Day Eighteen, the final day of the war, Bheema struck Duryodhana on his thighs with a mace, mortally wounding him. This was probably the Ur-Example of an Achilles' Heel, as the Mahabharata predates the Iliad. Bheema needed to do this, as just the previous night, Duryodhana had received a divine blessing that made him impervious to injury everywhere on his body except his thighs.

However, the reluctance of the other Pandavas to order Bheema to strike the low blow, and the fury that Balarama flies into after that low blow is struck, demonstrates that the very concept of Attack Its Weak Point is a soldierly thing to do, and not something an honorable warrior will do. This is because weak points not only inflict horrendous damage if struck, they are also difficult to defend. In Duryodhana’s own case, it was near impossible for him to deflect a mace blow aimed low, as the mace is actually unwieldy, while different weapons just cannot stand up to the mace’s bulk. Similarly, a double tap to the head cannot be protected by either armor or dodging.

Which is why when a vulnerable point is attacked, the attacked side usually has to fall back on claims of “war crimes” to mitigate their damage, in the hopes that their opposition will either be dissuaded from this tactic, or that their “misfortune” brings them allies. We saw this in the Persian Gulf War when Iraq complained about collateral civilian damage when infrastructure was precisely targeted. We also saw terrorists and insurgents complaining about “executions” when snipers were deployed against them. Similarly, Duryodhana’s wailing about being dealt a low blow, almost caused Balarama to attack Bhima in rage.

The larger lesson here is that fighting like a soldier may require you to do some very dishonorable things, which necessitates an effective PR campaign to spin those dishonorable acts as being necessary. As Krishna demonstrated, when he calmed Balarama down, bringing up prior bad acts by the opposition is an effective way to do this.

Krishna the War Strategist

Commando Raid and a Lesson In Brinkmanship

Think that defeating Duryodhana and leaving him to die would end the war? Think again! Because as long as he lives and is lucid, Duryodhana can still dole out orders to his surviving army. Andhe does exactly that by ordering his new General Ashwathama to break the most sacrosanct rule of warfare - to never attack an enemy when he is asleep at night. And in this raid, Ashwathama killed five sleeping boys - Draupadi’s five sons, also known as the Uppa-Pandavas.

This raid itself wasn’t the unpardonable sin that Ashwathama committed. The raid was instead an Ur-Example of a classic nighttime commando raid. Many such raids have been carried out in history and myth, such as the sacking of Troy, the Trenton raid, numerous examples of raids carried out during the American Civil War, World War 2 SOE and Commando raids, and in recent times, the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. And assassination has also been a long staple in warfare, with the infamous hashishim being the Trope Builder. This raid could well have become the Ur-Example of a nighttime assassination - if it had actually succeeded. Because this raid is also a cautionary tale on how not to conduct nighttime raids.

A common parlance among Special Forces is that prior proper preparation prevents poor performance. Preparation in this case being mission planning. An enemy camp at nighttime is still an enemy camp, and those sleeping soldiers can still be woken by a loud commotion. And you are still going to be outnumbered and cut off from reinforcements. It is therefore imperative that your raid proceed with speed, stealth and violence of action. Speed is essential so you complete your objectives and escape before the enemy wakes up and counterattacks. Stealth is also essential so you don’t alert the enemy before you complete your mission. And violence of action is essential so you don’t waste time in a pitched battle. However, speed and stealth require that you know exactly where your targets are located and a speedy route to them known beforehand. Loitering in the area, trying to find your target only increases your chances of discovery. Or, as happened to Ashwathama, you completely miss your targets, striking someone else instead. This is why all spec ops raids are preceded by reconnaissance to gather up to date intel on your target, followed by rehearsals in which you commit the operational area to memory. Ashwathama attacked without any preparation in the form of reconnaissance and rehearsal. Otherwise, he’d have known that the Pandavas weren’t sleeping in their tents, they were sleeping in the abandoned Kauravas tents. And he would have policed his arrows, leaving no trace that he was there. To be fair, he was given a direct order to attack immediately, and since as Warriors, no one on his side or the others had any experience executing a Soldierly nighttime commando raid.

After executing this raid, thinking he’d won, Ashwathama returned to find Duryodhana’s dead. With no king left to serve anymore, Ashwathama relocated to Sage Vyasa’s Ashram to do penance. He thinks he needs to atone because this nighttime raid wasn’t an honorable Warriorly thing to do. But because he actually failed his mission, the enraged Pandavas corner him there. And then this intra-dynastic conflict almost destroys the entire universe when both sides fire brahmastras,at each other. Since the brahmastra is guaranteed to destroy whatever it is fired at, two of them fired at each other will destroy the universe. Vyas’s realizes this and implores both Arjuna and Ashwathama to recall their weapons. Arjuna complies, but Ashwathama, bereft of the knowledge to do so, cannot recall his brahmastra. When reprimanded for his foolishness in using this kind of weapon for a mere mortal conflict, and told to redirect his brahmastra, Ashwathama uses it to kill Arjuna’s as yet unborn grandson. For this act, the jewel embedded in Ashwathama’s forehead is cut out of him, leaving an open bleeding wound. Krishna then condemns him to suffer from that wound bleeding and oozing pus for eternity and to wander the world begging for sympathy and acceptance but never receiving any.

While this incident is a horrific tale of feticide averting the apocalypse, this incident would also serve as a prescient study of the dynamics of nuclear brinkmanship, since in this case, the brahmastra served as an allegory to a WMD. While the usual dynamic is that of a Game of Chicken where just choosing not to play is the best move for both sides, this dynamic assumes the existence of rational actors.

The situation with Ashwathama and the brahmastra vs brahmastra face off is an examination of what happens when a rational actor squares off against an irrational actor with Weapons Of Mass Destruction. The rational actor knows that a WMD is primarily a deterrent and is only to be used when the situation is at its most dire. An irrational actor like Ashwathama will use WMDs for more baser primal reasons such as hatred or Revenge. Therefore deterrence will not work. An irrational actor is much more likely to attack first. So, all that a rational actor can do is respond and ensure Mutually Assured Destruction. Which may also be something that an irrational adversary desires. So what else can be done to win this kind of engagement? This incident shows that a unilateral de escalation after an initial retaliatory strike goes a long way. De-escalating almost always gains you the moral high ground since you and your adversary are not in a complete vacuum without other observers. Observers who may either be individually powerful (like Rishi Vyasa in this incident), or collectively powerful such as the entire international community. If a rational actor de-escalates, this powerful onserver(s) will intervene and punish the irrational actor, because he did not de-escalate. But, as shown when Ashwathama redirected his brahmastra towards a fetus, this approach means that the rational actor must accept some amount of massive damage, before his irrational foe is stopped for good.


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