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09 July 2015

Close Encounters of …a Different Kind…

Much has been written of ‘military ethos’ and the dire need for it in retaining and refining the esprit de corps essential for making men – and women – do extraordinary things in the name of defence of family, friends and nation. I’ve been seeking an acceptable definition of what military ethos actually is for over 20years. While I have had explanations and attempts at definition from a host of military, governmental and academic sources over the years, I am always struck by the comment made to me when interviewing a British Field Marshal eight years ago – a man with a thirty-plus year military career behind him at the time who, after a significant pause, said “I’m not sure I can define it – but I am sure I know it when I see it.”

Sir – I think I may now have seen it!

Scant seconds after being introduced to Lt.Col. Alexander Passos, commanding officer of Brazil’s 1° Batalhao de Infantaria de Selva (AMv) – the 1st Jungle Infantry Battalion (Airmobile) – he was explaining to us why his battalion could legitimately claim to be O Melhor Batalhao do Mundo – the ‘best battalion in the world.’ The events of the next half hour lent some credibility to the claim – but even accepting it was primarily hubris, Passos’ troops did him – and themselves – proud.

Military ethos is, indeed, difficult to define. It is, however, the glue that holds troops together – in peacetime and in war – and provides the foundation for actions the rest of us, not in uniform, sometimes find difficult to appreciate or even understand. But a battalion of over 800 men, parading in full kit, singing their battalion song and a powerfully invigorating song commemorating the struggle with the Enaxena people early in Brazil’s history, is enough to set the spine tingling and the thought processes flowing.

It’s not just about the music or even the sense of occasion. It’s about the transparency of passion, the honest, uncomplicated nature of the patriotism and the untrammelled pride in belonging to the unit ‘family’ that shines from every face – even the tiredest and most heavily burdened. It’s about hearing each company commander introduce his unit (there are eight companies in the 1st Battalion) and his unit responding with a stentorian shout of “Selva!” (Jungle!) – which seems to serve as combined exhortation, battle cry and affirmation of self. It’s about listening to the pride in the voices of the officers and men describing the battalion’s equipment, role and history. It’s about the eight hundred voices of the battalion raised in stirring martial song that somehow communicates on a level that requires little understanding of the language in which it is sung.

One of 24 jungle battalions in the Brazilian Army, 1st Battalion has a 100 year history of uninterrupted service and has two of its three rifle companies permanently on three hour notice to deploy – anywhere. Although it lacks an organic aircraft component, helicopters from Amazon Military Command are at its permanent disposal. The battalion also provides the army with services as a testbed for the evaluation of new equipment and doctrine.

Any senior army officer – anywhere – will almost certainly agree, when asked, that the high spot of his career was commanding his battalion or regiment. There is something ‘right’ about the normal size and purpose of such a unit that makes it easier for the commander to exercise benevolent control and for his subordinate officers and men to know, understand and respect their commander. With great respect to Colonel Passos, therefore, I suggest he might find himself faced with strong competition for the title of ‘Best Battalion in the World.’ But his men – his jungle warriors – spare no effort in making sure they support his claim and live up to his expectations. And the pride in his face – and that of his Adjutant, Major Neves Franco – is self-evident and genuine.

And that is probably as close to getting to a definition of military ethos as I am likely to get. Is it clear? No. Does all the above even qualify as a definition? Probably not. Is it real? No doubt: none whatsoever.

Everywhere in Amazon Military Command the pride, quiet confidence in self and colleagues and sense of identity with unit, command and nation shines through – in spoken word, in gesture and body language, in action. These soldiers test themselves, expect their leaders to do the same and have total confidence in their ability to overcome any obstacle or challenge. That’s not a writer’s hype for the sake of inking a few more words. It’s a genuine feeling of wonder – perhaps a little awe. And I haven’t felt like that for a very long time.


Tim Mahon, reporting from Manaus, State of Amazonas, Brazil

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