Question The Army, But Try to Know Us First

Question The Army, But Try to Know Us First

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By General D S Hooda, Retd

The military is under increasing scrutiny. I am often asked as to why we shy away from answering questions on organisational and man-management problems, which are now regularly cropping up on social media. Are our standards different from those of our informed citizens? Are we hiding behind a cloak of nationalism, which makes it difficult for someone to criticise us?  I have been somewhat agonising over how to respond to these genuine concerns of the people of India. Incidentally, the concerns are not new. While commenting on the growing politicisation of the Indian Army in 1981, Romesh Thapar wrote about re-professionalism of the Indian Army, failing which “India will find itself with a million-man army that has lost its professionalism, that reflects the worst qualities of Indian life, and that has important parochial interests to protect.” I think the best way to respond is by talking to you about how the military is different, and what constitutes the military ethic. The military ethic promotes professionalism among its members and of necessity takes into account their characteristics and history. Samuel Huntington said, “The military ethic is a constant standard by which it is possible to judge the professionalism of an officer corps anywhere anytime.” If through this article some of you get a better understanding of our values, the military would be happy. The military ethic foremost accepts the supremacy of the nation state. The military exists for the survival and well-being of the state and not vice versa. Breakdown of civilian control or loss of mutual faith contains within it seeds of disaster, as can be witnessed in numerous military dictatorships around the world. Michael Howard is quoted as saying, “Societies are orderly and peaceable only in so far as they have solved the double problem, of subordination of the military force to the political government, and the control of a government in possession of such a force by legal constraint and popular will.”

The Indian military firmly supports political supremacy. An extremely key constituent of the military ethic is the concept of “unlimited liability”.3 All members of the military accept that they can be lawfully ordered to go into conditions which could lead to their death. This is a uniquely military provision that sets them apart from any other profession, and is at the heart of understanding the meaning of duty. Soldiers readily lay down their lives in the performance of duty. The memorial tablet in the chapel of the French officer-cadet school at St Cyr contained one single entry for “The Class of 1914”. Every French officer commissioned in 1914 died in the war. In the Battle of Loos of 1915, 10,000 British troops advanced towards the German lines. Three-and-a-half hours later, 385 officers and 7,861 men had been killed. It is the ethic of unlimited liability which drives men forward in the face of certain death. Control of violence is an essential element of the military ethic. More than a century ago, De Tocqueville said, “In a political democracy the most peaceful of people are generals.” In 1971, General Sam Manekshaw opposed an unprepared initiation of hostilities with Pakistan. The military leader is at the top of one of the great power structures of society. He risks everything if that society becomes engaged in war. Thus the military increasingly has come to view its role as achieving the political aim by deterrence rather than fighting, to favour ‘preventive war’, and if war is inevitable, to limit the damage caused by it. Sun Tzu’s advice ‘to subdue the enemy without fighting’ is taken very seriously. Noel Ganger passes a telling comment, “if you can’t figure out something better to do with a military force than to kill a lot of people and lose a lot of people in the hope that the other guy will get tired of the bloodletting before you do, you are not only not much of a leader, but you’re not an ethical one either.”

Linkage between morality and minimizing loss is a recurrent leadership theme. Not only is the combat commander committed to accomplishing legitimate military objectives on the battlefield (a moral obligation in itself), but he is also responsible for minimizing loss of life of those under his command and for avoiding unnecessary death and destruction to civil property on either side. The military ethic is essentially corporative in spirit. It emphasizes the importance of the group as against the individual. This is a functional requirement because of the nature of warfare. Success in war requires the subordination of will of the individual to the will of the group. Tradition, spirit, unity, and community – these rate high in the military value system. Personal interests and desires are submerged for the good of the service. If instant obedience is not forthcoming, wars cannot be fought, much less won (therefore, there is consternation over a person complaining over watery dal). However, personal values are not compromised. We believe in John Hackett’s statement “total, blind, unquestioning obedience in any circumstances must never be demanded of any human being. In the last resort a man is answerable to his own conscience for what he does, and nowhere else.”

Let me end by saying that the manner in which governments and people treat their armies will be reflected in the ethos they develop. It is therefore essential for the government to review the nature of civil-military relations in India to remove some of the distrust and cynicism which marks the relationship today. The professional ethic and values of any military are also closely linked with the values of the society from which it draws its people. As Hackett puts it, “When a country looks at its fighting forces it is looking in a mirror; the mirror is a true one and the face it sees will be its own”.

A military with high ethical standards can make a moral contribution to society. Hackett calls the military “a well from which to draw refreshment for a body politic in need of it…the highest service of the military to the state may well be in the moral sphere.”

General SK Sinha makes the same point when he says, “Let us hope that the future generations of our countrymen looking back to our times say that when things were going bad in the country, the Army by setting an example to the Nation helped it recover from a morass in which it had got stuck.