Does the brass still shine?
On the Indian Officer Corps' Character and Spine
Answering the question implicit in the title of his piece, ‘Army deciding common dress code for officers just a cosmetic change. Malaise runs deeper,’ army veteran, Lt Gen HS Panag, writes, “At the root of parochialism is the diluted character of officer corps that negatively impacts the appraisal system. The military hierarchy needs a straight spine….”
It's easy to see why General Panag takes this view. Ever the hard task master since his National Defence Academy days as the Academy Cadet Adjutant, Panag highlights whats been a niggling suspicion, seldom pinned down since no veteran really wants to be proven right on this. To him, Loyalty demands preserving the legacy of the military ethic. Perhaps in coming articles he may dwell on how to get to a ‘straight(er) spine’.
Both terms don’t really require defining. Military men know what the two mean instinctively, since these partially made them gravitate to the military in first place. Selection, training and socialisation within the military makes these a prominent feature of their makeup. Even so, for the sake of form (not to mention academic conceit), here’s a definitional exercise.
‘Character’ comprises traits encapsulated in Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’. These are qualities that, at a lower level, help when in combat; and at a higher level are useful for conduct in war.
Arbitrarily, at the tactical level, the lines that ring true are: ‘If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew; To serve your turn long after they are gone, And so hold on when there is nothing in you. Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
At the operational level, the line that fits the bill reads: ‘If you can keep your head when all about you Are losing theirs.’ The strategic level could use the quality put by Kipling as, ‘If you can keep your head when all about you Are losing theirs and blaming it on you, If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you….’
Perhaps Kipling had in mind ‘spine’ penning these words: ‘If you can make one heap of all your winnings, And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss.’ Like the backbone that envelops the spine and holds up the skeleton, the spine makes these character traits hang in there, together. If there was no spine, these would all flop down.
‘Dilution’ of character is if the spine is far too supple to hold things up, even if supple enough on occasion to tactfully bend with the wind. ‘Straightening spine’ is to prop up the spine so that it provides a hanger for qualities – taken together and along with those of the team – to do their thing.
Myths and reality
There is no end to myths and legends surrounding plain-speak in the military, making ‘spine’ perhaps the most appreciated quality of the bouquet ‘character’. This holds true right from the tactical level through the operational to the strategic.
At lower levels, some officers carry the aura of their supersession around, their reputation having it that they spoke up their minds and paid for it. At the last gathering of retirees I attended in my unit a former Second in Command strode the scene, knowing his contribution to unit legend that had him holding forth once in an officiating capacity. He had told off a visiting general throwing his weight around that the current in the canal being rather fast, he was not about to risk Ghataks crossing it without a written order to that effect. He retired in the same rank.
At the operational level, there is a plethora of standard-setting stories of officers standing up for their command and men under command. General Hanut Singh personifies this trait. A story is of General Satish Sardeshpande taking a stand over delay in emoluments due to soldiers on duty in Sri Lanka.
On an operational matter, Lt Gen Rustom Nanavatty’s under-preparation biography will hopefully illuminate an episode in which he is credited with warding off pressures at the outset of Operation Parakram for attacking from the line of march – as it were - on prepared LC defences.
In 1965, Gen Harbaksh Singh is supposed to have brushed-off a suggestion to pull back to the Beas line, when faced with Pakistan’s attempt at Khem Karan to outflank his offensive stalled at Icchogil. (The story cannot be readily believed since Harbaksh and Chaudhury were peer competitors, so for those in the Harbaksh camp (the martial and non-martial race hangover) to trot out this story makes it more of a myth than a subject of due diligence in military history writing. It is logical that all contingencies figure in discussion, enabling the commander to alight on his course of action.) The story, even if embellished, serves to show the premium put on standing true to convictions.
My favourite one on conviction is of Lt Gen DS Hooda levelling with his command in a demi-official letter to officers on why he ordered trigger-happy soldiers to be arraigned for overstepping rules of engagement when they emptied magazines behind three kids out on a joy ride in a car that sped past their check point. He also convicted the human rights violators in the unforgivable Macchal case. That they were left off by an Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) shows the grain of opinion he was up against. That it is popular is evident from another AFT lately letting off Captain Bhoopendra Singh for a similar outrage at Amshipora.
Hooda had to contend with backlash such as a publication in the Army think tank - by a Hindutva purveyor and former head of that think tank - carrying the canard that his actions were politically instigated. Thus, even moral courage that Hooda demonstrated was sought to be dismissed as falling in line to political dictation of the current-day right wing regime – thereby, appropriating the credit for human rights protections due the military for a regime otherwise well known for stealing the military’s thunder for its domestic political purposes. Hooda passes the test worded by Kipling, thus: ‘If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken; Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools.’
In another instance, a general commanding in Kashmir once had no-less than his Chief of Staff complain to the Governor that he had a communal bias, supposedly evident from his insistence on mitigating the human effects of largescale crackdowns, by, for instance, provisioning milk for children caught up in them. In the event, the Governor records in his biography throwing out the calumny. But the incident serves to show that standing tall is harder when stabbed in the back, but to do so - nevertheless - is to take standards up another notch.
At the strategic level, there is the case of case of Sam Bahadur determining the timing of the liberation of East Pakistan. While the story in its popular retelling – not implausibly spiced up by Manekshaw himself – has it that he persuaded Indira Gandhi on the inadvisability of an invasion early in the crisis, a later version – put out by a retired diplomat - has it that Mrs. Gandhi was already so persuaded and only used Manekshaw’s opinion to turn around her cabinet colleagues wanting an early showdown. A recent movie shows the preliminary steps towards the war being taken by the intelligence minders in their engineering a hijack of an Indian plane in order to use the incident to isolate East Pakistan. Recall, that was prior to Pakistan lashing out in racist-tinged panic, thereby falling into the hands of Indian intelligence.
However, stories of when standards were not upheld at this level are legion, serving to underline the value attached to plainspoken leadership at the higher levels. One such is how the army was pushed into the Golden Temple operation. Incidentally, Gen K Sundarji resurfaces in the very next episode, where again the standards of plain speak were supposedly not upheld when the army set off on its Sri Lanka (mis)adventure.
Unfortunately, the readiness to acknowledge a shortcoming – a plus-point of the military – has in both these cases – just as later in Pulwama and Ladakh - led to the intelligence fraternity being let-off scot-free for its ineptitude in providing early warning - and its cover-up thereafter by riding the broad shoulders of the military. Given the extant intelligence, General Sundarji cannot be wholly faulted in either instance. He could perhaps have insisted on first ascertaining the intelligence picture that had so besotted the political leadership.
The malady continues. Only one official was scapegoated by name in the Kargil Committee Report, a lowly brigadier – who, in the event, rightly mounted a spirited rejoinder. More recently, retired General Naravane lauded intelligence inputs, more or less exonerating them for the surprise at Ladakh.
Dilly-dallying over the war inventory after the 26/11 provocation and, more recently, the non-response in Ladakh (recall a provincial politico back in 2008 going hoarse on the pusillanimity of the Central government) and wanton infliction of Agnipath, are other instances of the Spine falling short.
In the aftermath of 26/11, General Deepak Kapoor is rumoured to have fished out a list of equipment deficiencies to bring home to the political leadership that it would be a political call to send the military to a war in which deficiencies could end up proving consequential to the result. His successor Chief leaked a letter to the government he was at odds with on his Date of Birth, dilating on continuing deficiencies in anticipation of yet another 26/11, providing himself a loophole to use in the event. Neither seem impressed with General Ved Malik’s stoicism, ‘We will fight with what we have.’
Closer in time, there is no public record if the command hierarchy chafed at the bit when Ladakh unfolded. General Rawat’s recently-released biography, which if a hagiography after the fashion these days might not put much light on this. It’s not impossible that they might have remonstrated for a more robust response. Whats certain is that none of them resigned on being disappointed by the political decision. Is it that all were persuaded over the past two decades by the Chinese-built smoke-screen on Comprehensive National Power?
Then there is the mother of all cave-ins, Agnipath. Did Naravane’s standing up against the scheme cost him the Chief of Defence appointment? Even regime-favourite General Rawat was sceptic. If so, did the former Military Adviser’s backing of the scheme fetch him a restart in a higher rank back in uniform? Cynicism arises from the question why the military was chosen as site of this experiment in first place. The scheme appears better suited to the equally-large central police forces. Is it that the political masters knew there would be little push-back, aware the military’s spine had withered under preceding blows from Rafale, Pulwama, Balakot, Operation Swift Retort and Ladakh?
How dire is it?
Evidence on the matter of a Character gone to seed and a rusting of the Spine can only be anecdotal. It’s been similarly noted in the civil services. It has long been so for the police. The intelligence has yet another problem at hand – ideological subversion. Surveys cannot be relied on in India – not after the number of study findings on the significance of Mann ki Baat.
The evidence here is of two officers who I consistently regarded as the best respectively in the two officer batches I was part of (Yes, I made brigadier well before I got to be colonel!) who were felled at the penultimate rank. This shows the elimination of both from tenanting command at the operational and strategic levels owed to a collegium of army commanders feeling that their elevation would threaten the structure and current-day norms from within. Not only was their supersession reflective of fallen standards but to facilitate the fall by those themselves earlier selected against falling standards. Did they pose a threat to the comfort zone of those already inside the departing carriage?
By no means are those selected instead, incompetent. I witnessed at first-hand, one of them leaning out of a balcony at a remote UN headquarters barking out orders to the Uruguayan protection detail as rebels waded in shooting up the town, while his boss from a Western army hid under the table inside. I am however not so sure that the averages have not been driven down by the best not making it.
General Panag informs of the stranglehold the Infantry and Artillery have acquired over those rising to higher ranks. An Engineer General’s elevation as Chief for the very first time does not mean the of Mandalisation has been laid to rest. Panag is clear that a change in uniform for the brass is only cosmetic.
While meritocracy must be the defining feature of higher military leadership, what constitutes merit at that level is consequential. An ability to re-site the Light Machine Gun - which is all Infantry hands get better at - is not quite it. Perhaps, they are also better at throwing a cordon round a Kashmiri village, but that’s not it either. Indeed, that ability perhaps accounts for India’s no-show in a localised conventional war opportunity against China.
The brass needs Brasso
At higher levels, military leadership is not of technical capacity or tactical capability or even operational acumen, though these are required to get to the door. What should open up doors is moral strength. This includes moral virtue; meaning, while abstinence is not essential, a roving eye must disqualify. However, it’s also much beyond virtue and piety. It embodies moral rectitude.
While no doubt the definition is encompassed in the Bhagwat Gita, reciting Kipling here is not a colonial hangover: ‘If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch.’ ‘Virtue’ appears to be the ‘common touch’. What the military teaches as the officer grows in service cannot but be based on the bedrock of what the mother imparts in the first five years. It’s not a case of nature vs. nurture as much of nature and nurture that make for a military leader.
Though unreliable, sometimes WhatsApp forwards illuminate. Take the one on Arun Khetarpal. It has him marching up course-mates to the authorities for plying juniors with drinks. When Arun couldn’t mend them, through example and exhortation, he took the ultimate recourse – which in the normal perspective is a strict ‘No Go’ area. This ability to know what is right and to do right is moral rectitude.
The major expectation of those tenanting higher ranks is the ability to stand true to strategic rationality and military good sense. Those with over-supple spines are liable to sell the family silver, not only of the military, but the nation. They have an advisory role in the corridors of power. They would be unable to play their part if flexibility is all there is to them – which is how the hind of those sitting on upper branches appears from down below.
The coming test
The system is already designed to co-opt them, to ensure their advisory input does not rock the boat. Such daunting circumstance prevails now, when the prime minister and his national security adviser have an oversized image and the ‘deep state’ – the subverted portion of the security edifice - is let loose to run the show. Through a doctrine of ‘deep selection’ – or ‘ease of doing business with’ - they have given themselves military advisers to echo the regime’s certitudes. The threat is under the circumstance of a deteriorated military ethic, the military brass just might.
If the military leadership takes cue, it can only do so at a price in national security and martial reputation. The threat is accentuated at both the nature and nurture ends, with nature falling to social entropy and nurture to military ossification. This would be insurmountable in the normal course, leave alone in a circumstance of deliberate sabotage of the military for ideological ends. To save itself, it’s not for the military to save the nation. Instead, to save its military, the nation must first save itself.