Decades back, the irrepressibly brilliant if controversial, ‘thinking General’ K Sundarji, who was given to rare intellectual capabilities of lateral thinking, had tellingly posited ‘sharafat’ (honour and integrity in the profession of arms), in his famously reflective letter to every officer of the Indian Army.
The sharp professional who had challenged all existing doctrinaires, orthodoxy, and institutional status-quo-ism, still thought it pertinent to reiterate, ‘of a certain standard of behaviour and personal conduct in all circumstances.’
Decades later, when Srinagar-based Chinar Corps movingly tweeted, ‘In keeping with the traditions & ethos of the #Indian Army, #Chinar Corps resuscitated a damaged grave of Major Mohd Shabir Khan, Sitara-e-Jurrat, Pakistan Army, who was killed in Action (KIA) at a forward location along LC in Naugam Sector on 5 May 1972’, the professional dignity of Indian soldering was further burnished.
Indian Military’s ‘Professional’ yet Ethical Soldier
Perhaps unbeknownst to many chest-thumping and hatemongering elements who insist on demonising an ‘enemy’; an ethical and professional soldier sees the ‘enemy’ soldier as just another soldier of his/her constitutional and sovereign values, nothing more and nothing less.
Soldiers of the 21st-century, like the gallant Col Santosh Babu of the Bihar Regiment who went down fighting barehanded, understood ‘service to the nation’ as a sacred trust and zubaan (word) given, and fully comprehended that it demands ‘unlimited liability’ of responsibilities, even tantamount to ‘paying the ultimate price’. This, not in a bygone era of wistful soldering romance, but exactly a year ago in 2020, against the nuclear-armed Chinese Military.
Across the democratic and professional world of volunteered soldering, the citizenry puts its ‘uniformed’ fraternity on hallowed pedestals, only because of their emulation-worthy virtuosity that has withstood the test of time, technology, and circumstances. Soldiers cannot be given to easy political rhetoric or empty bombast, as many politicos and civilians are wont to; who may never come close to the tribulations and sacrifices of combat. For that morality, the military leadership must always be ready to pay the occasional price, but never surrender, as optics, subtilities and perceptions will always matter to this institution.
Respecting Institutional Optics & Perceptions
Two recent incidents exemplify that any ‘lowering of the guard’ from the defined standards, can impact institutional optics and perceptions, and therefore must be atoned for and redeemed.
The second-in-command of the Canadian Forces, Lt Gen Mike Rouleau, offered to step down after his ‘private activity’ of a golf round with a serving Commander of Navy and a veteran general, who was undergoing military investigations for misconduct, sparked media concerns about his poor judgement and the questionable optics surrounding the event.
Lt Gen Rouleau ‘fully’ accepted how his ‘decision to do so has intensified recent events and contributed to further erosion of trust’. More importantly, Lt Gen Rouleau demonstrated the necessary ownership and grace in clarifying that the Naval Commander's presence was, ‘surely predicated on my attending, therefore, I would ask, that only I am held accountable’.
Ostensibly his intent and discussions on the golf course were restricted to a social call to ‘ensure his wellness’, as is a natural dignity afforded to Veterans. Lt Gen Mike Rouleau’s stepping aside over what could also be projected as an innocuous act, as is expected outside of the military realm, has thankfully not persisted. At the least, Lt Gen Mike Rouleau upheld the institutional sensitivities of subtilities, accountability, and perceptions.
Once bandied as the third-largest navy in the world, Canada may not be a military powerhouse, but the Canadian Armed Forces have acquitted themselves with distinction in combat deployment in places like Afghanistan, the Gulf War, the Kosovo War etc. Like the Indian Armed Forces, the Canadians have inherited much of their traditions, regimentation, and the indelible ‘spirit of the services’, from their colonial progenitors, the Imperial British Armed Forces.
British Tradition of ‘Warrior Values’ That Exist Beyond the Uniform
The steely gaze and pointing finger of the War Minister from 1914 - Lord Kitchener - draws the patented British emotion of correctness, uprightness, and patriotism till date in its timeless recruitment campaign of ‘Be the Best’. It is still aiming for inclusivity with its arguable and most recent, ‘snowflakes’ campaign.
The advent of tech-based ‘push-button’ warfare notwithstanding, it has not diminished the necessities of warrior values which were re-insisted in the British Military doctrine, ‘Soldering – The Military Covenant’, published as late as 2000.
Avoiding Politicisation of the Army
More recently, the French Chief of Defence staff, General Francois Lecointre, announced his resignation to avoid ‘politicisation of the army chief’s role’.
The backdrop of governmental/partisan pressures to publicly force General Lecointre to summon six veteran generals towards a ‘higher disciplinary council’, when the institution would have preferred dealing with the same with more rectitude, reserve and refrain from public glares, was ignored.
Importantly, General Lecointre’s urge of ensuring apolitical anchorage was echoed in his words, ‘if you are suspected of serving a political clan, you cast doubt on the army’s independence’, and then added cuttingly that it was important to remind the citizenry that the army served the nation’s constitution and offices and, ‘not Emmanuel Macron’.
Trump’s Attempt to Misuse the Armed Forces’ Imagery Foiled
This was the exact constitutional spirit that was invoked by the sitting US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, who had said, ‘We do not take an oath to a King or a Queen, a tyrant or a dictator. We do not take an oath to an individual’ and then added presciently, ‘we take an oath to the constitution’ – the backdrop then was the blatant attempt by President Trump to both, misuse the imagery or possibly the services of the Armed Forces, for partisan interests.
Months earlier, the same General had reiterated a basic civics lesson of an apolitical institution, optically and in public imagination, when he showed the character, dignity and humility to apologise for his inadvertent ‘uniformed’ presence, at a political event. General Milley plainly admitted, ‘I should not have been there. My presence at that moment, and in that environment, created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.’
It may have been only about a secondary presence in a photo frame, the subtleties and inherent suggestions of perceptions, clearly mattered to the professional, and to the institution.
An ‘Idealised’ Soldier Not an Antiquated Construct
The stereotypes of an idealised chivalrous warrior who is given to ethical and moral moorings, not in an antiquated construct - but in a deliberate insistence of values and standards - which may not be in consonance with prevailing civil society norms.
This behavioural concept of a ‘virtuous soldier’ is predicated on interrelated attributes of courage, discipline, respect, integrity, loyalty and selfless commitment (CDRILS); a moral heft that instinctively drives decisions towards a certain course of action, irrespective of what others or practicality may warrant, in situations outside of the ‘uniform’.
(Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is a Former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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