Armed forces

Honour Above All: A Lesson for the Indian Army in the US Military Response to Trump’s Bigotry

The Indian army’s higher leadership must reflect on its role as the sword arm of the republic, and have a clear vision of itself as the upholder of law.

The army must remember to put put honour above everything regardless of the politicians in power. Credit: Reuters

The army must remember to put put honour above everything regardless of the politicians in power. Credit: Reuters

One of the more edifying aspects of the otherwise depressing picture emerging from the Charlottesville incident has been the quick and uniform condemnation of the happenings by the top brass of the US armed forces. This is in sharp contrast to the waffling and subsequently condemnable conduct of their commander-in-chief, Donald J. Trump and significant sections of the civilian elite.

On August 13 itself, John Richardson, the US chief of naval operations tweeted:

Two days later, the commandant of the US Marine Corps, Robert B. Neller tweeted:

The following day, the army chief Mark Milley declared: “The army doesn’t tolerate racism, extremism, or hatred in our ranks. It’s against our values and everything we’ve stood for since 1775.” He was followed by his air force counterpart David Goldfein and the chief of the National Guard Bureau Joseph Lengyel.

Their strong stand speaks a great deal of the current intellectual make up of the US military leadership, something that has been forged in the fires of the various wars the US has fought, and the many mistakes and transgressions its military has made.

There is, of course, something about the quality of the US military’s higher leadership. Take Richardson, for example, he is not only an experienced submariner, but he is also an MA from MIT and has done an attachment with the prestigious Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Or the army chief Milley, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, who is a BA from Princeton, an MA from Columbia and a graduate of a prestigious MIT National Security programme.

Importance of upholding the military morality 

Wars and the military are not normally supposed to be associated with moral issues or ethical conduct. But any smart general knows that upholding a just cause can be a war-winning factor. This, more than anything else, is the lesson of the Second World War. If his forces are seen to be on the side of a good cause, half the battle is already won.

This is especially true in our contemporary conflicts, which do not have the goal or the option of obliterating the adversary as the Mongols had in the 13th century or the Chinese with the Xiongnu people but instead prevailing over adversary forces who function among a sea of non-combatants.

Military morality and ethics have been written down in the Hague and Geneva Conventions to avoid unnecessary suffering and safeguarding human rights with the view of restoring peace. The Second World War gave us the Nuremberg tribunal whose central message was that merely following orders, even of a duly constituted authority, was not an excuse for committing war crimes and human rights violations. Militaries talk a great deal about honour, and rightly so. For example, no honourable military man would shoot a surrendered enemy. Likewise, modern militaries look down on rape and ill-treatment of civilians. But politicians’ sense of morality is sometimes flexible.

There is no doubt that following Clausewitz, politics must always be in command in war. But there are also important points where the politician must be challenged. There is the well-known incident when General Eisenhower rejected Churchill’s suggestion to use poison gas against the German sites firing V-2 rockets on London. Honour was in upholding the law, and in this case, the international law laid down by the Hague and Geneva Conventions. But honour is also linked to the sense of self-worth of a military, how its leaders view themselves and the forces under their command. This is what has driven the American generals to categorically oppose the stand of their commander-in-chief.

People will argue that most wars have seen flagrant breaches of Hague and Geneva codes, and they are not wrong. Even so, most armies strive to show themselves to be morally and ethically superior, especially in the information technology era where victory is often about dominating the narrative in cyberspace and elsewhere.

Modern war, as our experience with Iraq and Afghanistan reveals, is about winning hearts and minds. No one will argue that the Americans have done a good job in either. The former was a war of choice, built on a patently false premises and many war crimes were committed. The latter was seen as a war of necessity arising out of the al Qaida’s attack in the US. Yet somehow the US has not been able to get the upper hand, perhaps because they are too disconnected to the people they are fighting amidst.

Our experience in Sri Lanka was an object lesson. Though we were on the morally right side, we were unable to capture the narrative because we were fighting among a people who were not ours and our army was simply not trained or oriented for that kind of a war.

The Indian context

The Indian experience has been different in Jammu and Kashmir since, unlike the US in Iraq or India in Sri Lanka, there is no option of walking away. Nevertheless, all commanders there know that at the end of the day, winning hearts and minds is the key to prevailing in an insurgency-like conflict. Neutralising individual jihadi leaders like Burhan Wani, Mehmood Ghaznavi or Yasin Itoo does not happen purely through army action, but good intelligence obtained, probably through the auspices of the J&K police which in turn has come from the fact that there are people in the Valley who support the counter-insurgency efforts.

It is in this shadow battle that Indian forces must appear superior, not just in weapons and men, but their cause and conduct. And this is why the recent Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) judgment on Machil is a body blow to the effort. The case was fairly open and shut and as much was determined by a court martial and confirmed by senior officers upto the army commander of the northern command. Yet, from the outset there were efforts to delay and subvert the course of  justice in the case.

The army had convicted five personnel including a colonel and a captain by a court martial in 2015 for the staged killing in 2010 of three Kashmiri civilians and branding them as militants. They had been given a life sentence. The tribunal’s reported judgement makes for shoddy reading citing issues like their attire and proximity to the Line of Control to cast doubt over the prosecution’s case.

In many ways the court martial system is an anachronism, but the services feel it is important for maintaining the discipline and morale of the forces. There is, however, a lesser justification for taking up criminal cases such as those of rape and murder through the system.

However, because of the presence of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Acts (AFSPA), things are complicated because in many instances of killings of civilians, the AFSPA is invoked, and often rightly. In the Machil case, the ideal would have been to hand it over to the civilian authorities, but the army chose the courts martial route wherein it tries its own personnel. And the personnel were duly convicted.

The AFTs were originally set up to ease the burden on civilian courts of a rash of cases relating to promotion issues. However, they did have the power to look at other disputes, including court materials. The experience of the AFTs has not been an entirely good one. The government is not particularly happy with the proceedings of the AFTs, while their judges are usually sound in their legal background, the military officers there lack any kind of judicial experience or knowledge when they are appointed. As a result, the government has tightened the authority of the defence secretary over the appointments of the tribunals and inquiries against its members.

In other words, they have underscored the fact that the tribunals function under the Ministry of Defence and not the regular courts system. Now the higher courts of the land must lay out clear guidelines of conduct. Justice on issues of murder and other such issues is simply too important to be left to such tribunals.

Meanwhile the Indian army’s higher leadership needs to reflect on its role as the sword arm of the republic. Being involved in counter-insurgency roles makes its tasks difficult. But it needs to have a clear cut vision of itself as the upholder of law, a force that privileges honour above everything regardless of the politicians in power.

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation.

Liked the story? We’re a non-profit. Make a donation and help pay for our journalism.
  • alok asthana

    I do not think the top brass of the Indian army will ever publicly speak up against what is clearly wrong in directions being given to them or the treatment beinng meted out to them. Or even non-publicly but on record. Somehow, we’ve been too docile. A system in which the government supersedes the senior most Lt Gen(s) for post of Chief, where there is no clear case of ineptitude, ensures that the army top brass will always tow the government line.This tendency has never been more marked that at the present moment.

    • You are correct that if appointments are on the basis of seniority in the Armed Forces or the Civil Service, then the Army can take an independent line, the Foreign Service can follow its own policy, the IAS can pursue their own goals and so forth.

      An Army Chief may say- ‘why go and fight in Kargil and Doklam? Army should fight against the poverty of its own officers by beating and extorting money from the wealthy Seths in the big metros.’
      Similarly the Foreign Secretary may instruct Indian diplomats to spend their time sucking up to the Americans so that his daughter can get a scholarship to Harvard and all his nephews get Green Cards.

      Under the Indian Constitution, the Army can’t take an independent line. It has to do what the elected Government tells it to do. This also means that if the Executive thinks one officer is better able than another officer to implement its policy, then it can choose accordingly. Senior Army officers are welcome to resign in protest. Once in mufti, they can enter the political fray.

      This article draws a foolish analogy between Trump’s America- where the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defence have a completely different policy from whatever it is that the President tweets- and Modi’s India, where the Cabinet is completely united.

      American Generals mentioned in the above article are probably acting with the cognizance of the Secretary of Defence. If they are sacked, the Secretary too will resign and- I imagine- Trump will be unable to find a replacement acceptable to the Legislature.

      It may be that there are problem areas and lacunae in India’s Defence policy and practice. ‘Distinguished Fellows’ or even ordinary people are welcome to point out what these problems are. Informed debate is a good thing. Foolish analogies and stupid lies don’t help anyone, nor rebound to anyone’s credit.

      Surely there must be some rational criticism that can be made of Narendra Modi’s Defence policy?

      • alok asthana

        If the policy of army officers speaking out against injustices would inevitably results in they carrying out extortions, then indeed it would have been a bad decision. But examples from USA has not shown that this would surely happen. However, too tight a control on forces (particularly their promotions) does result in they being ready to do anything, for personal ambition of the top brass. Gujarat police has shown that it is ready to tie the hands of a young girl and shoot her in cold blood, in order to please those who have the powers to promote them. We should dread such a situation coming to the army. The last big promotion in the army has taken us one step closer to that situation.

        • Currently, Army officers are dependent on their superiors for promotion. This by itself creates pressure to conform. At least the senior most officials should be chosen by elected officials. Otherwise the Army becomes answerable only to itself. Consider the cases of Turkey and Pakistan.

          America, as a Republic which drew inspiration from Ancient Rome, was always very aware of the danger of a ‘Proconsul’ gaining power in a manner subversive of the authority of the Legislature. Eisenhower was junior to MacArthur but he was aware that many Americans saw him as a Proconsul. Thus he cut him down to size quite pitilessly. Eisenhower even warned of the dangers of the Military Industrial Complex. Generals understood that political ambitions could undercut their own support amongst their comrades. Thus, with the exception of Haig, none showed hunger for the highest office. As a result, the Legislature trusts the Army and finances it.

          Sri Lanka is an example of a country where distrust of the Army led to a disastrous situation. Even now, that distrust remains.

          The Indian Army has to take forward positions and show fighting spirit otherwise a paramilitary border force would gain salience and funding. Similarly, if the Police don’t do encounter killings then they will lose salience and funding to Central Reserve units or other militias like Salva Judum. These are facts of life. One can talk about ‘Honour’ and so forth but these facts won’t change.

          An elected Govt. has a perfect right to get rid of any public servant who can’t or won’t efficiently and effectively implement its policies. There are only two legitimate checks on this power- that of the judiciary and that of the voter. The Indian Army can’t launch a coup because Generals know that the jawans come from families which value their votes.

          It is very sad that we have to live in a world where an Army which cares more about human rights than killing the enemy don’t get paid. Similarly, a humanitarian and law minded police force which refuses to kill gangsters in fake encounter will suddenly find that it doesn’t get any salary and that it is beaten and chased out of its official quarters.

          Even worse, politicians and journalists who keep saying Secularism must be saved find that their emoluments and influence keeps declining because nobody knows or cares what Secularism is supposed to be.

          Even Mahatma Gandhi faced a problem. His Ashramites went to do voluntary work during the Bihar Earthquake. Unfortunately they were completely useless though they spoke very nicely about Hindu Muslim unity and the need to ameliorate the caste system. Thus, Kumarappa- a Chartered Accountant in charge of the Fund- refused to pay the Gandhians because they weren’t doing any useful work.

          Thus we see, even in the Nineteen Thirties, the R.S.S- because of its reputation for doing useful work- was undermining the fundamental principles of Secular Socialist Democracy.

          The Indian Army however has a reputation for taking the fight to the enemy. This is beneficial to it. If it had the reputation for being cowardly, more of its personnel would be killed.

          • alok asthana

            You are wrong to suggest that the selection of Lt Gens for promotion to position is dependent on his superior i.e the existing COAS. There are no ACRs ( Anuual Confidential Reports) for Lt Gens. The senior most Army Cdr becomes the Chief, unless thee be something glaringly wrong with him.
            Killing the enemy is not anti-human rights. You’ve got it all mixed up. Even an executioner in a jail is supposes to use only certainly pre-approved methods of killing. He can’t just sit on the throat of the convict and choke him to death slowly. Your suggestion is very anti-human.
            Your recommendation that police officers should kill who they consider as gangsters in fake encounters is chilling. What if they thought you were a gangster?

          • Of course no senior officer would be employed if there was anything glaringly wrong with him but I understand what you mean. I understand that a panel has recommended a different merit based approach. There is a wider problem of a ‘hysteresis’ effect- whereby units which previously had salience continue to produce more senior officers and retired officers from those units lobby for their elevation even though the strategic picture has changed.

            India is facing a different situation now. It seems clear that a forward policy is required. The Govt. wants to send a message which in turn will affect expectations on the other side. The alternative is for soldiers to kill each other in far away mountains and jungles or else for insurgents and terrorists to kill us as we go about our business. We won’t pay for a nice and honourable Army which doesn’t want to get its hands dirty. Instead, we would clamour for some paramilitary outfit to do the job- in which case it will get the funding. The Army understands this. That is why they are considered to have good morale and thus are doing a good job of deterring adventurism. No doubt, ex officers and journalists will go on whining about sacred traditions being trampled into the dust. That doesn’t matter. What matters is how our Army is perceived by the enemy. If they think the commanders are timid or have divided loyalties they will attack in strength and in a coordinated manner. On the other hand, if the perception is that the High Command is gung ho and proactive at the operational level then firstly conventional forces gain salience on the other side and secondly conflict is brought forward. This is to India’s advantage at the current moment. Finally, no Govt. should signal that it has a large internal military problem more particularly if it is also signalling that the Military response will be be mediated by Legal and Political considerations. Why? Well, if this happens, infiltration and asymmetric threats increase. It is very costly to deal with this.

            Ideally, gangsters get put in jail. However, if the Judicial system is under-resourced or dilatory, the danger exists that gangsters walk free or can ‘remote control’ hit squads. Nobody has suggested any alternative to extra judicial killings once the genie is out of the bottle. The problem is that the encounter specialist is sure to start doing contract work or that a lot of innocents get killed. As they say in Pakistan, ‘how do you kill a Tiger? Answer, catch a goat. Kill it and then say ‘look, a Tiger!’.

            I am not saying killing people is a good thing. I think we should all hug and kiss each other. Modi is certainly into this hugging thing. But he is a politician. We can boot him out.
            We will only pay guys with guns if they use those guns to kill people who are trying to kill us. Again and again, voters have shown that they don’t care about any excesses committed, or even a certain amount of ‘collateral damage’, provided bad guys get killed. On the other hand, elected politicians have shown that they won’t pay for a police or Army which can’t or won’t killing bad guys. Where this happens, they switch funding to who ever will get the job done, no questions asked.

            You ask a good question ‘what if the police think you or I are a gangster or terrorist or whatever’. The answer is ‘if we know the police are torturing and killing gangsters it is in our interest to prove we aren’t gangsters. If we know they police are law abiding and that a lot of gangsters are roaming free, we should pretend to be gangsters and threaten to have the police man transferred or to have his family killed.

            Violence and coercive measures have a strategic and signalling component. ‘Expectations create Reality’. The situation is different in ‘games against nature’. The type of deontic logic associated with the latter is wholly unsuitable to the former.

            Pity, but there it is.

          • alok asthana

            A chilling perspective. Wish our army men do’t read it. I also wish the PM doesn’t read it either. Even he is not that cold person.

          • I think Game Theory is taught at most War Colleges. Army officers understand the difference between a ‘cheap talk’ pooling equilibrium and a ‘costly signal’ separating equilibrium. For a Saint, the ‘costly signal’ may involve not retaliating. This is not the case for people paid to fight.
            It appears that you believe people get influenced by what they read. This may be true for very young kids or very stupid people. It is not true at all of people who are good strategist and who have risen to the top of professions which require strategic thinking.

          • alok asthana

            I give up.

          • Very honourable of you, I’m sure.

          • alok asthana

            Not honourable. Just disgusted.

          • Bibhatsa rasa- the sentiment of disgust- has a soteriological value and thus finds a place in our culture and religion. It is perfectly proper for a person who has discharged his duty in an exemplary fashion in his profession and in raising a family to feel disgust at the forces of lust and greed and aggression which distort the world of human affairs. Thus, many a warrior has renounced the world and embraced the pure Religion of Ahimsa.

            According to the Mahabharata, a son may discharge the soldierly duty of a father who has renounced the world from a feeling of disgust with worldly affairs. There is no contradiction between changing one’s views as one passes from one stage of life to another. However, the view point of a vanaprastha or sanyasi has no binding force upon a grihastha even if the former is the father, or was previously the commander of the latter.

            Indian army officers have shown by their conduct that the seniority rule was unnecessary because our soldiers are too honourable to neglect their duties in order to curry favour with politicians and the media. We don’t see army officers refusing dangerous postings so as to remain at H.Q sucking up to important people and preferring to do bundobast for them rather than risking their lives.

            Furthermore, we have had senior officers who had much superior intellect and diplomatic skill than the bureaucrats and senior politicians. Take the case of S.K Sinha. He ‘faded away’ obediently after failing to get P.M Indira Gandhi to listen to reason, but rendered an invaluable service to the nation later on as a Diplomat and Governor.

            Was Sinha a hawk or a dove? The answer is that he was prepared to protect the dove by giving his own flesh to the hawk. The sentiment of bhibhatsa with ‘matsanyaya’ is befitting to one who has himself conquered all enemies. However, it does not involve imposing one’s own values on others who continue to discharge duties of a hawk like nature.

          • alok asthana

            Boss, you’re just too much.

  • The American Army practiced segregation yet it prevailed in two world wars. An Army may be very nice and sweet and constantly doing worthless degrees and reading carefully what Joshi Sahib has to say and yet be completely unfit for purpose.

    Suppose an Army commander in a particular sector tweets ‘We condemn Modi’s policies which are causing harm to Muslims’- what will happen? Well, the enemy will launch insurgency in that particular sector- believing the troops there to have low morale and bad leadership. Thus the commander will be guilty of the blood of his own men.

    America is in a different position. Mexico is not sponsoring terrorism against it. Canada is not probing its defences in the North.

    However, if the Armerican Armed forces decided to concentrate on bringing down Trump’s regime- supposing that to be their interpretation of their Constitutional duty- then America would become very unsafe. Some Mexican cartel or militia based in Canada would indeed start entrenching itself on American soil.

    Manoj Joshi is a ‘Distinguished Fellow’. I don’t know what the fellow is distinguished for. Frankly, I dread to find out.

  • Abhiram

    I think here the comparison is of apples and oranges. The American generals tweeted about incidents not involving their men, but an issue involving civilian unrest among different sections of the society. Also the confederate army was not part of the regular US army, if you are aiming at some comparison there. However one thing I agree with is the fact is none of our generals has the spunk to make such comments in a similar situation.