Lack of reading in the new generation of officers is a serious malaise
Nearly 12 years ago, when I first heard the refrain from a retired Indian Army lieutenant general that young officers do not read any longer, it was a lament. He rued the fact that the counter-insurgency operations — the endless and thankless low-level war (now referred to as no-war-no-peace) — leave young officers with no time to read even professional material, let alone literature. As a result, the overall intellect level of the officer class has progressively been on a decline.
But why a professional soldier would need to read literature, if not for mere pleasure, I wondered aloud.
It is true that reading literature is pure pleasure, he argued, but it also trains your intellect to absorb new ideas and concepts. It can also be inspiring, he said, adding that, he is not even expecting young officers who are overworked and hard-pressed for time to read fiction. “But at least they should read professional literature and not take short-cuts by memorising the précis to clear various examinations,” he insisted.
Recently, at a public event, I heard a retired army commander talk about the lack of reading habit amongst the young in the uniform. There was no lament in his tone; there was a touch of pride, because he qualified the lack of reading as a new trend of the modern world where social media forums like twitter and Facebook are not mere sources of entertainment but news as well. This is what they read and this is how they express themselves, he said. Today, they have no time to write professional essays, as was required of them. But this does not mean that they are any less intelligent or smart than their predecessors, he claimed. What the older generation said in their essays, the younger lot is saying in tweets, he said in all seriousness.
His final point was that the new crop of officers should not be judged by their poor command of the language, neither by the absence of grammar nor by spelling mistakes. They should be judged by their enthusiasm and initiative.
Safe to say, 12 years have had their impact. The fear of intellectual atrophy that haunted the old timer has come true. His successor, 12 years hence, not only rubbished the habit of reading, he also downplayed the importance of language. Clearly, for him too, the fountainhead of all wisdom was social media, where independent thinking, clarity of ideas, dispassionate assessment, language and spellings are slaughtered every minute at the twin altars of propaganda and herd mentality.
The 17th Century Irish writer, playwright and subsequently politician, Richard Steele is known to have written once that, ‘Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.’ To this, I would add that language is the tool which facilitates reading and writing; and grammar a mechanism by which you express your ideas. All of these are the most basic necessities of civilised living.
If you don’t have words at your command how are you going to say what you want to say? Complex ideas do not need complex words, but they certainly need a vocabulary without which the receiver of your ideas would be left struggling in the maze of incomprehensible sentences. And you would be left making excuses about being misunderstood!
Another great writer, this time a German and one of the earliest critics of Nazism, Heinrich Miller had said, ‘A house without books is like a room without windows.’ Without the windows, how would you know what is happening outside? Whether there are friends or enemies outside, or whether your friends have been canoodling with your enemies. When you can’t see for yourself, you will have no choice but to believe what you are told.
The importance of reading, thereafter reflecting and finally, writing, especially for the military officers can never be overemphasised. More than any time in the past, today there is a need for military officers to be well read, so that they are able to understand better, assess fairly, advice sensibly and are able to take far-reaching judgement calls. Reading is a habit that grows on you gradually, one book at a time. If you don’t read when you are a junior officer, you will not understand when you become a senior officer. And you will continue to repeat what you learnt from your superiors without questioning its efficacy. You will remain stuck in theories of the past, as your intellect will neither be able to absorb nor process new ideas.
It is not about literature alone. Once the mind is made supple by continuous and varied reading, it is able to connect what it has read with the events around. Prescience is not a supernatural trait. It is the ability to take a broad overview of the past to put your present in a context, so that you can understand how events are likely to unfold in the future. Isn’t this ability essential for all military leaders? Where will this ability come from if not cultivated early on?
Military power is one of the prongs of national power. By celebrating the age of illiteracy amongst military leaders we are ensuring that as a nation we continue to hobble on borrowed wisdom.