A Matter of Honour

It is ironical that this article, first published in the January-March 1999 issue of the USI Journal, should appear so topical even today. At that time, the author’s stimulus, for penning this introspective piece, perhaps, was the ugly spat between the then chief of naval staff Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat and Vice Admiral Harinder Singh, both of whom took recourse in judicial intervention and the serious discontentment in the IAF due to the 5th Pay Commission’s rulings on pilots’ salaries and allowances. FORCE has chosen to re-print this article, with the author’s permission, because we believe that more than a decade after it was rendered, his advice to the officer corps may still be valid.

Adm. Arun Prakash (retd)

Many of us have probably never heard of Jeremy Boorda. He was an American; citizen of a nation whose ethics we continuously sneer at, from the high moral pedestal of India’s ancient civilisation and culture.

I start this article with a mention of Boorda, because on 23 May 1996 he drove home from his office, drew a loaded pistol and ended his life by shooting himself in the chest.

Admiral Boorda was the four-star head of the US Navy, known as Chief of Naval Operations (CNO). The 56-year old flag officer was the first man in the history of USN to rise from the ranks to the post of CNO. In a hierarchy dominated by US Naval Academy graduates, Boorda’s humble origins meant that he had to prove himself at every rung of the ladder in his long climb to the coveted post of CNO. So what made him take his own life when he had reached the pinnacle of professional achievement? Was it cowardice, or was it a sense of honour?

For a number of years, Admiral Boorda had worn a combat insignia (the small metallic letter ‘V’) affixed to two campaign ribbons earned for shipboard service off Vietnam between 1965 and 1973. As per USN regulations, this insignia was to be worn only by personnel who were deployed in specified combat zones. A routine check by the Bureau of Personnel had revealed in 1987 that Boorda was not entitled to wear it. By the time that he became CNO, Boorda had stopped wearing the Combat ‘V’, but in April 1996, this issue had been raked-up by Newsweek magazine, which had sought an interview with him to discuss it. The interview was scheduled the day Boorda shot himself.

Were two tiny pieces of metal stuck on scraps of ribbon, as a result of what Boorda himself termed, ‘an honest mistake’ enough for him to take his life? Opinions will certainly differ, but Boorda had always stressed the long US Navy tradition of leaders accepting responsibility and accountability. He himself wanted to be seen as such a leader, and apparently could not tolerate the idea that his personal actions might dishonour the service he had joined at the age of 16.

‘Death before dishonour’ has been the creed of warriors for centuries. Roman legionnaires, Rajput princes, Japanese samurai and British military officers have lived and died by this credo. Some British regiments invoked it even off the battlefield; an officer considered guilty of a serious misdemeanour by his peers would one evening enter his quarters to find a loaded revolver in the opened drawer of his writing table. The unstated message from his comrades was stark but unmistakable: ‘Do not sully the name of Regiment by a messy court martial. Take the honourable way out’. Very often he did.

To return to Boorda’s case, there can be little doubt, that with some smart legal advice and hair-splitting, he could have proved that he had done no wrong, and thereafter clung to office. It is, however, obvious that he must have agonised hard over this, and come to the conclusion that his Service was more important than him, or his life.

My NDA Experience
In the current Indian environment a credo like ‘death before dishonour’ would appear melodramatic, and perhaps even comic. But, at least for the armed forces, there is another credo, more down to earth, and certainly within everyone’s reach: ‘Service before Self’, very roughly translated into Sanskrit as ‘Seva Parmo Dharma’. It is the motto of the National Defence Academy (NDA) which I have the honour to command, and which has produced a significant proportion of the officers in the armed forces today.

On taking over as Commandant, I found that the 600 or so teenagers who entered the NDA annually came from every walk of life and every social stratum imaginable. They were highly motivated young men who coped with the rigours of training far better than we did over three decades ago in the 1960s, considering that the curriculum had become far more demanding and intensive — both physically and intellectually — since. This seemed an excellent portent for the egalitarian and highly professional armed forces of our Republic. However, it became clear from a scrutiny of the range and scale of misdemeanours, which occurred in the Academy, that a large proportion of these young men had received no inputs about a value system, nor were they provided a moral foundation at home, or in school.

As a direct consequence of this absence of any ethical moorings, many of them, in the high-pressure training environment, tended to fall prey to the urgings of their more worldly-wise and less scrupulous seniors. They were told that a ‘smart’ cadet should possess the basic ‘skills’ to prevail, or at least survive in any adverse situation.

Some of the measures recommended in this unwritten ‘survival manual’ included lying, cheating, manhandling, stealing (or ‘management’ as it is euphemistically termed), and impersonation. While it may be understandable for a rudderless young cadet to eagerly grasp such concepts, what astonished me was the benign and even approving attitude of some divisional officers and squadron commanders towards such grave infractions of, what were once, sacred traditions of the Academy.

A little reflection showed that coming from the same environment, and being products of exactly the same system, these relatively junior officers did not know any better, and hence saw nothing wrong in approving something they had experienced themselves during training. It was dismaying to see how short-lived the Academy traditions apparently were because most of the officers were frankly incredulous when I told them that manhandling, stealing and cheating were rare and very severely dealt with when discovered in ‘our days’ in the 1960s.

An indoctrination campaign and some preventive as well as stringent punitive measures helped reduce, to a great extent, the incidence of such offences. However, it was felt that the current social environment demanded that the young man in the Academy be provided with a tangible code of conduct which would spell out clearly what he was expected or not expected to do.

Academy Honour Code
The honour code systems followed in military academies elsewhere were studied and dissected for weaknesses. A thick musty old file containing notes and enclosures spread over a quarter of a century (which had repeatedly considered and discarded this concept) was examined and discussed. What finally emerged was the NDA Honour Code which was promulgated in March 1998, along with an elaborate procedure for administering it. The text of the code was kept starkly simple: “I believe that a Cadet must be truthful, trustworthy, honest and forthright under all circumstances. I will not lie, cheat or steal, nor will I mislead or deceive anyone. I undertake to faithfully live up to this code and to continuously encourage my comrades to do so.”

I was surprised to note that while the Academy Honour Code evoked a great deal of scepticism amongst the officers, the cadets seemed to have accepted it in good faith and were willing to give it a try. By the end of the first year, it showed signs of taking firm root, and I began to hope that it would see a cadet through his basic training, and perhaps even later in life. But what is there to guide our officers, especially in the upper reaches of the military hierarchy, when they falter and stumble?

Self before the Service?
The year 1998 was a trauma filled one for the Indian armed forces as a whole, and the IN and IAF in particular. The events of this period will be analysed for a long time to come. But if one goes deep enough, and takes a holistic view of series of dismal episodes that one witnessed, with a sense of surrealism, the underlying cause becomes quite apparent: failure of leadership. Or to be more specific, failure of senior officers to place the larger interests of their Service before personal or parochial interests. Once considered a rare or unusual phenomenon and even dishonourable, taking recourse to courts of law in order to obtain redressal for service related grievances has become commonplace today. Only the short-sighted will fail to discern that the increasing intervention of the courts in what should be internal affairs of the armed forces will destroy their spirit, cohesion and morale, in a matter of few years. There are two very good reasons for this.

First, whenever an officer wants to represent his own case in a convincing manner in a court of law, it is inevitable that he will have to show either the Service or his brother officer(s), or both in a poor light. And, this amounts, to nothing but washing the family’s dirty linen in full public gaze. The officer will also feel the need to enlist support of bureaucrats, politicians and the press to bolster his case: in the process, demeaning himself and his Service further.

Second, the judiciary, are a set of hard-headed professionals whose job is to weigh the evidence presented before them, in as dispassionate and impartial a manner as possible. Therefore, they can be expected to disregard any pleas based on abstract notions like customs and traditions of service, command responsibility, esprit de corps, or morale of the armed forces. Hence, it is quite likely that most judicial decisions given purely on points of law will violate these notions which are an integral component and lifeblood of any fighting force.

A Hard Look at Ourselves
Yet, it is the stand of many officers, that they were driven to litigation only as the last resort, in order to obtain redress against ‘injustice’. If we want our officers to foreswear courts of law, it is obvious that we have to aim for two basic objectives. First, every officer must be taught from a very young age (perhaps as a cadet) to have a clear understanding of what constitutes the interest of his service, as distinct from what is self-interest. He must also be taught to always hold the former well above the latter. This may perhaps modify his perception of ‘injustice’ in later years. Secondly, we must ensure that our personnel management systems are equitable and fair, to ensure that injustice is not actually inflicted on any one.

It would be naive and simplistic to imagine that one can either pinpoint a single fault-line or suggest a specific nostrum to bring about instant peace and harmony in the services. However, if we can somehow make a few small but significant changes in the way many of us at senior levels do things some of these ills would disappear.

I would like to touch upon a few sensitive issues including some of our common failings here. I do so without attempting to strike a sanctimonious note, because some of the follies and shortcomings related here must, surely, be my own!

Overweening Ambition
Ambition is a highly desirable trait in a human being, and especially a fighting man. Without it, there would be no aspiration for higher things, no quest for perfection, and a person could well become an uninspired cabbage.

Having said that, I must add that everyone, and especially fighting men, must guard against ‘overweening ambition’. And ambition becomes ‘overweening’ when you start putting your personal advancement above all other consideration. Nothing remains sacred before such an all-consuming passion: friends will be stabbed in the back, the service will be shown in a poor light, and all the means including the press, politicians and courts enlisted for furthering one’s personal agenda. In order to retain our sense of proportion where ambition is concerned, we have to keep reminding ourselves of just two basic facts: Firstly, that our service is bigger and more precious than all of us, and must take priority over our personal needs in every instance. Secondly, let no one delude himself that he must embark on a holy crusade because he was ‘destined’ to be promoted, or to occupy a particular post or appointment. After three or more decades of service there is, really, little to distinguish one senior officer from another.

The Resignation Option
Having tried all means of redressal within the service, if one still feels aggrieved, is there any alternative to litigation and the ignominy that it brings to all parties?

Yes, indeed there is! In fact, in the good old days, when going to courts was still considered a sordid thing to do, the honourable option was to ‘put in your papers’ or resign. It is a sign of the times that this option is not considered very ‘smart’ these days. I know of (a few) officers who did resign from Service on issues of principle, and they are still remembered with great respect and affection by juniors and contemporaries alike. You cannot say the same about those who take recourse to writ petitions.

Frankly, the pensionary benefits that a senior officer gets after the 5th Pay Commission are most generous, and the peace of mind as well as the self respect which come with a graceful retirement is probably a million times more precious than the extra promotion or time one may wrench out of the Service through the law courts.

Creating Coteries
Sycophancy is a two-way transaction and the burden of guilt must be shared as much by the junior who butters up a senior, as by the senior who encourages or even permits such blandishments. Sycophancy possibly comes more easily to Indians because our culture in any case demands respect for age and position, and it is very easy to blur the very fine line dividing the two.

If not ruthlessly crushed by those of us in senior positions, sycophancy inevitably leads to the formation of cliques and coteries. And this is how it all starts: a junior officer will come up to you one day and say (he may perhaps write), “I want to express my gratitude to you Sir, for the promotion/medal/posting/course, you have got for me. I know how difficult it must have been and I am really thankful to you”.

At this juncture, all you have to do is to shrug your shoulders modestly and make an innocuous remark like “Oh, it is all right, it was no big deal”. You may or may not have been responsible for his bonanza, but by accepting the credit, you would have made him your slave for life. This man will forever sing your praises, and you will now feel obliged to ‘take care’ of him. The ‘quid pro quo’ would have been established.

In such a case, my recommended line of action is to seat the person, and then administer a severe rebuke to this effect: “Old boy, if you need to actually thank someone for your promotion/medal/posting/course, you obviously did not deserve it, and we should have it cancelled. On the other hand, if you have really slogged to earn it, why give away the credit you deserve yourself by giving thanks to someone?”

By this line of action, you may well deprive yourself of a potential admirer and slave, but you would certainly have nipped a sycophant in the bud and hopefully prevented the start of a coterie.

One may well ask, what is so bad about a senior officer having a small coterie of bright young officers who share his views and ideas on most things, and admire him? The short answer is, that coteries create an unending cycle of sycophancy and patronage, which manifests itself as described in the paragraphs that follow.

Show me the Face
The cynical young officer in a typical ships Wardroom (and I presume it is so in regimental messes and squadron crew rooms too) often sums up our personnel policies with the cynical phrase: ‘Show me the face, and I will show you the rule’.

For a personnel management system to be accused of arbitrariness, ‘ad hocism’, and inconsistency is the severest condemnation that it can be subjected to. While some of these charges may arise from faulty perceptions, a majority of them are founded on fact. Because goal posts are actually often shifted to dispense patronage, and norms changed to include or exclude people, depending on whether they are in this camp or that. The worst sin that can be committed in this domain is attempting to form a line of succession, and then re-framing the rules to ensure it.

Fairness, transparency and consistency are the best way of inspiring confidence, making coteries redundant, and minimising instance of perceived injustice. Then perhaps, people will not feel the need to go to court.

Listen to Advice
Contrary to the popular notion, neither age nor rank invests a senior officer with any special Solomon-like wisdom. They give him only experience, which helps him to tide over many a crisis, which might stump a young man.

In order to ensure that any gaps in his experience are plugged, and the best advice and assistance is always available to a commander, a complete hierarchy is placed at his disposal. However, in order to give himself the maximum benefit of their expertise, the Commander needs to have an open mind, to welcome new ideas, and even to accept occasionally that he may be wrong.

It is the staff, which should first be receiving what are hopefully the most authentic inputs. It is their job to know or to find out, what the junior officers think, what kind of ‘baat cheet’ goes on in langars, mess decks and airmen’s messes. It is then, incumbent upon them to brief the boss honestly and accurately — the bad news first and good news later.

The catch here is, that many of us keep our mind as well as doors closed, and thereby shut off valuable inputs. We also make it known deliberately and unconsciously that bad news and contrary views are unwelcome. This breeds a set of courtiers who always bring good news and never contradict the boss. A senior officer who surrounds himself with such people isolates himself dangerously and will certainly take wrong decisions, which may cause resentment, and harm the service. Since his ‘feedback loop’ is impaired, he will never come to know what he has done wrong, and may continue to compound his follies till they reach serious proportions.

Even in an undemocratic set up like the armed forces, seeking a consensus, and taking people along (in policy-making) is not a bad thing. It may prevent the senior officer from making a serious error of judgment, and will ensure that the policy once promulgated is sincerely implemented, even by those who succeed him in office.

What do those in the rank and file of the armed forces think of what they read and see in the media about the contretemps at the highest levels? What are they supposed to make of the allegations and counter allegations being hurled around? And how do they react when our ladies jump into the fray?

The fact of the matter is, that all this is not supposed to happen, and will not happen if the senior officers of the armed forces come to a tacit and unanimous understanding on three main issues which could constitute an unwritten and self-imposed code of conduct.
• Firstly, that our personnel-related policies will be above-board, fair and consistent, and that we will do our best to
ensure that no injustice is done to anyone.
• Secondly, that we will discourage sycophancy and not collect coteries around us. Nor will we show undue favour or bias
towards anyone, and we will allow merit alone to count.
• Thirdly, we will, as a matter of honour, forswear the use of courts, press and other external means, to seek redress for
grievances, and we will confine ourselves to service channels only for this purpose.

The time has also come now, for the Services to form in-house tribunals (on the lines of CAT) to examine and take decision on grievances of armed forces personnel.

Finally, the question arises, that if this code of agenda is voluntary or self-imposed (it cannot be otherwise) how do we enforce it?

The obvious answer is, by peer pressure or ostracism. In our rural society, fellow feeling is embodied in the act of all families drawing water from a common well, and by the men-folk passing the same hookah from hand to hand when they gather in the evenings. The most serious punishment that can be meted out to a delinquent in the village is exclusion from both these activities, or ‘hookah-pani band’, as it is called.

How about some ‘hookah-pani band’ in the armed forces?
(The writer is a former chief of naval staff, and currently a member of the National Security Advisory Board)


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