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Agneepath scheme reveals soldiers have little faith in men, women who lead them

Cdr S ShrikumarCdr Shrikumar Sangiah (retd)

The military provides leadership responsibilities early. Men and women, not yet 25, routinely lead troops into battle, fly the most modern fighter jets, stand watch on ships and submarines, and operate equipment worth several hundred crores of rupees.

Matters military are emotive subjects. Inevitably, talk of nationalism, sacrifice, duty, patriotism etc. infiltrates every discussion on the military. Military training, often by design, uses these emotions and a little myth-making to instil in its officers and men a sense of pride in the uniform and the vocation of arms.

Popular culture, too, via cinema and songs, helps magnify these emotions and propagate these myths. So much so the general citizenry feels obligated to venerate its military and be appreciative of everything the military does. Many in the military, too, buy into these myths (more than they ought to) and begin viewing themselves as being above scrutiny.

All the myth-making and veneration leads, unwittingly, to self-deception within the military. This self-deception is consistent with Nietzsche’s observation that in humans, the will to untruth is stronger than the will to truth. The self-deception breeds a sense of exceptionalism, clouding judgment and making any honest and objective self-assessment within the military impossible.

During discussions on the military, for those outside the military, objectivity and honesty can very often be liabilities. Whenever issues about the military are written about or discussed on television, anyone critical of the military or its leaders faces a strong pushback and even abuse.


Agneepath Scheme

In June 2022, the Indian armed forces launched the Agneepath, or Tour of Duty, scheme for the recruitment of soldiers, airmen and sailors into the army, air force and the navy. The scheme envisages the annual recruitment of 46,000 men and women to be called Agniveers into the armed forces.

The Agniveers will initially be required to serve for a period of four years. At the end of the four years, 25 per cent will be allowed to continue serving till they superannuate. The remaining 75 per cent will be required to exit the service.

The professed goals of the Agneepath scheme are lowering the average age profile of personnel in the armed forces and trimming their number in active service to save on wages and pensions. The bloated wages and pensions bill accounts for a disproportionately (and unsustainably) large portion of the defence budget. This, the military avers, has necessitated the diversion of funds meant for the modernisation of the forces to pay wages and pensions.

The announcement of the scheme was met with fierce criticism initially. After a week of very vocal and violent protests, things settled down. The armed forces since then have initiated recruitment under the scheme and judging by reports in the media, the response has been highly encouraging. But the week-long Agneepath ferment yielded invaluable insights on the quality of military leadership. These insights on leadership merit greater scrutiny.


The Hullabaloo

The heat that followed the announcement of the scheme sparked many passionate discussions on its strengths and weaknesses. Serving officers, soldiers, politicians, military veterans, journalists, Agneepath aspirants, the young, the old, men, women—literally everyone waded into the debate. The officers and men in service discussed it within their units and messes. The others discussed it on TV channels, in their homes, in newspaper columns and on the streets.

Among serving officers, only the service chiefs and other General rank officers spoke to the media. Among them, consistent with the ethos of the armed forces, there were no dissenting views. But the community of veteran officers and soldiers, free of the restraints of service rules, were more forthright with their views. Some veterans approved of the scheme, some expressed mild reservations and many strongly opposed the scheme.

Television studios and digital media channels assembled expert panels to weigh in on the merits and demerits of the scheme. The representation on the expert panels was almost exclusively of veteran officers. Only a few channels roped in veteran soldiers for a rounded, officer and soldier take on the subject.

The unbridled and in some cases intemperate views (somewhat exaggerated, but not incorrect) voiced during the TV debates, especially by veteran soldiers, give cause to the services to take notice, reflect and even be concerned. The services need to objectively re-examine the true state of the officer-soldier relationship.

Veteran soldiers expressed misgivings regarding the soundness of the scheme’s design. One veteran soldier, interviewed by a prominent news channel, is the recipient of India’s highest war-time gallantry award. It would be imprudent and unwise to dismiss the soldiers’ views as being misguided or misinformed. The soldiers’ strong reservations included:

  • The six months earmarked for training Agniveers is inadequate to prepare them for any job in the army, save the most mundane ones. Inadequate training was of greater concern to the airmen and the sailors since the air force and the navy require their men to be more technology-savvy.
  • Inadequately trained soldiers cannot be trusted with any meaningful responsibility in the units. This will place an extra burden on the regular soldiers. The Agniveers will not end up acquiring any professional competence during their tour of duty, disadvantaging them in the job market once they exit service.
  • The inadequately trained soldiers, not fit for any meaningful responsibility, will then be employed as sahayaks (orderlies). The sahayak system (existing only in the army), has been a subject of much debate and disquiet for some time now.
  • The scheme suffers from weaknesses because JCOs and soldiers were not involved/ consulted in the design of the scheme. As a result, the scheme is divorced from the realities on the ground.

In the media debates, the veteran soldiers candidly voiced their distrust of generals, serving and retired, and also revealed a general distrust of officers. The soldiers were critical of the conduct of many generals and officers while in-service and also after retirement. The soldiers were not convinced by the assurances given by the military to prospective applicants that the Agneepath scheme had been designed with their and the services interests in mind.


Private Truths, Public Lies

The veteran soldiers, while in service, could not have publicly voiced their dissenting views. This difference in the behaviour of serving and veteran soldiers can be explained by the theory of preference falsification put forward by economist and political scientist, Prof. Timur Kuran in his book, Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification.

Preference falsification is the act of people publicly stating that they believe in a particular thing while privately believing something entirely different. The private belief might even be the exact opposite of their publicly stated belief. People tailor their views to appear socially acceptable to those around them. Preference falsification is widespread, with enormous social and political consequences. It is more common in totalitarian regimes and in situations where the negative social consequences of voicing a contrary opinion are severe.

The military’s organisational structure imposes total conformance with laid down norms and strict adherence to rules. Dissent while in service would amount to indiscipline and attract punishment as stipulated in military law. One, therefore, does not hear of any dissenting views from serving officers and soldiers.

Outside the context of the military, a significant social impact of preference falsification is the widespread support for social practices/policies that would normally be rejected if a secret ballot were to be held. As a result, policies and practices that no one supports in private, continue to persist.

Kuran suggests that this anomalous behaviour occurs because people weigh the benefits of revealing their true opinion versus aligning with popular opinion. Kuran called this reputational utility. People know that if they deviate from popular opinion, it could cost them their reputation and even lead to social exclusion. It, therefore, makes sense for them to tailor their publicly-stated preferences to align with the popular opinion.

Kuran cites the example of India’s caste system to illustrate how preference falsification can impact societal practices. He observes that for individuals at the lower end of India’s social order, being able to stay out of trouble is dependent on staying away from being perceived as a troublemaker. The best way to do this is to oppose individuals from their social strata who publicly express dissent. This becomes a means for demonstrating loyalty to the dominant group and staying out of trouble. In this instance, preference falsification becomes such an impactful force that it enables the odious and millennia-old caste system to persist to this day.

For military officers, much of what they heard from the veteran soldiers during the media debates should not come as a surprise. Most officers are aware of the existence of preference falsification and their own failings. Even outside the military, preference falsification (hiding their true opinion of superiors at work) abounds in every hierarchically organised workplace. Preference falsification even occurs in families and friends.

But what should worry the military is that the conduct of its leaders occasions the rise of negative perceptions among the men they lead. Only service regulations keep a lid on the soldiers’ discontent while they are in active service. After retirement, the soldiers’ private truths find expression.

No organisation can claim a complete absence of preference falsification among its employees. But preference falsification in the military assumes greater significance since the military’s effectiveness depends entirely upon the ability of its leaders to inspire true respect from the men they command. Only when the soldiers have true faith in and actual respect for their superiors’ motives and conduct will they follow them into battle with full conviction.

Leadership does not flow from a person’s designation or the authority vested in him/ her. In the military, only those individuals who demonstrably embody the ideals of the military will be accepted as leaders. When there is a perceived contradiction between the prescribed ideals and the practices followed, moral authority is lost. No surprises then in what the soldiers said to the media channels. The military and its leaders need to accept the responsibility for their failings.


Erosion of Military Ethics

Paradoxically, the military’s organisational system is itself, at least partly, responsible for the ethical slide among its leaders, making the soldiers hold a dim view of the men and women who lead them. The military’s steeply pyramidal structure engenders fierce competition. Inevitably, to get ahead, unsavoury tactics are brought into play by individuals.

Much of the power play is subtle, but enough of it happens in plain sight for everyone to see. Despite the subtlety, talk gets around with exaggeration and distortion. As a result, there is a dilution in the moral force the military’s leaders are expected to exemplify through the highest standards of ethical personal conduct. This leads to a sense of disaffection among the soldiers.

Competition, unbridled ambition and the willingness to dispense with ethical norms manifest themselves in multiple ways in the officer cadre

  • Authoritarianism: The service vests significant formal authority with officers. The abuse of this authority leads to authoritarianism. This, together with a sense of entitlement, skews judgement and the ideal of leading by example is forgotten.
  • Obsession with Success: A desire to succeed at any cost leads to sycophancy, one-upmanship and the withholding of honest feedback and free expression. The obsession with success can cloud the judgement of what is right and wrong.
  • Misplaced Loyalty: Genuine loyalty to the unit, the service and the leaders are misconstrued to even mean covering up wrongs. Not speaking against unethical behaviour is not loyalty. Manipulating data, doctoring reports, suppressing information etc. are all examples of misplaced loyalty.
  • Shoddy Conduct: The erroneous belief that the ends justify the means gives rise to dubious personal and professional conduct. Among military leaders, there can be no slackening in either personal or professional conduct.

Individuals will indulge in more of the behaviour that they see as being rewarded. It is, therefore, the service’s responsibility to come down hard on sycophancy, misrepresentation, financial malfeasance etc. Also, there is often a tendency within the services to ignore and rationalise indiscretions by officers that the service would not countenance in soldiers. The only way that retired soldiers will carry positive views of their officers is when in service, they see officers setting an example of ethical conduct.


Arresting the Slide

If the slide in the ethical standards of the military is to be arrested, the military has to first acknowledge the fact that its ethics and values are routinely being compromised. The Machiavellian belief that in the pursuit of power, one can be amoral and use any means, however unscrupulous, is valid (if at all) only in politics. Machiavellianism has no place in the military.

If the military is to change how the soldiers privately view their officers, it is important to restore to health, the military’s ethical environment that has seen considerable erosion. Restoring the ethical environment will require the reiteration of the lessons taught and standards professed at different stages of the military journey and an insistence on their rigorous application in daily conduct.

Leading from the front: A fish, it is said, rots from the head down. Leaders need to model and live the behaviour that they expect from their junior officers and soldiers. Setting a personal example is the single most powerful weapon in the military leader’s armoury. It is necessary to communicate the standards of ethical conduct that are expected and then model that conduct. People can be cynical and doubt what you say, but they cannot dismiss what you exemplify.

Transparency: After the requirements of security and secrecy have been taken care of, it is important to encourage a culture of free discussion and reasoned dissent. Suppressed dissent gradually turns toxic, giving rise to feelings of perceived injustice and leading to the public airing of negative views of the military of the kind seen in the wake of the Agneepath announcement.

Institutional structures: The military needs to put in place institutional systems that enforce strict adherence of the ethical code and provide for swift punitive action for deviations from the ethical code across all ranks. Such actions will signal to the increasingly aware, intelligent and discerning soldiers that a fair and impartial system to enforce ethical behaviour exists. This is the only means to regain the trust and confidence of the soldiers.

In addition, arresting the slide in the military’s ethical climate requires formal training on ethics immediately after the officers’ induction. This should be followed by periodic training during active service. Also, the selection process for military personnel should be strengthened by incorporating tests to assess the ethical makeup of the officers and soldiers being drafted into service.

Victory in war depends on the trust the soldiers repose in their officers. Military leaders will be able to elicit true trust and commitment from the men and women they lead only if they embody the ideals of military leadership. This is not easy. Leadership never is.


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