Get Off The Pedestal

Military enjoys people’s trust but it must give up its sense of exceptionalism, infallibility

Cdr S ShrikumarShrikumar Sangiah

Azim Premji University (APU) and the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) undertook a study in 2018 to assess people’s trust in India’s institutions. The study found that of the various Indian institutions, the one that is most trusted is the army/military. In the study, the army/ military scored the highest on ‘effective trust’ with a score of 77 per cent.

The APU-CSDS study defined effective trust for any given institution as the difference between the percentage of respondents who, during the study, marked ‘a great deal of trust’ at one end of the scale and ‘no trust at all’ at the other end of the scale.

The Supreme Court came in second with an effective trust score of 54.8 per cent and the high courts were third with a score of 48 per cent. If the study is repeated today, the military, in all likelihood, will again top the rankings.

People’s trust in the military is not unique to India. A 2020 Gallup poll in the USA found that 72 per cent of Americans said they had ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ of confidence in the military.

Some of this trust and admiration for the military arises from the myths nurtured and perpetuated by political parties, favourable depictions of the military in literature, films and songs, and its mythologisation in other sources of popular culture. This adulation for the military, the common manifestation of which is seen in requests by people for selfies with uniformed personnel, preferential boarding at airports for serving and veteran soldiers, exemptions at highway toll booths, etc., paradoxically, becomes a cause that creates a distance between the military and the general citizenry.

Without a doubt, military service is to be admired. However, the notion within the military that those not in service are somehow not adequately fulfilling their civic responsibilities is misplaced. This notion has nevertheless gained strength and found much popular acceptance even among those outside the military. Reverence for the military is viewed by those not in service as a form of social penitence. Expressing gratitude and appreciation for those in the military is in order, but blind admiration is unhealthy and worse, is corrosive to the military’s ethos of selfless service.


Myth Making

To win and keep the people’s trust, the military expends significant effort. The military, through carefully thought-out training programmes, instils in its personnel the values of duty, service, ethical conduct and self-sacrifice. It trains its men and women to imbibe the right values—for the military to always live up to the trust that the people repose in it.

Soldierly abilities, and the mindset required to become effective warriors, are imparted during training by laying a strong foundation of behavioural, technical, and operational skills. An essential component of such training is the study of military history. Studying military history equips soldiers with an understanding of the contexts of past battles and the complex interplay between actions and outcomes. Accounts of battlefield valour, a study of battlefield strategies and tactics, successes, failures and other lessons from military history prepare leaders to perform decisively in battlefield situations.

For a professional military leader, the study and analysis of past battles are key sources of learning. Study and analysis of past battles yield important lessons on leadership qualities, tactics, strategy and personality attributes that could be applied in future battles.

The study of military history serves to prepare soldiers for a lifetime in the profession of arms—beyond merely preparing them for the next battle. Carl von Clausewitz, a military theorist, viewed the study of military history as a ‘vital check on erudite abstractions that did not accord with experience.’ Clausewitz argued that ‘war could not be quantified or reduced to map work, geometry, and graphs.’ A strong advocate of the study of military history, he said its study is ‘meant to educate the mind of the future commander or more accurately, to guide him in his self-education, not to accompany him to the battlefield; just as a wise teacher guides and stimulates a young man’s or woman’s (author’s addition) intellectual development, but is careful not to lead him by the hand for the rest of his life.’

Analyses of past battles help understand and reconcile the human instinct for self-preservation with the sense of duty that prompts soldiers to willingly put themselves in harm’s way. It also enables an understanding of leaders’ characters, their anxieties and their doubts. Military history, in addition, is also a study of instances of ineffective leadership, insubordination, cruelty, violence and disintegration.

During training, soldiers also study biographies/ autobiographies of past military leaders. The life stories of past leaders provide invaluable lessons drawn from their experiences, their thoughts and their conduct. Soldiers-in-the-making are encouraged to emulate these leaders and use them as positive role models.

It is important that these role models are not picked based on their rank. The role models must pick themselves by virtue of their deeds, their conduct and the moral standards that they uphold. Military role models must epitomise the best values of the military—professional competence together with mental and physical fitness and strength.

Drawing lessons from the lives of military leaders and the military campaigns that they led, besides serving to instil the right soldierly values, helps guard against repeating past mistakes. It also helps current leaders understand the breadth of qualities that is expected of them to be able to deliver on their leadership responsibilities.

The role models must come across as being human and as individuals whom the soldiers can relate to. The military is built on relationships and humans relate best to other humans. But often, the character traits of the role models are exaggerated and their deeds mythologised. Role models are often built up as being superhuman with no flaws. In the narratives of military history, the military is also depicted as an institution that is perfect. All this myth-making has a downside. In real life it is difficult, if not impossible, to match the hyperbole. The exaggerated stories of valour and uprightness become unrelatable and impossible to uphold by any human.

The military’s promotion of myth-making and self-deception is lapped up by the soldiers. The young officers and soldiers begin to model themselves on these unreal and impossible ideals. However, as they grow in service the gap between what the military claims to be and what it really is, together with several other contradictions that are inevitable in any ‘real’ institution, become apparent. Over time, this observed gap between the carefully constructed ideal and reality erodes trust and breeds cynicism. Institutionally promoted self-deception and exaggeration become a major cause of disillusionment within the military’s ranks.


Dangers of Myth-Making

The ready acceptance of exaggeration and myth is consistent with Nietzsche’s aphorism that the human will to untruth is stronger than the will to truth. The observed gap between the military’s professed ideals and what is leads people to rationalise possible reasons for the gap and arrive at their moral truths.

All the myth-making and self-deception by the military breeds what academics call moral complacency (the unwillingness to accept the possibility that one’s moral opinions could be wrong or mistaken). This moral complacency manifests itself as a strong belief in the military’s institutional and its people’s exceptionalism. Added to this, the knowledge that a majority of the people in the country trusts the military causes the soldiers to willy-nilly arrogate to themselves attributes that justify their sense of personal superiority and exceptionalism.

This phenomenon, of the military’s belief in its exceptionalism, is also not peculiar to India. A poll conducted by the Military Times in 2003 in the US showed that nearly two-thirds of its subscribers, who were in active military service, thought that military personnel had higher moral standards than the rest of the nation.

This sense of exceptionalism is made worse when politicians join in in lauding the military. Such praise, nearly always insincere, is given with an eye on electoral gains. Politicians, in their speeches, are effusive in lavishing praise on the military for its service, courage, sense of duty and integrity. Such statements by politicians, serve to strengthen the impression among the military’s personnel that these values are unique to the military and not to be found in the rest of society.

The soldiers, already filled with a sense of exceptionalism take even such motivated and insincere praise, as an endorsement of their superiority. That the soldiers live in cantonments, isolated from the rest of society, contributes to making the situation worse. The cantonments become echo chambers that amplify the already-existing perceptions of the virtues of military service, further intensifying the feeling of exceptionalism and even elitism in the military.


Convenient Rationalisation

The imagined superiority and exceptionalism, based on erroneous rationalisation, cause generals and admirals to justify the allotment of flats, meant for war widows, to themselves as seen during the revelations of the Adarsh housing scam. The trust enjoyed by the military emboldens retired generals and other officers when invited as panellists on television debates, to compete in outdoing each other in endorsing partisan political ideas in language that would never be countenanced in active service.

The knowledge that they enjoy the people’s blind trust prompts military commanders to even manipulate appearances of reality. This is evidenced in instances such as those of the ‘Ketchup colonel’ and his seniors who, smug in the belief of their exceptionalism, thought that their extra-judicial killings of civilians (carried out to further their careers) would escape attention and scrutiny. Expectedly, the straw man arguments that are constructed to justify such actions are easily knocked down, seriously hurting the military’s credibility. The misplaced sense of exceptionalism, infallibility and superiority creates a slippery moral slope and over time, small transgressions lead to major wrongdoings.

The degree of self-deception and sense of exceptionalism intensify as individuals advance up the military’s ranks. The culture of unquestioning deference to rank existing in the military aids this intensification. Unquestioning deference gives individuals in senior ranks an exaggerated sense of their abilities and blinds them to all sense of their fallibility. Excessive deference to and agreement with everything that the senior says leads both the senior and the subordinate down a negative spiral that shrinks their ability to be objective. Most often, when required to provide thought-out recommendations, the staff’s suggestions to the commander are just minor variations of what the commander expects to hear. Enacting a charade of serious analysis before advising the commander is a deeply entrenched practice. It, therefore, escapes everyone’s attention that the decision-making process is being driven not by objective deliberation and analysis but by motivated advice designed to please the commander.

Unthinking deference to the senior promotes groupthink when the need is for debate, a healthy back-and-forth of ideas and the exchange of honest opinions. Expectedly, an institutional culture of unquestioning deference to rank gives rise to an ineffective decision-making process that delivers poor outcomes.

Also, the sense of superiority and exceptionalism make the military loath to any expectation of accountability. Many offences that would normally attract punishment are routinely forgiven and forgotten.


Ushering in Change

Indians are inclined, more than others, to hero-worship their bosses, political leaders, film stars and cricketers. B.R. Ambedkar had warned against this propensity for hero-worship in the political space when he remarked that “In India, bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.” The warning is equally appropriate for the military.

The prevalence of the culture of excessive deference (and sycophancy), instances of financial malfeasance, cases of personal impropriety, the abuse of perks and privileges, etc., within the military, are an indictment of the quality of training in ethics imparted in the military. The many reported instances of military personnel convicted, for example, in the bribes-for-recruitment scams, the navy war room leaks case, the Tehelka sting operation on military personnel, the recent revelation of bribes to serving and veteran officers for information on submarine repair plans, etc. are all indicative of the shortcomings in the existing system of training on ethical conduct within the military.

The military has not been entirely successful in training its personnel to be immune to being swayed by inducements and the use of ethically dubious means to obtain pecuniary gain or secure professional advancement. This is, at least partly, attributable to the myths and self-deceptive tales the military tells itself.

If the military is to retain the trust of the nation, it must give up its sense of exceptionalism and truly live up to the superior standards of ethical conduct that it claims to uphold. Admittedly, it could be argued that such an expectation is in itself misplaced and utopian. Equally then if such an expectation is utopian, should not all claims by the military of its exceptionalism also be dismissed as being unmerited?

Everyone is vulnerable to self-deception. We all deceive ourselves about why we do the things we do. Not surprisingly, therefore, the military too, given its proud history, falls prey to myth-making and self-deception. The myth that time in uniform is superior to all other forms of civic engagement is the most troublesome and the chief cause of the misplaced sense of exceptionalism in the military. The men and women in the military need to realise that the military is not the only way to serve the nation. The thought that the military is uniquely virtuous is uplifting but, unfortunately, not entirely true.

In any progressive nation with an enlightened citizenry, no public institution should be deified, the military included. The military, on its part, needs to give up notions of its exceptionalism, actively discourage the excessive celebration of its contributions and be open to being judged based on its actions. The military can truly become exceptional if it stays real by periodically turning an objective and critical eye on itself. The military owes it to the people who place their blind trust in it.



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