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New Vocabulary and Imagery

Lt Gen Harinder Singh, Retd, is Former DGMI and Commandant IMA. He has tenanted several important command and staff assignments in the Indian Army. The author can be contacted at harinder41[at]
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  • August 03, 2010

    General McChrystal’s resignation has been the subject of much debate lately. Historical parallels have been drawn with President Truman’s removal of General Douglas MacArthur, a war hero and supremely flamboyant US commander in Korea, in April 1951. While both incidents relate to the issue of civilian control over the military, the grounds for dismissal are quite different. One was over matters of policy and strategy and the other was because of disparaging remarks made about the civilian leadership.1 Interestingly, the temptation to reflect on the incident in the Indian context has been great. It is not surprising to find commentators and analysts extrapolating lessons from McChrystal’s sacking for the Indian context.

    A recent column titled, `Words can also hurt me` (Indian Express, July 9, 2010) set the tone for this discussion. While the broader context of this article may be right, extending the McChrystal argument to explain the civil-military deficiencies in India are off the mark. There are at least two compelling reasons to argue that the criticism is not on target. First, the structure of civil-military relations in India and the United States are not comparable. In the US clear institutional patterns have been long established while they are still evolving in India. Second, McChrystal’s sacking was as a consequence of disparaging remarks made in public, rather than any deliberate act of insubordination. Nevertheless, the issue is important and needs to be debated.

    This commentary attempts to locate the debate in a different context: the primacy of the institution (i.e., the state) vis-à-vis the demands of the military profession. The question being raised is: To what extent is the unconditional and blind respect for institutions more important than the occupational expectations and hazards of operating in a civil-military environment. In other words, a certain level of autonomy and choice must be given to the military in the course of dealing with problems in the civil-military realm.2 This would include sub-conventional threats such as insurgencies, armed rebellions and internal unrest, and non-traditional engagements such as cyclones, floods, famine and drought, island inundations, earthquakes, pandemics, air crash, shipping accidents, oil spills, nuclear or chemical leakages or nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) disasters. At yet another level, there could be a threat to or overthrow of legitimate government, civil strife, illegal migration, organised crime and trans-national terrorism in the neighbourhood; occupation of parts of a nation such as island territories; blockade of sea routes or channels, and illegal exploitation of exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the Indian Ocean region.

    Counterinsurgencies and such non-traditional engagements demand a certain degree of political suaveness from the military leadership. The dilemma that the frontline and senior military leadership faces today involves the need to balance the accepted norms of political supremacy against the demand of military operations. These, on occasion, may be at odds. The political leadership in India can remain in firm control over the military but can nevertheless welcome its views and even encourage some creative dissent as long as it does not challenge the overall policy objectives. For example, the Air Force Chief’s public view against the involvement of the force in anti-naxal operations was a fine example of unvarnished military advice which did not challenge political authority.

    It is therefore surprising to hear reservations being expressed in several quarters, when the military leadership expresses its professional concerns in public. Interestingly, the habit of straight talking within militaries across the world is often construed as politically unwise (even more so in diplomatic and bureaucratic circles). So now when the country’s military leadership draws attention to the gravity of certain professional matters, or even to an administrative issue such as the pay commission award, their conduct is questioned and sometimes even labelled as inappropriate. Interestingly, there is deafening silence from the same voices if a non-military functionary exceeds his or her mandate. The Army Chief’s opinion on Kashmir is questioned while that of the Home Secretary is lauded. It is time to shed this strange double-standard. A muzzled military may not be a good proposition in the twenty first century, and it would not be surprising if it fails to deliver in meeting the security challenges and threats, in the absence of a balanced civil-military relationship.

    In this context Inside Defense, an edited volume with contributions from a range of scholars, policy experts and practitioners on civil-military relations, postulates the new roles that militaries will be required to play in international and domestic politics in the future.3 The book argues that as the notion of traditional security gives way to concerns of human security, the role of the armed forces may have to undergo a change. No longer can the militaries be charged with fighting and winning wars all by themselves, as they would increasingly counter non-traditional threats or engage in other non-fighting missions. The changed security environment calls for the re-framing of the age old civil-military constructs, which may have to be managed differently in the future. A few issues that merit attention are discussed below.

    • First, understanding the changing role of the military, when there are increasing limits on the use of force, and the complexity of the relationship between diplomacy and external defence and internal security. Militaries will increasingly be encumbered with non-traditional threats and responsibilities, and there will be a greater need to support the diplomatic machinery. As governmental resources will never be enough to pursue pressing national interests, the devolution of certain diplomatic roles to the military will become inevitable.

    • Second, the formal relationship between military and several branches of the government will require serious rethinking. How well and to what effect the military and the government communicate with each other, and what more could be done to reduce the institutional differences? In today’s rapidly changing and globalised world, an effective political-military relationship should form the cornerstone of national security policy. The argument emphasizes the increasingly important role of the military in high level decision-making, resource allocation, the development of instruments of force and their application.

    • Third, how far the military should attempt to influence policy decisions is another awkward issue. Military influence on political outcomes can erode or threaten civilian control in a liberal democratic society. It therefore becomes important to address issues of civil-military friction upfront, including the role of retired officers in maintaining a healthy and non-partisan civil-military relationship. The role and leverage of the defence industry and scientific community will also count, and the transparency extended to the strategic community, media and social activists would form an important aspect of this relationship.

    The challenge therefore lies in producing politically conscious yet apolitical officers. Leaders who can reconcile the centrality of institutional values with their opinions and profession. This neither means producing a pliant leadership, nor one that places the military organisation over institutional values. It is therefore no surprise that a country like the United States still lauds the performance of General McChrystal. At his retirement ceremony at Fort Lesley J. McNair in Washington, US defence secretary called McChrystal, “one of America’s greatest warriors” and “a pioneer in creating a revolution in warfare that fused intelligence and operation.”4 He called McChrystal’s retirement a moment of “pride” and “sadness”, the former because of his astute general ship both in Iraq and Afghanistan and the latter for the reason that a moment of carelessness cost him a profession. The US army Chief of Staff General George Casey hailed him as a true warrior and professional, and added that “I can’t think of an officer who’s had more impact on this country’s battle against terrorism.” Contrast this to the sacking of the Indian naval chief in 2003, to which this article `Words can also hurt me` so prominently alludes. The answers to what ails the civil-military relationship in India are not hard to find.

    Civil-military relations lie at the core of the national security framework and decision making process. And in this regard, India needs to urgently emerge from its current stasis. While explicit political control cannot be questioned, it is critical to involve the military as equal partners in the overall decision making process. Leveraging the military’s knowledge, operational experience and unmatched organisational capacities can only contribute to the well being of the state. There is therefore a need to strengthen the civil military dynamic, so as to ensure that instruments of force are capable of responding to challenges and threats. Cross pollination of national security structures with military expertise could pave the way for institutional equity, and contribute towards the overall socio-economic growth and strategic well being of the state. In the short to medium term, it would entail the vertical and horizontal integration of the ministry of defence (MoD) with service headquarters, the creation of the post of chief of defence staff (CDS), increased military staff representation in national security structures, leveraging military as a tool for foreign policy, and ensuring procedural equity in budgetary utilisation and acquisitions.

    Since serious change could be impeded by institutional mindsets and fixations, a profound shift in the “vocabulary and imagery” of the stake holders is vital. This will involve altering some of the long standing traditions, assumptions and processes prevalent in Indian society. It is also important to make this change through incremental steps. Such an approach would avoid turf wars, assuage the stakeholders about their authority or allay fears of those who might believe that their authority is being curtailed or undermined. A strong commitment demonstrated at the highest level can expedite the process. And, the agents for change need to grow in an amicable and reasoned manner or change will prove difficult.

    • 1. Emrys Chew, The General and the President: Obama’s “Harry Truman” Moment, RSIS Singapore Commentary No 71/2010, 30 June 2010.
    • 2. Ho Shu Huang, Institution Versus Occupation: Obama’s sacking of McChrystal, RSIS Singapore Commentary No 72/2010, 30 June 2010.
    • 3. Inside Defense: Understanding the US Military in the 21st Century, Edited by Derek S. Reveron and Judith Hicks Stiehm, Palgrave and Macmillian, 2008
    • 4. Report titled, McChrystal Retires Amid Praise for Career, at, July 23, 2010.