The instinctive response to the latest folly emanating from the Ministry of Defence – from Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman herself – has been outrage. On September 16, Sitharaman said that the Army would clean up the garbage left behind by irresponsible civilians in high-altitude tourist spots.

Many within the Armed Forces and the media have responded to this statement with anger. It appears to demonstrate contempt for the Armed Forces and a complete absence of understanding of the military ethos that produces in a soldier the willingness to fight and to lay down one’s life for izzat, for personal and regimental honour, and for the country.

Under the present regime, there have been several instances where similar contempt has been shown towards the Armed Forces. For instance, in June 2015, the Army was asked to lay out yoga mats for the public ahead of International Yoga Day celebrations. The following year, its jawans were roped in to build pontoon bridges for a controversial mega event organised by a religious leader on the banks of the Yamuna in Delhi.

It is difficult to reconcile such practices with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s Right-wing ideology, its martial posturing, its belligerence against external adversaries on behalf of the Armed Forces, and its theatrics when members of the security forces lose their lives in the course of duty. These conflicting approaches suggest that the rationale of the affronts against military pride may indeed have a source other than contempt.

Burden of efficiency

It is often the case that the far Right sees the Army as a model of efficient response – that when all else fails, the Army will succeed. This thinking is not limited to the far Right alone. Successive governments have sent the Army into crisis after crisis – natural disasters, humanitarian emergencies, and public disorders threatening to spiral out of control. The Army has delivered where other institutions have repeatedly collapsed. In doing so, it has done the nation great service while doing itself unintended and enduring harm.

But over the years, the Army has been called upon for lesser and lesser emergencies, more recently for degrading services that do not qualify as any kind of emergency. From an instrument of last resort, it is now regarded as an instrument of first use for every little problem that the civil administration has failed to resolve, and the political leadership is losing face on.

Soldiers construct a pontoon bridge across the Yamuna in Delhi for a 2016 event organised by a religious leader. (Photo credit: HT).
Soldiers construct a pontoon bridge across the Yamuna in Delhi for a 2016 event organised by a religious leader. (Photo credit: HT).

Ignorance, not contempt

This does not reflect contempt for the Armed Forces, but a tremendous degree of ignorance and incomprehension regarding the nature of the Force. Crucially, repeated and unnecessary attempts to commandeer the services of Army personnel by the political leadership and civil administration, not only undermines the Army’s prestige in public eyes, it destroys the self-image of the soldier, and undermines the Force’s capacity to perform its primary function.

War hero Lieutenant General Vijay Oberoi has written about part of this problem recently. In his piece, he points out how the diversion of Armed Forces personnel from their constant task of training and retraining to a range of civilian duties – however important – blunts their fighting capacities. He points to the debacle in 1962 as a consequence of Defence Minister VK Krishna Menon’s decision to use “troop labour” to construct housing, overriding protests by Army Chief General KS Thimayya. This is one of the reasons why the Armed Forces were ill-prepared for the war against China, in which India faced a humiliating defeat.

The warrior ethos

The terms “training and retraining” do not communicate the enormity of what is at stake here. Few civilians have any real understanding of the military ethos. The battlefield is among the most unnatural environments in which a human being can be located. It is only the most extraordinary regimentation and the most demanding and relentless discipline that can produce the necessary and minimal responses that war demands.

Colonel SLA Marshall, who participated in, and studied the two World Wars, found that no more than one in four soldiers actually fired their weapon while in battle. Joanna Bourke in An Intimate History of Killing observes, “no matter how thorough the training, it still failed to enable most combatants to fight”.

Training and retraining are not just a question of practicing drills and firing. They constitute the making of the mind, constructing the lore of the warrior, building fraternities and loyalties that transcend the lure of life. A soldier is taught to think of himself as uniquely honoured, uniquely chosen, to fight, and to lay down his life.

Citing Psychology for the Fighting Man, Bourke notes that “battle habits” must become “so deeply ingrained that they would persist in the face of the most overwhelming provocations to rage or panic”. The slightest self-doubt, a momentary questioning of purpose, a flash of inattention, will sap the will at the crucial instant when the greatest determination, focus and sacrifice are demanded of the warrior. It is on such momentary lapses that battles and wars have been lost through history.

The warrior ethos is a subculture, and like all subcultures, can flourish only in isolation. Military leaders have repeatedly spoken of the grave harm that even counter-insurgency deployments have done to the conventional war-fighting capabilities of the Army. Additionally, cantonments at one time used to be almost completely detached from civilian areas, but now they have been progressively enveloped by the urban sprawl. Army men are thrown increasingly, both by the variegated duties imposed on them and by their transforming environments, into continuous civilian interactions. The myth of the warrior erodes, the unique moral universe of the military ethos falls into question, the soldier begins to think, to calculate and to waver, like a civilian. Such a soldier will fail in battle.

‘Leaders, educate yourselves’

Just as it is not possible to use a surgeon’s scalpel as a kitchen knife and then carry it into the operation theatre for surgery, soldiers must not be used as surplus labour, garbage collectors and odd-jobs men, and then shipped off to battle with the expectation that they will perform deeds of unequalled heroism there. Overuse or misuse of an instrument for purposes other than its original intent can only blunt and degrade it.

There seem to be no great institution builders among recent generations of leaders. But those who lead the country today can at least educate themselves sufficiently in the traditions, strengths and vulnerabilities of the establishments that have fallen by chance into their transient control. They must do this to ensure that they do not undermine and destroy the few functional institutions that have survived into this sorry age.

Much has been done to shame the Indian soldier in his own eyes over the past few years. If this continues, it can only bring India to defeat and disgrace.