Milking the men in uniform

by March 19, 2020 0 comments

The global wave of uber nationalistic politics has accelerated exclusivism, polarisation and divides that are normally an anathema to the inclusive and apolitical moorings of a soldier

In participative democracies, the principle of civilian supremacy over the military is both mandated and essential. In democracies like the US and India, which have active combat commitments towards the armed forces, the orders to partake, intensify or withdraw from such roles ultimately come from the civilian leadership. This lends itself to strategic and operational situations where the military has to abide by civilian orders even where it disagrees as the latter has the “right to be wrong.” Such disagreements have led to subliminal civilian-military tensions, which are natural and expected in the normal course of professional disagreements.

By constructive design, the military has a black and white instinct of situational imperatives, which are supremely effective, kinetic and blunt. Whereas by nature, a political decision is more complex, asymmetric and given to the “unapparent.” This implies that the military may pay the price for partisan politics that comes along with the decision-making process in democracies. Yet, the most compelling argument for persisting with this imperfect civil-military equation is the alternative track record of nations, where the military has the last word on governance matters. The ideal leadership requirement for civilian politicians is in maintaining professional respect, mature restraint and operational independence of the military so as to ensure that its apolitical discipline, efficacy and steel is maintained.

In recent times, unrest and violence in society has posited the public faith and trust onto the “soldier” even higher when all other arms of governance seem to have failed. Unfortunately, the Indian armed forces, who ought to be the “last recourse” of the Government, are getting increasingly requisitioned to bail out the beleaguered State as it fumbles from one man-made or natural disaster to another.  They have been doing it all — from fighting insurgency in Kashmir to quelling communal riots in Delhi to setting up Coronavirus-related camps across country. The “soldier” seems to epitomise solutions for all societal, natural or national urgencies.

However, this public imagination and perception of the “soldier” has not gone unnoticed to the overzealous politicians, who are increasingly and unhealthily co-opting the imagery of the “soldier” onto their own image, policies and posturings. This situation could potentially narrow the required distance and apolitical bearing of the armed forces as it risks pushing the “soldier” towards political opinions, preferences and biases. Xenophobically nationalistic and self-obsessed leaders like US President Donald Trump typify the sort of political leadership that milks the image of the “soldier” as he tries to justify his tenure decisions — for them, populism, even at the cost of long-term impact on the armed forces, is par for the course.

The recent case involving the Special Warfare Operator chief, Eddie Gallagher of the elite US Navy SEALs (Sea, Air and Land) team, is symptomatic of the political interferences in an institution that prides itself on discipline, command and ethos of the warfighters. These “frogmen” are the ultimate warriors of covert operations, who had earlier “taken out” Osama bin Laden and conducted many other acts of daredevilry. The SEALs personify the finest soldering, training, culture and compliances that are required to undertake complex and dangerous missions.

The SEALs wear a revered pin called the “trident” or “the bird,” which is freighted with incalculable heft and pride on the chest of a serving officer. It is extremely hard-earned and easy to lose, should one fail to live up to its exacting physical, moral and psychological standards. Rear Admiral Collin Green, as the Commander of Naval Special Warfare Command (which oversees SEALs and their special operations and missions), had sought to withdraw the symbolic pin from the errant SEAL, Eddie Gallagher, as he found his conduct unbecoming.

Rear Admiral Green was keen to clear the Augean stable of war crimes, murder, drug issues and sexual assaults among others that had tainted the institution in recent times. The open-and-shut case of Eddie Gallagher had been one such professional dereliction that warranted corrective disciplining.

Unfortunately, this incident offered Trump an opportunity to exhibit his misplaced sense of political “muscularity” by defending the errant SEAL, much against the professional assessment of his Commander and the institution of the armed forces. Amid disconcerting murmurs, Rear Admiral Green had to acquiesce to the presidential and unwarranted political intervention in a routine disciplinary case. His professional concerns of the “ethically misaligned” combatants were rubbished and the dignified “soldier” was left with no option but to step down earlier than required. Military culture lost, politics won.

Creating divisions within the uniformed fraternity may result in short-term political benefits for politicians but it could immeasurably weaken the sword-arm of the nation. Certain institutions and entities need to be spared the interferences and appropriations that are borne out of compulsive politicisation and partisan one-upmanship. Such misplaced political enthusiasm needs to be nipped in the bud, else politicians get emboldened by their own liberties and recklessness. Trump has unconvincingly posited his intervention towards “sticking up for our armed forces” — nothing could be further from the truth as command-and-control and unimpeachable discipline are the backbone of military professionalism. Trump will most probably be replacing Green with another two-star SEAL, Wyman Howard, who has a questionable past. He is said to have encouraged his men to carry hatchets during combat deployments.

Politicians do not understand the intricacies, sensitivities and traditions of the armed forces. To them, the “soldier” serves the limited utility of contextualising political decisions “in the interest of the soldier” and thereby, “in the best interest of the nation.” A global wave of uber nationalistic politics has accelerated these tendencies of exclusivism, polarisation and “divides” that are normally an anathema to the inclusive, apolitical and simple moorings of a soldier, who swears by his paltan (battalion), regiment and to the nation. Ever-increasing operational deployments, invocations and allusions have exposed the “soldier” to the societal morass that prevails. The duty to protect the “soldier” from political misuse is one of every serving soldier and veteran. Militaries that avowedly shun political appropriations remain strong and professional. Those that don’t, resemble political parties.

(Writer: Bhopinder Singh; Courtesy: The Pioneer)

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