Generally, on Generals by Lt Gen P R Shankar (Retd)

The subject and content of this article are largely based on environmental feedback recieved from time to time.

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Preface to the book

Generalship its Diseases and Their Cure


by Maj Gen JFC Fuller

At the battle of Waterloo, Colonel Clement, an infantry commander, fought with the most conspicuous bravery; but unfortunately, was shot through the head. Napoleon, hearing of his gallantry and misfortune, gave instructions for him to be carried into a farm where Larrey the surgeon-general was operating. One glance convinced Larrey that his case was desperate, so taking up a saw he removed the top of his skull and placed his brains on the table. Just as he had finished, in rushed an aide-de-camp, shouting: ‘Is General Clement here?’ Clement, hearing him, sat up and exclaimed: ‘No! but Colonel Clement is.’ Oh mon General cried the aide-de-camp, embracing him, ‘the Emperor was overwhelmed when we heard of your gallantry, and has promoted you on the field of battle to the rank of General,’ Clement rubbed his eyes, got, off the table, clapped the top of his skull on his head and was about to leave the farm, ~ when Larrey shouted after him: ‘Mon General–your brains!’ To which the gallant Frenchman, increasing his speed, shouted back: Now that I am a General I shall no longer require them!’

On War and Indian Generalship

bel india

War is continuation of politics by other means. Clausewitz’s dictum is profound. Going by this, the relationship between practising politicians and those who conduct war (Generals) must be transactional. However, in our country this transaction is conducted through the bureaucracy. Over a period, the bureaucracy has occupied more space and Generals (the term hereafter includes Admirals and Air Marshals also) have ceded ground. As a result, our Armed Forces are not strong enough to cope with our threats or propel us into the high table. From many counts the problem is within. The Armed Forces must improve its Generalship.

Generalship is about preparation, organisation, placement of forces and execution of plans so that a) war can be prosecuted successfully as an extension of national politics and b) politics can continue after war from a position of advantage. Today, Indian Generals cannot guarantee either in an international stage which is multidimensional, elastic, remote and undefined in time, space or resources. A leader must contest this ambiguity through unity of purpose, mental, moral and physical strength. Indian Generals have been found short in this context. Hence acceptance of this shortcoming(s) is the first step to a solution. Some serious shortcomings are highlighted for redressal. They are contentious. Agreed. Contend them but find solutions. The slide might have started even before some of us were commissioned. However, the current and future set of military leaders are bearing the brunt. They need to take responsibility and improve the system – for themselves and the future. Solutions must come from within the system as a result of an individual change or a systemic churn. The Government of the day is also responsible to redress the imbalances. Otherwise India will not be able to step up. On the contrary, history has shown that nations with a weak military are always exploited.

Intra Service Disunity

All modern armies of powerful nations believe in jointness, theatre commands and in the concept of a CDS. There is no doubt that a CDS is the need of the hour to promote jointness. But for some strange reason the IAF has been stonewalling the issue. Lack of jointness is reflected in  an analysis of the Joint Doctrine of 2017 which indicates that the emphasis is on “Synchronisation” rather than “Integration”. The Services are disunited and disintegrated. They contend for a limited pie. An Individual service gain is a common national loss. This elemental truth evades our Generals.

Hierarchal Compartments

There are serious divisions within each Service. Remember the trouble IAF had with its technical staff? However, the Army sets the best example of divisions within. The Army Generals can be classified into – General Cadre / Non-General Cadre, Command / Staff, Combat Arms/Combat Support Arms/ Services. Then classification can also be Armour/ Artillery/Infantry and so on. It can also be a regimental classification like Rajput/Gorkha/Guards etc. So, when you next see an Army General, he can fit into any one of these categories. If the leadership is so compartmentalised, what is the effect down the line? Each is a watertight hierarchal compartment. Theoretically an officer can transit from one compartment to the other. In practise, if he does so, after an uphill battle, the sharks in the other compartment will eat him up. It is a Brahmanical caste system where Mandalised reservation is for the majority. This caste system ensures that while the best might never reach the top, the worst have a fair chance of becoming top Generals. This is a caste system you are born into, by almost forcible commissioning, grow up in it and can rarely break it. The unfortunate part is that the uppermost Brahmanical class has cornered maximum goodies in the system. This class does to the rest of the Indian Army what it claims the IAS is doing to the Military. Destroying it inch by inch. The Gotra of the military brahmins lies in the lanyard they wear. Continuation and propagation of this system triggers a cancerous Game of Thrones. A dangerous by product is creation of bandwagons and dispensing undue favours to regimental followers. It produces many poor Generals who cannot even articulate leave alone lead. A common man once told me that he expects the COAS to express himself beyond looking ceremonial, smart and erect. He was on the mark. The entire concept of “General Cadre” (a term which is not even defined anywhere) where officers today get a birth right entry due to their “Gotras” needs a relook. It violates the spirit of what it is mentioned in the Defence Service Regulations that all officers must be “selected” into General Cadre.

Date of Birth and Seniority Phenomenon

An Officer’s seniority gets fixed at the time of commissioning based on his performance in the training academy. This is a lifetime guarantee for first promotion irrespective of merit later. An officer, even if his performance improves, remains consigned to being promoted later since he was junior in the Academy. Further as one goes up, the date of birth kicks in! An officer even if he is last on the merit list of his promotion board, can progress to be COAS/ CAS/ CNS if he had done well in calisthenics in the Academy and has a favourable date of birth. It is a universal fact that in any merit list which involves subjectivity; the last who make the cut are invariably pushed up. Where is the incentive to perform? What is this system which denies itself the best? If the best must be Generals, is there a case for a seniority rejig after every promotion board/ career course / promotion exam? Do not agree? Fine. Do something else. Status quo will only ensure an acrimonious debate every time a Chief or an Army Commander is appointed, and supercession is involved. In the absence of clear merit, all appointments are subjective to political interpretation. If the government is clear that the persons to be appointed to as Chiefs, Army Commanders, Corps Commanders, Heads of Arms/ Services can be done on a reasonably well-established system of merit, then some amount of logical transparency will set in.

Professional Illiteracy

As per an ex VCOAS – “Generals fight future wars which require perception of the intangible. There are no campaigns, books or histories, to groom the General. He must perceive the environment from his broad-based intellect, which he needs to develop as he goes up the ladder”. As against this an Army Commander lamented to me once that many of his Generals were professionally illiterate. They lacked knowledge of other Arms and Services, as also other instruments of national power. Strong words, but they ring true. For some strange reason, towards the end of my service the All Arms Concept, on which we grew, was less spoken of. Undue importance was being given to one Arm or the other. Specialists prided themselves in only one aspect of war fighting. May be due to an overdose of CI. May be due to fast paced and short command tenures. Maybe due to misconception of importance of individual Service/ Arm vis a vis the others. In sum, the knowledge of Generals, is becoming uni dimensional, compartmentalized, limited to own Arm/Service/environment. In an era of widening scope of conflict being heavily impacted by disruptive technologies, lack of all-round professional acumen is a serious deficiency. There is a view that many Generals are secure in their rank and hence loathe to educate themselves. There is some truth in this. Officers who go on study leave rarely get promoted to General rank and Officers who become Generals have rarely upgraded themselves through study leave (earlier in their career). This dichotomy is glaring at us. Professional illiteracy is at the cost of national security. It will ensure continuance of the military leaders on the reserve bench on the national stage.

Equipping for Conflict

A major part of a General’s job is to prepare his troops for future wars by training and equipping them. Equipping is all about procurement. We can blame the MOD, DRDO, OFB and DPSUs for all ills of procurement. However, the hard truth is that Services exist to defend India. The need is ours. We have not been able to procure from abroad or put together things indigenously. Our defence procurement is in distress. In my reckoning our Generals do not know much about procurement and are not prepared to learn. The argument that I am a good warrior is simply an extension of professional illiteracy and one-dimensional mentality. In a technology driven world, ignorant Generals are a costly indulgence for the nation. Delayed procurement of war fighting equipment (some substandard) has weakened us operationally and compromised our strategic independence. Consider this. A very high-profile officer was appointed as the DCOAS in charge of procurement. He felt that he was gaining immense knowledge about procurement and his military education would have been incomplete if he had not been posted there. The nation has paid very dearly for his adult education and for every such General who has parachuted into procurement with embarrassing ignorance. Let me also clarify. Whenever our political executive is infused with the confidence that a professionally thorough General is talking sense, the response is electric. Experience indicates that when Generals know the ropes of defence procurement beyond the DPP everything falls in place.

Moral Compass Drift

Generals represent the honour and dignity of the Services. When even one of them come into disrepute due to activities related to greed, corruption, self-promotion, lifestyle et al it is a betrayal of trust reposed by our people in the Armed Forces. When the moral compass drifts and the Chetwode principle is violated the status of the Armed Forces is eroded. Generals must be seen to be living for and dying by their men. There is no other option or any two views on this. The moral issue needs strict implementation. Not by punishment, but by not promoting him in the first place. Dishonest and incompetent people give early indications in life. They must be reported upon truthfully and not let to pass due to sycophancy, old boy’s association or from a lanyarded vision.

Political Honey

Tasting the political honey is the latest affliction of some Generals. Every time a serving General speaks with a political overtone in public even with a hint of personal gain, he has eroded his status as well as dug a grave for his Service. Political honey tastes good, but it is pure poison. Need I say more? I have already said enough on it.

Sally Forth

I agree that most of our Generals are courageous and tactically brilliant. It stops there. Weak Generalship is afflicting Armed Forces. Equivalents of examples discussed exist in all Services. It could be argued that all that I have highlighted is poppycock and we have the best Generals. This article could be deemed scurrilous. Could be. Trash it. But explain to me why do numerous media debates take place, social media circulations take place and articles appear on erosion in status of armed forces, poor state of equipment, pay and allowances, reorganization/transformation and politicization? Is it not because of the decline in leadership in the Armed forces to some extent? If yes. A correction is necessary. Despite all the shortcomings I have mentioned above there are solid Generals in the Armed Forces who continue to inspire the men and the Nation. These are our islands of hope from where to sally forth. Sallying forth must be based on a Tri-Service Unity of Purpose, Professional Competence and Moral Strength. If our Generals achieve these three things, our relationship with the political executive will be transactional as per the Clausewitzan dictum. Otherwise we will remain divided and be followers. Let us then not crib when we are beaten up on Jantar Mantar by delhi police during the next agitation which we might have to stage again in future!

Eid Mubarak

A special prayer for all those aboard the ill fated AN 32 who have lost their lives in the Menchuka area. We salute them and their families.

Jai Hind

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