by Lt Gen H S Panag

While many in the Indian armed forces are calling a price cap on cars sold at military canteens “ill treatment” and some others are questioning the perks they enjoy, they need to look at a recent incident in the UK where a naval officer ‘misused’ his official car and was ‘removed from command’. The two aren’t comparable, but they call into question the expectations people have of military men and women.

Error In Judgement Or Ethics

Two weeks ago, Commodore Nick Cooke-Priest, the Captain of Royal Navy warship HMS Queen Elizabeth, was removed from command for an ‘Error of Judgement’ in ‘misusing’ his official car.

The military veterans, media and the public in the UK were divided on the subject. Some felt that the ‘misdemeanour’ hardly warranted the sacking of a highly regarded Captain who commanded a £3-billion aircraft carrier, which can carry up to 36 fighter jets with a maximum crew strength of 1600 and is the most modern ship in the Royal Navy fleet.

Some others felt that military ethics are absolute and there can be no compromise on that, irrespective of rank, appointment and professional calibre.

My own tweet on the subject, highlighting the falling ethical standards in our armed forces, led to a lively debate on Twitter. It was a pleasant surprise that the Twitterati and the veterans were unanimous in their views on upholding highest ethical standards in armed forces irrespective of the compromised standards in other government institutions and the society.

Military Leadership & Best Practices

In the recorded military history of five millennia, the fundamentals of military leadership – the value system, the leadership traits, the principles, and the code of conduct – have remained unchanged. Unchanged, because the military has dynamically selected the best practices from the society, used them to develop its leaders, and applied them absolutely through enforceable rules, regulations and military law to bridge the gap between military ideals and omnipresent human failings.

Ethics – the understanding of moral right or wrong – guides military leaders in taking the right decisions. The military is the state’s instrument of last resort and can use ‘force’ on its behalf. If it does not strictly adhere to the moral conduct, the consequences will be horrendous, particularly when military is employed for internal security.

Violation of Military Ethics

Our officer corps have a stellar reputation in peace and war. In battle, they have led from the front. However, a lot of character shortcomings have been reported particularly among senior officers, Colonels or equivalent and above.

Over the years, there have been numerous reports on violation of military ethics by officers. We have had ‘Booze Brigadier’ and ‘Ketchup Colonel’ cases along with numerous instances of alleged fake encounters.

A number of senior officers have faced court-martial, notable among them was a director general of the Army Service Corps, a Lt Gen, who was awarded three years rigorous imprisonment (later reduced to dismissal by the Armed Forces Tribunal) for procuring inferior dal. ‘Tent scandal’, ‘egg scam’ and ‘golf cart scam’ are some of the ridiculous names for cases of petty corruption. Abuse of privileges by senior officers in the form of misuse of vehicles, use of soldiers as domestic help and fudging electricity bills is rampant.

The highest custodians of military morals, the service chiefs, apart from a host of other senior officers, are no exception. A General-rank officer has been found guilty of molesting a subordinate woman officer. Two Army chiefs and one Navy chief and several other generals, including Army commanders, were allegedly allotted flats in the now-notorious Adarsh Housing Society in violation of the rules. If that is not enough, service chiefs in connivance with the Ministry of Defence are known to have got an authorisation to keep personal staff post-retirement. With what face can a chief act as the moral custodian of his service when he has got a dubious perk ‘authorised’?

The Cascading Effect

It is a non-valid excuse that the declining standards of probity in public life have an effect on the military. The military is expected to avoid this pitfall through a structured leadership development programme, which is backed by rules, regulation and enforcement of the law.

The reasons for the current decline in ethical standards are a flawed leadership development programme and a compromised leadership failing to enforce the rules.

Mutual trust between the leader and those being led is the most important factor in a battle. This trust is built over a period of time during training. In a rules and regulations-bound organisation with strict enforcement laws, the subordinates are constantly watching their leaders. They are very keen to see whether the leader adheres to the strict rules and regulations as well as the privations that s/he enforces on them. This why the ‘role model’ who ‘leads by example’ never fails in the military. In an evolving society, probity of the leader is always measured. The military is no exception. In the military, ‘integrity’ also stands for an ‘integrated personality’ with no duplicity.

Duplicitous conduct of the officer corps, particularly with respect to ‘integrity’, has a cascading effect on the psyche of the subordinates, leading to lack of faith and trust – a most dangerous situation in a battle. This is why the ‘good’ Captain of HMS Queen Elizabeth had to be ‘removed from command’. It is high time that the Indian military puts its house in order with respect to falling standards in morals and ethics.