One of the more edifying aspects of the otherwise depressing picture emerging from the Charlottesville incident has been the quick and uniform condemnation of the happenings by the top brass of the US armed forces. This is in sharp contrast to the waffling and subsequently condemnable conduct of their commander-in-chief, Donald J. Trump and significant sections of the civilian elite.
On August 13 itself, John Richardson, the US chief of naval operations tweeted:
"Events in Charlottesville unacceptable & musnt be tolerated @USNavy forever stands against intolerance & hatred..."
Two days later, the commandant of the US Marine Corps, Robert B. Neller tweeted: "No place for racial hatred or extremism in @USMC. Our core values of Honor, Courage, and Commitment frame the way Marines live and act."
The following day, the army chief Mark Milley declared: “The army
doesn’t tolerate racism, extremism, or hatred in our ranks. It’s against
our values and everything we’ve stood for since 1775.” He was followed
by his air force counterpart David Goldfein and the chief of the
National Guard Bureau Joseph Lengyel.
Their strong stand speaks a great deal of the current intellectual
make up of the US military leadership, something that has been forged in
the fires of the various wars the US has fought, and the many mistakes
and transgressions its military has made.
There is, of course, something about the quality of the US military’s
higher leadership. Take Richardson, for example, he is not only an
experienced submariner, but he is also an MA from MIT and has done an
attachment with the prestigious Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Or
the army chief Milley, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, who is a BA
from Princeton, an MA from Columbia and a graduate of a prestigious MIT
National Security programme.
Importance of upholding the military morality
Wars and the military are not normally supposed to be associated with
moral issues or ethical conduct. But any smart general knows that
upholding a just cause can be a war-winning factor. This, more than
anything else, is the lesson of the Second World War. If his forces are
seen to be on the side of a good cause, half the battle is already won.
This is especially true in our contemporary conflicts, which do not
have the goal or the option of obliterating the adversary as the Mongols
had in the 13th century or the Chinese with the Xiongnu people but
instead prevailing over adversary forces who function among a sea of
Military morality and ethics have been written down in the Hague and
Geneva Conventions to avoid unnecessary suffering and safeguarding human
rights with the view of restoring peace. The Second World War gave us the Nuremberg tribunal
whose central message was that merely following orders, even of a duly
constituted authority, was not an excuse for committing war crimes and
human rights violations. Militaries talk a great deal about honour, and
rightly so. For example, no honourable military man would shoot a
surrendered enemy. Likewise, modern militaries look down on rape and
ill-treatment of civilians. But politicians’ sense of morality is
There is no doubt that following Clausewitz, politics must always be
in command in war. But there are also important points where the
politician must be challenged. There is the well-known incident when
General Eisenhower rejected Churchill’s suggestion to use poison gas
against the German sites firing V-2 rockets on London. Honour was in
upholding the law, and in this case, the international law laid down by
the Hague and Geneva Conventions. But honour is also linked to the sense
of self-worth of a military, how its leaders view themselves and the
forces under their command. This is what has driven the American
generals to categorically oppose the stand of their commander-in-chief.
People will argue that most wars have seen flagrant breaches of Hague
and Geneva codes, and they are not wrong. Even so, most armies strive
to show themselves to be morally and ethically superior, especially in
the information technology era where victory is often about dominating
the narrative in cyberspace and elsewhere.
Modern war, as our experience with Iraq and Afghanistan reveals, is
about winning hearts and minds. No one will argue that the Americans
have done a good job in either. The former was a war of choice, built on
a patently false premises and many war crimes were committed. The
latter was seen as a war of necessity arising out of the al Qaida’s
attack in the US. Yet somehow the US has not been able to get the upper
hand, perhaps because they are too disconnected to the people they are
Our experience in Sri Lanka was an object lesson. Though we were on
the morally right side, we were unable to capture the narrative because
we were fighting among a people who were not ours and our army was
simply not trained or oriented for that kind of a war.
The Indian context
The Indian experience has been different in Jammu and Kashmir since,
unlike the US in Iraq or India in Sri Lanka, there is no option of
walking away. Nevertheless, all commanders there know that at the end of
the day, winning hearts and minds is the key to prevailing in an
insurgency-like conflict. Neutralising individual jihadi leaders like
Burhan Wani, Mehmood Ghaznavi or Yasin Itoo does
not happen purely through army action, but good intelligence obtained,
probably through the auspices of the J&K police which in turn has
come from the fact that there are people in the Valley who support the
It is in this shadow battle that Indian forces must appear superior,
not just in weapons and men, but their cause and conduct. And this is
why the recent Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) judgment on Machil
is a body blow to the effort. The case was fairly open and shut and as
much was determined by a court martial and confirmed by senior officers
upto the army commander of the northern command. Yet, from the outset
there were efforts to delay and subvert the course of justice in the
The army had convicted five personnel including a colonel and a captain by a court martial in 2015 for the staged killing
in 2010 of three Kashmiri civilians and branding them as militants.
They had been given a life sentence. The tribunal’s reported judgement
makes for shoddy reading citing issues like their attire and proximity to the Line of Control to cast doubt over the prosecution’s case.
In many ways the court martial system is an anachronism, but the
services feel it is important for maintaining the discipline and morale
of the forces. There is, however, a lesser justification for taking up
criminal cases such as those of rape and murder through the system.
However, because of the presence of the Armed Forces (Special Powers)
Acts (AFSPA), things are complicated because in many instances of
killings of civilians, the AFSPA is invoked, and often rightly. In the
Machil case, the ideal would have been to hand it over to the civilian
authorities, but the army chose the courts martial route wherein it
tries its own personnel. And the personnel were duly convicted.
The AFTs were originally set up to ease the burden on civilian courts
of a rash of cases relating to promotion issues. However, they did have
the power to look at other disputes, including court materials. The
experience of the AFTs has not been an entirely good one. The government
is not particularly happy with the proceedings of the AFTs, while their
judges are usually sound in their legal background, the military
officers there lack any kind of judicial experience or knowledge when
they are appointed. As a result, the government has tightened the authority of the defence secretary over the appointments of the tribunals and inquiries against its members.
In other words, they have underscored the fact that the tribunals
function under the Ministry of Defence and not the regular courts
system. Now the higher courts of the land must lay out clear guidelines
of conduct. Justice on issues of murder and other such issues is simply
too important to be left to such tribunals.
Meanwhile the Indian army’s higher leadership needs to reflect on its
role as the sword arm of the republic. Being involved in
counter-insurgency roles makes its tasks difficult. But it needs to have
a clear cut vision of itself as the upholder of law, a force that
privileges honour above everything regardless of the politicians in
The Wire August 18, 2017