Foot in the mouth disease is a common affliction of the Indian politician. It comes in two basic forms – the ‘shoot and claim misquote’ and ‘shoot and apologize’. Dr Bhim Singh, the minister from Bihar was struck down by the latter when he asserted quite indignantly that “people join the army to die”. Of course, he duly expressed remorse and apologized following a media driven outrage. But the truth is that one is not surprised to hear the attitude displayed by his remarks. Possibly in the throes of the virulent affliction mentioned earlier, Bhim Singh voiced his opinion on the role of the soldiers – that of cannon fodder, paid to lay down their lives for the great nation that the likes of him govern. And while he was castigated for expressing it openly, majority of the political class and a large section of the Indian population share his perception – even though it may be politically incorrect to acknowledge it. They more than display it by their actions.
How often, in his tenure of almost ten years as Prime Minister, have you seen or heard of Dr Manmohan Singh visiting or addressing the troops deployed on our far flung borders? Reviewing the passing out parade of any academy? Address war veterans? These are all things that the President of the United States does on a regular basis. Here is an excerpt from President Obama’s speech at a Veteran’s convention in Arizona –
“To all those who have served America — our forces, your families, our veterans — you have done your duty. You have fulfilled your responsibilities. And now a grateful nation must fulfill ours. And that is what I want to talk about today.
As President, my greatest responsibility is the security and safety of the American people. As I’ve said before, that is the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning, it’s the last thing that I think about when I go to sleep at night. And I will not hesitate to use force to protect the American people or our vital interests.
But as we protect America, our men and women in uniform must always be treated as what they are: America’s most precious resource. As Commander-in-Chief, I have a solemn responsibility for their safety. And there is nothing more sobering than signing a letter of condolence to the family of servicemen or women who have given their lives for our country.
And that’s why I have made this pledge to our armed forces: I will only send you into harm’s way when it is absolutely necessary. And when I do, it will be based on good intelligence and guided by a sound strategy. I will give you a clear mission, defined goals, and the equipment and support you need to get the job done. That’s my commitment to you. (Applause.)
Which brings me to our second responsibility to our armed forces — giving them the resources and equipment and strategies to meet their missions. We need to keep our military the best-trained, the best-led, the best-equipped fighting force in the world. And that’s why, even with our current economic challenges, my budget increases defense spending.”
There are several things here that indicate the sharp contrast in attitude. First is the acknowledgement by the president of a grateful nation, of the debt it owes its veterans, and that the nation is obliged to fulfill its responsibilities towards them. Contrast this with our country, where veterans have to return their medals and burn their artificial limbs
to get the government to pay attention to their woes – and yet remain unheard. Next, and specifically relevant in the context of Bhim Singh’s statement, is the acknowledgment that soldiers are a “precious resource” – NOT cannon fodder.
Then is the resolve to provide the best training and equipment for the forces. The tragedy here is that in the absence of any such sentiment amongst our leadership, even the sanctioned amount of the defence budget remains unspent due to the incompetence of the procurement machinery of the government. Thus we have had a situation where the Chief of Army Staff has to write to the Prime Minister to inform him of the critical shortfall and obsolescence of equipment affecting the operational preparedness of the army. Obviously, equipping them well is not of much concern to a leadership that feels it is the soldier’s duty to die for his country.
We have a political class that has, even after six and a half decades of the army’s apolitical existence, a deep rooted phobia against it. And we have a bureaucracy which is only too happy to prey on these fears, and ensure that the generals ‘remain in their place’. Military advice is thus routed through the bureaucracy. This was the attitude that led to the debacle of 1962, when military advice was ignored and ill equipped and inadequate forces were thrown into battle without adequate intelligence or preparation.
Today, when the nation’s enemies threaten it on its borders as well as from within, it is all the more important to get our act together as a nation. Bhim Singh, and our political leadership in general, would be well advised to learn from what Gen George S Patton said in his famous speech to the 3rd Army – “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. You win it by killing the other poor dumb bastard for his country.”
So, if we have to win future wars, we need to ensure our soldiers are enabled and equipped to kill the ‘other poor dumb bastards’.