No Medals for Moral Courage By Brig NB Grant
COURAGE is the most admired of human virtues in all societies and in all walks of life — to be a man, is to be courageous. Courage is no less in the higher than in the lower levels of command, but the greater the responsibility and higher the ranks, the emphasis shifts from physical to moral courage — a much rarer quality, rare but essential to higher leadership.
Our war with China, three wars with Pakistan and the latest operation Vijay in Kargil, have amply demonstrated the superb physical courage of the Indian jawan and officer, specially in the junior and middle levels. There has never been any doubt on this score. Moral courage, contiguous to higher leadership, has not, however, been demonstrated to the same extent, at least visibly. In this respect perhaps, a clearer definition of the Indian Army officer’s credo would be more meaningful. This credo as inscribed at the Indian Military Academy’s (IMA) Chetwood Hall, reads as follows: “The safety, honour and welfare of your country comes first, always and every time; The honour, welfare and comfort of the men you command come next; Your own ease comfort and safety come last, always and every time.”
The main ingredient of the above credo is ‘courage’ and ‘self sacrifice’. However, this does not just apply to the physical aspect of safety, ease and comfort, as is normally expected of the junior and middle level officer in the combat zone, but more so to its moral significance in the decision making zone, whereby higher level leadership places the larger aspect of the safety and honour of the country, before its own mental ease and career interest. Whereas, the former that is physical courage, is easy to see, and the officer concerned is rewarded with a medal or an award, as was the case in Kargil where 58 awards were given in a 15-day battle, in the case of the latter, namely moral courage of higher leadership, where the senior officer at times has to sacrifice not only his command but his entire career, seldom comes to public notice, and is never awarded a medal or a sensure.
Whereas it is not difficult to narrate examples of moral courage from British, American or European wars, on which so much has been written and critically analysed, unfortunately with us, due to our obsession with a false sense of security, and more so due to our sycophant culture of adulation of personalities, very little literature exists or is allowed to be recorded. However, if examples of moral courage, or the lack of it, have to be analysed and useful lessons drawn from them, then we must do so without regard to the reputation of the government in power or personalities involved. From what little information is available, let us examine just a few cases in respect of our army since Independence.
The 1961-62 conflict with China was perhaps the most demoralising era for the Indian Army. The fact that we suffered a military defeat was only one part of this sorry episode. The more important aspect was its exposure of the moral tone of higher leadership. It will be recalled that, Lieut-Gen Biji Kaul, the then Corps Commander, tried to vindicate himself through his book “The Untold Story”, followed by Brig John Dalvi’s factual account in his “Himalayan Blunder”. No matter what the Henderson-Brooks report reveals or conceals, there is now no doubt that it was a political fiasco of the worst order; the military debacle only lay in its acceptance of that fiasco, and in its lack of moral character to oppose it. Military honour dictated that, rather than jeopardise the safety of his troops and the prestige of his country, the then COAS, General Thapar, should have resigned at that time, or even threatened to resign. Him not having done so, was the real Himalayan Blunder, and why he did not so, is the only Untold Story.
Coming to recent history of the past 10 years, a lot of criticism has appeared in the press and questions asked in the Lok Sabha, regarding the military fiasco and high rate of casualties which took place in operation Pawan in Sri Lanka and operation Vijay in Kargil. Speaking at a function organised by the Unity International Foundation, Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, while releasing a book “IPKF in Sri Lanka” by Lieut. Gen Depinder Singh, former IPKF Chief, has solely blamed the government for launching most military operations in a hurry, without a clear mandate, adequate intelligence or necessary resources, which concluded in heavy casualties. In this respect, history will slow that one of the failure of moral courage in higher leadership was the way every commander down the line shirked responsibility for the Kargil episode, and the avoidable carnage that followed. Instead of the buck sticking somewhere at the top, it came to a halt at the lowest commander on the spot, who was made the scapegoat.
What the Field Marshal had stated may be 100 per cent correct, however, no General can vindicate his loss or get his men slaughtered in battle claiming that he was compelled to do so against his better judgement due to political pressure. If he has to execute a lawful (but politically loaded) order of gaining a victory by endangering the lives of men though accepting a very high rate of avoidable casualty, then the only course open to him is that of either delaying the operation till he is fully prepared, resignation or even disobedience, but for which he must be prepared to pay the price with his head. It will be recalled that, Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw did just that, by giving an ultimatum to Mrs Indira Gandhi, in insisting on the postponement of the Bangladesh operation by one month till he was ready.
It is not for one moment being suggested that our Generals should oppose every action if their views differ from those of their political bosses, or to tender their resignations at the drop of a hat. Far from it. However, to date, we have had no one who has refused to obey an order, or has resigned, wherein the security of the nation, or the lives and morale of troops, or the honour of the Army was at stake. Any resignations that have taken place so far, have all been on administrative or personal grounds, mainly supersession.