Late Gen BC Joshi was undoubtedly one of the most visionary chief Indian Army has had. The Rashtriya Rifles, residential Army Public Schools and Professional Institutes for the wards of servicemen are some of the outcomes of his vision. Amongst the policy guidelines promulgated by him on assuming office as the chief was the one on the status of Commanding Officers. Here was one general who realized the pivotal role played by the COs within the organisational framework of the Army. He therefore mandated that they be enabled, empowered and accorded the status due to them as Commanding Officers. A small but very visible indicator of this was that the signs that used to read “Flag Cars Only” were amended across the army to say “Flag Cars and COs Vehicles Only”. Seemingly insignificant, but extremely meaningful in a hierarchical organisation like the Army. Today, fifteen years down the line, the signboards are still there – but the spirit of the order, sadly, doesn’t seem to be.
Not that this decline is something that will be readily acknowledged by very many people. For all intents and purposes, the buck still stops at the Commanding Officer. But often this is merely the buck of accountability and rarely the buck of authority. Reasons, rationales and excuses can be found. It could be the greatly improved communications – today it is actually possible for the highest of headquarters to breathe down the neck of a platoon commander carrying out an operation – or the microscope of media scrutiny under which every operation (or suicide by a soldier, for that matter) is placed today. Whatever may be the reason for this extreme risk aversion, the result cannot be very healthy.
Unfortunately, the temptation to continue to command units even from positions of higher command is strong. After all, that’s where the comfort zone lies, and that’s also where all the action is. But giving in to this temptation and micro managing unit affairs by higher commanders leads to a large number of ills that an organisation like the Army can do without. The interesting thing is that this is not something that is peculiar to our situation. Consider this extract from a talk given by Lt Col Paul Yingling to the US Command and General Staff College:-
“When I was a battalion XO in Iraq in 2003, I served with a company commander whose vehicle was struck by an early version of an IED. The fragmentation shattered his windshield and severed his antennas, the smoke and dust obscured his vision and the blast temporarily deafened him. In the first critical seconds after the blast, the commander saw the ubiquitous white pickup leaving the blast area, but didn’t pursue it. His battalion commander was furious, and later harangued the captain for his failure to act. The company commander was crushed; he felt the battalion commander was questioning his courage, and in fact he was.
The battalion commander later complained to me about his company commander’s inaction. He was right on the tactics – in those rare moments when we make contact with insurgents, if indeed this truck contained insurgents – we must capture or kill them. I was less certain about his methods of leader development, so I asked about the company commander’s preparations for deployment. For example, prior to deployment, who had the authority to cancel PT in the event of an electrical storm? He answered, ‘the brigade commander had that authority.’ I then asked him, who had the authority to change the PT uniform, if for example it was warmer than expected? That decision was at the battalion level. This company commander, who only a few months ago lacked the authority to tell his troops to come in out of the rain or take off their hats, was now expected to pursue the enemy unto death.”
Forget about young officers – imagine the damage caused by curbing the initiative of commanding officers. Therefore, in supreme organisational interest, the tigers must be allowed to roar.