To Be An Officer : Vietnam Happening In slow Motion
Col Abhay Gupta
Once upon a time we used to have officers in the army.
All officers rose to higher ranks, were good leaders, and were great Commanders. Whatever rank they rose up to, Majors, Colonels or Generals, they continued to be OFFICERS not only till the end of their careers, but till the end of their lives. The ladies were saluted, a young couple would be feasted by the Colonel as he would a General, a Brigadier would hold the door of the car open for a young Army Wife.
They were Gentleman-first. Officers took care of the men, their food, clothing, barracks and families; the men in turn took exceptional care of their officers. Woe befell a Young Officer who would attend to his own tent being pitched rather than being at the site where the camp for the soldiers was coming up; such was a ‘selfless’ pedigree called OFFICERS.
The academies were those mystical machines that transformed young boys into men, and more importantly into officers. In academies there were reagents and catalysts that went by names of ustaads and Saabs. They were the guys responsible for the transformation.
Boys under training were simply called ‘Cadets’. Training to become an officer entailed daily pain, frequent agony and once-in-six-months ecstasy. This was the cycle that went on for four years. Daily pain was on account of the rigourous routine while the once-in-six-months ecstasy was on the day of the passing out.
Successful six-months at the academy meant new privileges (we did not have the corporate term ‘perks’, we only had ‘privileges’). The privileges were rather down-to-earth activities that could fall under the category of ‘tasks that could be delegated’ like a junior getting your bicycle for the muster parade, or simple practical conveniences like not wearing a pajama under the gown while going to the bathroom!
In academies, one actually lived for the day. There was never a thought of the future. The future, the furthest one could foresee, was a mystical statistics that went by the acronym DLTGH (Days Left To Go Home).
The transition of DLTGH from three-figure digit to a two-figure was not welcomed with screams, but everyone experienced the joy building up within each heart; the closest comparison can be the experience of the divine – it defies description, but can be experienced. DLTGH reducing from two-digit to a single-digit was ecstasy, nay bliss.
After three years as Cadets, the next step was to be anointed a Gentlemen Cadet. It entailed another year of equally grueling training. It was integration of twin dimensions, being a gentleman and a professional (at appropriate level), into one.
All throughout the training period a person was assessed for OLQ (Officer Like Qualities). Successful integration of the two dimensions rolled into one created an Officer.
Becoming an officer was not easy. Training at the academies was tough. When I was posted as a Platoon Commander & Instructor Class ‘C’ at the Indian Military Academy they had a practice of conducting drill for all the sahayaks once a week. After a few outings in the drill square with the ustaads, my sahayak “Gutte” confided, ‘It is very tough sahab. I don’t know how the GC’s can do it daily.’
In his eyes the respect for Young Officers in the unit went up many notches after that experience. He had understood what grind one is put through before one could wear that coveted One-Star on the shoulders.
Passing Out had a different connotation than what can be visualized by a commoner (Hic!). The training ingrained ‘selflessness’ without even once mentioning the term. On the day of the final Passing Out, the Spirit of Chetwode silently stamped ‘SELFLESS’ on each soul passing through its portals.
The training at the academies virtually altered the DNA of the young boy.
While the cadets were undergoing the emotional sine-curve, their parents were on a much elevated, level platform. They would move with a distinct sense of pride amongst their peers, ‘their son was getting trained to be an officer’.
It would be simply stated by the parents and the siblings that their son/brother was in the services and that he was an officer. The pride within their hearts was experienced, never stated. The awe in the hearts of the listener would invariably show on their faces.
As officers, we were told, three things were taboo – discussing politics, money and ladies; we had full freedom to discuss, even complain about, weather.
Besides losing a whole lot of fundamental rights granted by Constitution to an average citizen, one also lost one’s religion as an officer. The religion of the officers was the religion of ‘his men’. A Brahmin in a Sikh unit would know more about the Gurudwara Sahib than a temple! Officers were, after all not ‘ordinary citizens’.
To be an officer implied two things – ingrained selflessness (the altered DNA) whose outward manifestation was being a gentleman, and an acceptable degree of proficiency in soldiering skills. To be an ‘officer’ was an end in itself, or so we thought, till new horizons unfolded through the entire career.
Beyond Being an Officer
Having survived the grueling training at the academies, being stamped ‘selfless’ and wearing the coveted one-star rank, the next challenge was to become a regimental officer. For this accreditation three simple things were required – Know Your Men, Know Your Job, Know Yourself.
‘Knowing the men’ implied knowing one’s soldier through the entire spectrum of his being – right from his Army Number, his family details, about his career cadres and courses, his strengths and weaknesses and his emotional state.
This entailed working shoulder to shoulder with them from PT onwards, through maintenance parades, training, games, roll calls and frequent visits to his langar (kitchen cum dining hall) to check the quality of the food being given to him, occasional checking of the lights-out (all soldiers being tucked in their mosquito nets) and all aspects of his being while on night-duty.
Disbursement of pay was a sacred one-to-one affair, for it was another vital process of knowing the men. Not knowing the name of ‘your jawan’ was an unpardonable ‘cognizable offence’ as per the military ethos.
If the jawan belonged to another company or battery, not knowing his name was accepted only if one had less than three years regimental service! If a senior ever heard a young officer using abusive language with the troops he was hauled up.
The entire process of “Know Your Men’ created an invisible bond, a very strong and intangible connect, between the officer and his men. ‘Knowing your men’ was an unending process that spanned the entire career as an officer.
By the time a Young Officer became a Field Officer (Company or Battery Commander to a Colonel), knowing men became his second nature, a deeply ingrained habit. Man-management or managerial skills like Delegation were not skills to be learnt; it was second-nature for an officer to pick-and-choose the right man for the right job based on his natural aptitude acquired through the process of ‘Know Your Men’.
The second dimension to being a regimental officer was ‘Know Your Job’. This entailed two things. One was to know the job of every man in his team (mind you, there was no one ‘under’ an officer because officer by nature is a team-player), and second was to know his own job, be it as a platoon/ troop commander or a Gee Pee O.
Knowing the job of each man of his team was not simply knowing his charter of responsibilities and duties on paper; it entailed being better than him in every sphere of his activity. One had to be better than the jawan, be it opening of a weapon, firing of a weapon, plotting of an artillery board, or simply running the 2-mile. Being professionally better than the troops was a natural way of earning respect, and this in turn made him fit to be a Commander.
Only a Commander had people ‘under him’. One naturally learnt that
respect preceded command. No one ever told us to ‘earn respect’; we were shown the way. Command, at whatever level, was not codified by any statute; it was a divine responsibility, a moral responsibility, a dharma.
The third dimension of being a regimental officer was ‘Know Yourself’. It implied knowing one’ own strengths and weaknesses. One had to know one’s thresholds, be it drinking, or be it personal conduct. The guiding principle was that one had to be ‘officer like’ all the time.
Such were the processes and systems of the Services.
All this was done in an environment that was not codified; it was unwritten, but it prevailed as a firm organizational climate. Army, for that matter Services, are really built on the unwritten code of conduct, the ethos, which one learnt with the passage of time. If parade was to commence at 8 AM, time to arrive was 7.55 AM; arriving at 7.56 AM was being late on parade.
One could have a late-night in the Mess past mess timings only with prior permission. Even if one had partied past mid-night into the wee hours of the morning, one had to be present for PT at 5.55 AM; late night was no excuse to skip the first parade.
One learnt, ‘A senior should never remember that he is senior, and a junior should never forget that he is a junior’; such ethos created a healthy environment of ‘informal formality’. The bonnum summum of military ethos is mystically couched in Army Act Section 63 – Good Order & Military Discipline!
Thirty years ago young boys aspired to become officers. Young girls in colleges aspired to be Army Wives!
Regimental Officers did not really bother about promotions. Officers were happy being Company or Battery Commanders, and they were the best in their league. They were a ‘satisfied’ lot in the chain of ‘Command’.
Most of them knew their professional limitations, and those who did, never even aspired to be anything other than commanding whatever company/ battery they were commanding. The professionally competent nurtured a singular dream – to command their parent unit / battalion; it was not an ambition driving them, it was just a dream.
To be a Commanding Officer (CO) was considered a divine gift; barely thirty percent ‘officers’ made the grade. A CO was a peculiar concoction that contained the best of both the worlds – an ‘officer’ and a ‘commander’.
He knew his command, which soldiers’ wife is having problems in conceiving, who is hitting the bottle hard, and who is to be entrusted with what job. Looking at the faces of his men he could sense who was not at peace mentally; he would then do everything to ameliorate his condition. The troops learnt that there are top-down concepts, of respect and loyalty.
With display of top-down loyalty and respect, Officers earned loyalty and respect. It is for this mysterious reason that troops worshipped their Commanding Officers as God.
In the Services scheme of things, Boys became Cadets, Cadets became Gentleman Cadets (GeeCees), GCs became Officers, and Officers became Commanders; that was the ladder of progression. In between ‘Officers’ and ‘Commanders’ lay a mystical dimension called ‘leadership’.
Among officers there were only three categories – young, field and general. Then somewhere, unknowingly, we lost the term ‘being an officer’ altogether. Then management science came on the scene and everything changed; to be a professional (Know your job) became a more pronounced requirement.
Young boys in schools and colleges began aspiring for pay-packets; they preferred to become ‘managers’ or ‘executives’ rather than ‘officers’. No one explained to them what it meant to be an ‘officer’!
Why is one recollecting the entire process of being a commander? It is not nostalgia. It is being done with a larger aim. The Whole must be known. Unless the WHOLE is known we run the risk associated with a key-hole view, which is best expressed in the quote from an unknown author, ‘People who look through the keyholes are apt to get the idea that most things are keyhole shaped’.
With the arrival of management science in the middle of the twentieth century the whole world went topsy-turvy. New vocabulary made in-roads to confuse the simple soldier.
The all-encompassing term ‘Administration’ was replaced by ‘management’, the ‘Movement’ part of administration became ‘Logistics’. ‘Know your men’ became ‘man-management’.
Once we had only courses / cadres, sand models/ TEWTs and collective training; we started having Workshops and Seminars. We had the battle space clearly defined into Strategic, Operational and Tactical; it changed to Depth, Deep and Contact. A simple ‘All together heave’ was replaced by ‘synergy’!
The reality is that the B-world (no offence meant, I am referring to the Business World) is actually using the phraseology of the A-world (Army world).
The rich and deep vocabulary is much sought after because the Services vocabulary contains more encompassing words and phrases which have whole lot of intangible attributes inherent and hidden.
The whole environment today, business and political alike, is actually full of Army vocabulary. Here is a sprinkling of the samples of A- vocabulary being used by the world at large.
After YSR’s demise in helicopter crash, K Rossaiah was asked to take over. In an interview (ToI, 6.9.06) he said, ‘I am a loyal soldier of the party and will abide by whatever decisions it takes … If the party decides that Jagan (YSR’ son) should be made CM who am I to object?’ Loyalty is an intrinsic attribute of a soldier.
‘Trusted Lieutenant’ (as in D-Company), ‘Captains of industry’ (as the likes of Ratan Tata are referred to as), ‘Campaign’ (as in advertising campaign), ‘Launch’ (as in launch of a new product), ‘War’ (as in price wars), ‘war footing’ (as in refurbishing a sick enterprise), ‘Capture’ (as in capture the market) etc are some of the words that immediately come to mind.
∙ There is one term, Commander, the mysticism of which has eluded the B-world; it has not yet found usage in the civil streets, except finding usage in describing militant leaders!
Command is not a statutory authority. It is indeed a moral responsibility and divine authority rolled into one. It is one long journey of learning (not earning) and experimentation. It is a progressive increase of responsibilities. Rights, Perks and Privileges are purely incidental. Having learnt the art of command, the Commander has to often visit himself to check out his ‘selflessness quotient’. This check is very important because the moment this foundation is disturbed the entire edifice of senior ranks entailing greater responsibilities, will be shaky.
What Ails Us?
For want of adequate enquiry and research, and insight and understanding of our own organizational processes and systems, the pseudo-intellectuals in uniform (mostly the guys going on foreign courses/ assignments) have been trying to fill up the intellectual vacuum with by importing and adopting theories, practices, systems and processes of the B-world, which are based the research conducted by the academia. If the image of Army takes a beating today it will be on account of several collective errors of judgment rather than a sinister conspiracy of the market or social forces.
Army has no system in place to identify its jewels and use them in its crown. For want of jouhries, Army loses its diamonds. APJ wanted to be a pilot – we rejected; Brig Gurmeet Kanwal took PMR after commanding a brigade in General Cadre; Lal and GI rose up to be General Officers Commanding divisions! We started adopting civil designations – MD (as in AWHO), Presidents/ Chairpersons /Directors (as in AWWA). JCOs lost their identity to a ‘more encompassing’ term – ‘PBOR’. Officers got disillusioned and lost the pride of being commanders. Command lost its sheen and pride to tick-marking some mandatory criteria appointment in ever reducing tenures, a-la Vietnam.
The irony is that the Army, even the Services, got deluded. They, the management science, have discovered the subject of Leadership in the last decade of the twentieth century when unethical conduct of CEOs started eroding well established business empires! The Services, for want of
adequate clarity, are also trying to grapple with the subject of ‘leadership’ from the point of view of business academicians! The Army is debating Transactional, Transformation and Transcendental models of leadership!!!
Army doesn’t have to address itself to the subject of ‘Leadership’; it has to shift back its focus on creating ‘Commanders’.
Recap of the Process
A boy has to be made selfless first. To become an officer requires transformation at the deepest level – transformation of the DNA, to become ‘selfless’. To be an officer naturally implies being a ‘gentleman’; that is why the term used at IMA is GC – a Gentleman Cadet. Being made selfless, groomed to be gentleman and trained to be a soldier he becomes an officer.
The next step is to become a Regimental Officer. ‘Know your men’, not manage them; ‘Know your job’; be better than them, thereby earn their respect; ‘Know your self’ [I prefer ‘Know your Self’]). To be an regimental officer implies to know, albeit unconsciously, the secret of happiness – the happiness of the men you command is a pre-requisite to your own happiness.
The regimental officer progressively learns the art of command, to become a Commander, moving from the physical aspects of the people under his command to deeper aspects like emotions, feelings and spiritual dimensions of his people. For a young officer, knowing the names of his troops may suffice, but for a General it is essential that he understands, and acknowledges, his troops as human beings first, as soldiers later. The progression in the Army is not of leaders, but of commanders through different stages of command.
Maslow’s principle, that a man cannot progress to a higher need if a lower-order need is unfulfilled, holds equally good in this paradigm. As per Maslow’s principle the lower-order need has to be satisfied before the higher-need can manifest; more importantly, when a lower-order need is threatened, a man will fall to it from his current pedestal, be that self-esteem or self-actualisation.
The truth is …
The moment a person ceases to be an officer (selfless gentleman) he ceases to be a leader, ceases to be a commander. He may be the best professional, but if he has lost the foundation of being an officer, he can only harm the time-tested system, and the environment, of the Services.
Through all courses of instruction, from YO’s till NDC, the aspect, ‘being an officer’ (OLQ of academy days), needs to be looked at with a fine comb, with a telescope, a microscope, under a CAT scanner, ECG and an EEG. In fact, one does not require any of the high-tech, prohibitive cost gadgets. There is one simple and fool-proof technique – watch how he treats his subordinates, how he treats the people who can do him no good. This simple truth was clearly indicated in the movie, Lage Raho Munna Bhai. Watch a man’s conduct with his subordinates – is the interaction founded on mutual respect or fear; this single observation can give a clear indication whether a person is operating in the field of selfishness or unselfishness /selflessness. This is the litmus test for ascertaining promotability of an officer. Only if a person qualifies through this sieve may his professional qualities be looked at.
Anyone who displays slightest tendency of selfishness, of commanding through instilling fear than mutual respect, needs to be stamped like a condemned Ground Sheet – ‘UNFIT FOR PROMOTION or HOLDING INDEPENDENT COMMAND. Through such methods can we have Field and General Officers who do not ever run the risk of being court martialled. Only then can we have the Army, and the Services at large, redeem their lost status.
Leadership is actually the threshold, a fine dividing line between selfishness and selflessness. We need to drop all debates on the elusive subject of leadership. Let us drop the debate on ‘leadership’ and re-focus our energies to obtain the Commanders our men deserve.
Let us in the Army, and in the Services at large, not fall prey to the lure of expediency that is peculiar to the B-world [this time pun intended].
Let us not permit Vietnam to happen to us in slow-motion.
I am not being nostalgic. I am really crying in pain seeing what we are doing to ourselves through ignorance, promoting pseudo-officers to General-ranks, officers who get court-martialled and bring ignominy to the Services and uniform at large.
We have been successfully training the boys to be officers at our academies. Beyond academies we are faltering. We have not been applying the litmus test to differentiate between the selfless and the selfish variety, and have been pushing the B-world model of ‘professionals-alone’ up the ladder, little realizing the truth of Maslow’s principle. The B-world realized the importance of ‘Ethics in Business’ in the last decade of the last century. Let us not lose our Ethos in the first place, only to rediscover it later.
A rather long read but spells the truth 🙏