Catch 22 – Physical Courage or Moral Courage? (Redux)

"It is all good when accolades and rewards come their way for an operation well done and executed by subordinates. According to the law of averages for some missions that don’t go as per plan and get the desired result there is always a moral escape route, feign ignorance!"


Catch 22 – Physical Courage or Moral Courage? (Redux)

(Editor's Note: This article has been reproduced from Mission Victory India: A Key to Quality Combat Leadership, the fifth book in the Victory India compendium of books, as part of MVI's ongoing archival efforts. The subject matter continues to hold relevance in the current military context, as it did when written in 2018.)

An unprecedented event occurred on the eve of Independence Day this year. 356 serving Army personnel filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court asking for legal protection against prosecution by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Courts for doing their duty in areas where the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) is in force. 14 August 2018 will go down in national history as a day when we as a nation failed to safeguard our Forces from judicial harassment & ‘hauling over the coals’ by a select few who have a personal agenda to belittle the good work done by the Military.

Army works in a tight hierarchy wherein disobedience of Command/Orders can incur the wrath of the superior Officer and unleash immediate reprisals ranging from an explanation to a Court martial depending on the gravity of offence and circumstances preceding it. Under this shadow of Army Act (passed by an act of Parliament) the entire lot of subordinates work to defend the territorial Integrity and sovereignty of India.

The law itself is binding but a vast majority keep this factor in the background and perform diligently to uphold intangibles like regimental honour, camaraderie, naam–namak–nishan, izzat and so on. Officers when they join are fresh faced, idealistic, without malice, have tremendous drive and do or die spirit. It is overvaulting ambition in later service that does them in!!

Since no action/operation can take place without it being cleared by senior headquarters (HQ) what is all the more intriguing in the writ petition is absence of the names of Brigadiers/Major Generals/Lieutenant Generals who control counter insurgency and anti–terror operations in Manipur and Jammu and Kashmir (J&K).

"It’s a win-win situation if everything goes well according to plan. A senior’s moral compass is put to test when he has to face his superiors (even politicians) and give the unpleasant news or fall out of an operation gone awry."
A Rashtriya Rifles soldier lifts his gun to chase away a stray dog near the site of a gun battle on the outskirts of Srinagar, Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020; File Photo

Questions which arise are:

  • Did these 356 Officers (Colonels/Majors/Captains) act of their own volition?
  • Did they disobey orders at any juncture?
  • Who was monitoring these operations?
  • Were no written reports generated after the conduct of operations for perusal by higher HQ’s?
  • Were the orders to conduct operations given verbally or in writing?
  • Who all are the beneficiaries of the successful conduct of operations (by way of citations/awards/promotions)?
  • When things failed or did not go as per plan who was left holding the CAN and who covered his tracks?
  • The lowest hanging fruit in any hierarchy is the junior officer; did he by default or by design get picked for the fiasco when “s...hit the fan”?

Answers to these questions will never be available, but what scares us in the face is an unfolding tragedy of massive proportions. Is Physical Courage enough to get selected, face operational conditions, rise in one’s career and act like “to each his own” or are we missing out on the strongest pillar of a Military man’s Leadership trait & character, his adherence to moral courage in times of crisis and distress.

Field Marshal Manekshaw had this to say about Moral courage “You have got to have the moral courage to stand up and tell them the facts. Again, as I told you before, a ‘yes man’ is a despicable man”. In many cases of Life and Death situations it is understood that written orders may not be given, yet the subordinates have to act and complete the mission.

It’s a win-win situation if everything goes well according to plan. A senior’s moral compass is put to test when he has to face his superiors (even politicians) and give the unpleasant news or fall out of an operation gone awry. Many Generals of the day have been found wanting of this noble quality of Military profession to stand up for their juniors when the times get rough.

It is all good when accolades/awards and rewards come their way for an operation well done and executed by subordinates. According to the law of averages for some missions that don’t go as per plan and get the desired result there is always a Moral escape route, Feign Ignorance!!

We need to urgently train our future Leaders to face moral courage dilemmas with sagacity and choose the harder right (resignation/demotion/inquiry) than the easier wrong (fudging reports/ yes sir syndrome/staying aloof) In fact Physical courage may be tested as a one off situation in an Officer’s career but it is Moral courage which will he will continue to draw on till he serves in Uniform.

(Col. PK ‘Royal’ Mehrishi (Retd), an alumnus of the NDA, has been an active Infantry combat leader for 28 Years. A qualified clinical psychologist, he is a prolific writer, author of several books, a TV panelist and a motivational speaker. In addition, he is a Harvard Business School product, certified in ‘Expert Negotiations’. He can be reached at Email: [email protected])

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