Military training, upbringing and ethos are unique. They have to be, because they cater to the needs of preparing and maintaining an entire system for fitting into its unique role in the national security spectrum. The depth to which military training, upbringing and ethos change the DNA of those who receive this training and honourably spend time in uniform, determines the utility of the process to their respective countries, especially, to functional democracies. Events of the last two weeks in the US, a large democracy, merit attention in this regard.
A Bold Step
On 3 June 2020, Dr Mark T. Esper, Secretary of Defence, declared at a press conference that he did not support President Donald Trump’s plan to use the Insurrection Act of 1807 to quell the current protests going on in the US over the killing of an African American by a policeman.
Voices of dissent had been rising over Trump’s words and actions from the time the Covid-19 crisis started posing serious challenges to the US. After resisting for about three months, senior retired military voices too began to be heard. And then, Dr Mark Esper too spoke out. It was an unexpected step, extremely bold, as he, as the Defence Secretary, “oversees the Defence Department and acts as the principal Defense policy maker and advisor” to POTUS. While the dissenting statements from anyone else can be explained away, what Dr Esper spoke and why he decided to speak up merit comment, especially because he has a past in uniform. In a charged atmosphere where President Trump showed that he would easily fire top officials, including National Security Advisors, who did not toe his line, was it Dr Esper’s past in uniform that gave him the strength to stand up for defending the country’s constitution, at great peril to himself?
Upon graduating from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1986, Dr Esper was commissioned as an Infantry Officer. He served in the illustrious 101st Airborne Division and participated in the 1990-91 Gulf War. He retired in 2007, after twenty-one years in uniform, including eleven years in the National Guard and Army Reserve. The extremely hard training that he would have had to undergo to qualify for the 101st Airborne Division, the live bullets that he would have faced during the Gulf War, and the absolute trust that would been reposed in him by his subordinates in life and death situations would have brought alive every nuance of the theory of military ethos and life taught to him at West Point. This surely enriched him for life.
All good military academies prepare future military leaders. At West Point, which describes itself as the US’s “preeminent leader development institution”, their Mission Statement reads, “to educate, train, and inspire the Corps of Cadets so that each graduate is a commissioned leader of character, committed to the values of Duty, Honour, Country and prepared for a career of professional excellence and service to the Nation as an Officer in the United States Army”. To achieve their stated mission, they try to get their cadets to “learn to live honourably, lead honourably, and demonstrate excellence by following through Character, Academic, Physical and Military programs”. Among the above, Character being the most critical asset of a military leader, the training at West Point aims to shape their cadets into Officers, who will live by “Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honour, Integrity and Personal Courage”.
What DR Esper spoke
Some of what Dr Esper spoke, especially during these times of unprecedented political and societal strife, obviously stem from the values that became a part of his DNA owing to his military training and life. The sheer timing and the settings prove this. While the foremost thing he said was that he did not support the use of active duty military forces in support of law and order, in direct contradiction of POTUS, his boss, he buttressed his position with a solid volume of justification.
He said he was “proud to be a member of the United States military, that embraces diversity and inclusion and prohibits hate and discrimination in all forms”. By this he clearly pointed out that “once a soldier, always a soldier”, regardless of what job one was doing, in or out of uniform. He recalled the oath he had taken many times, starting at the age of 18 at West Point, to “uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States of America”. Oaths once taken, are for life, in many professions. The military is one such. It is specially so for the military in democracies, where they enjoy a special status, as the surest hedge against external enemies.
Militaries serve democracies best when they remain strong, competent, obedient and resistant to any form of unwanted domestic influence. While commenting on this, Dr Esper said that inevitably, immense pressures are brought to bear by politics on militaries, especially in times of impending elections, and admitted that the military leadership, despite the greatest effort, does sometimes falter. But here is where the good old training and life lived in uniform come to one’s rescue. A military leader is the protective cover of the force he leads, giving them the confidence to perform the toughest of tasks for their country, risking their lives. The leader, as the protector, also becomes the first one to get singed in the flames of unholy influence. A good leader must withstand the flames, and protect his force. It is also important for the force under the leader to clearly understand the enormity of the leader’s task. Being human, the leader could falter. I think Dr Esper addressed all of this beautifully when he said: “I did everything I can to try to stay apolitical and to try to stay out of situations that may appear political, and sometimes I’m successful with doing that, and sometimes I’m not as successful. But my aim is to keep the department out of politics, to stay apolitical, and that’s what I continue to try and do.”
For the leader under pressure, this is where indoctrination comes to the rescue. An indoctrination borne out of repeated prayers, oaths and a life lived for many years by the tenets of those oaths. For instance, the daily prayer for cadets in our National Defence Academy has a line, which appeals to the almighty “to guide us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong”. Repeated invocation of the prayer for three years, an intended indoctrination, is expected rub the tenets of the prayer into the very DNA of cadets. Later in life, as Officers, when facing tough situations, they are likely to instinctively remember these words, and actually find the strength to take the harder right. Dr Esper’s episode was one such. He had actually placed his service, before himself. It was a fantastic manifestation of the ultimate responsibility of any military leader.
Values flow from top
The greatest contribution of Dr Esper’s words was the clear vision that they gave to his constituency, the armed forces. Now, it was easy for the individual service chiefs and subsequent formation commanders to issue necessary statements to retain the confidence of their subordinates and also to retain the confidence US citizens have in their military. It is this confidence of the people that gives the ultimate legitimacy for the armed forces, a legitimacy that becomes a great moral enabler in carrying out military tasks. Moreover, for a country like the US, it also has the potential to gain more respect and trust from their allies as well as instil more fear into the hearts of their enemies. A truly upright military is unbeatable.
Several Commanders made statements in consonance with Dr Esper’s message and even Gen Mike Milley, the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, the senior most Officer in uniform, made a statement apologising for having been in a situation, which could send a very wrong message to the country about the apolitical nature of the military. The fact that he did this in a video message to be shown to graduating cadets of the National Defence University, was great. What better source of motivation could future Officers have asked for.
Enabling system of specialists
Of the 27 Secretaries of Defence that the US has had in its history, 19 have actually spent life in uniform. Several of the remaining 8, could boast of close association with the armed forces through military related research, industrial work or policy making experience for long years before they got appointed as Secretary of Defence. The advantages of having people who completely understand the nuances of the environment placed in their charge, are immense. It is most efficient when those who have lived well in a system go on to be in charge of the same system. That is because having lived the system, they are most suitable to be the living breath of that system. Viewed from the black or white world of the military, Dr Esper’s example will go down in history as a sterling example of the timeless virtues of selfless soldiering.
Commodore G. Prakash (retd), Nau Sena Medal, served the Indian Navy for 35 years. A specialist in aviation and anti-submarine warfare, he has held several Command and Staff appointments at sea and ashore. He has been speaking and writing on military and strategic affairs for long. He is available at [email protected].