Napoleon Bonaparte, arguably one of the world’s greatest military strategists and generals, had crafted his own obituary ~ “Let my children and grandchildren study history. It is the only valid philosophy and the only true psychology”. Few leaders and military commanders would have known better about diplomacy, inter-state relations and the conduct of war.

The rare wisdom and insight of the great military commander comes to one’s mind in the context of the long-drawn campaign undertaken by a handful of retired Indian military officers to somehow exert pressure on the political executive to create a ‘post’ of Defence Supremo to proffer a ‘single-point’ advice to the Government on matters military. He is projected as a five-star general and the present chiefs of Army, Navy and Air Force will report to him. And the Supremo will report directly to the PM.

In a cruel irony of history, the aura surrounding the persona of Napoleon, a genius, if one may use the term in the context of military strategy, was shattered in his own lifetime. In the hour of his greatest triumph and dazzling glory, he faced a humiliating defeat. His military campaign in Russia resulted in an unprecedented disaster. His war strategy culminated in the decimation of his own Army. And then, he eventually lost to the British and was incarcerated in a faraway island.

Napoleon’s wisdom only underscores something known and acknowledged by statesmen the world over, especially in modern civilian democracies. ‘War is too serious a business to be left to the military leadership alone’. More so, a war in the age of nuclear weapons. And history provides a host of instances where the civilian leadership has repeatedly proved to be superior in its overall judgment of matters military. A war strategy at higher levels is the rightful domain of experienced civilians who have a wider exposure and a richer insight into statecraft.

‘War’ has been defined as ‘pursuit of politics by other means’. The issue of civilian control even during the time of war is of critical contemporary relevance especially to countries like India. Undeniably, our democracy has roots, but these are not deep enough. The military needs to be told, once and for all that its place is in the barracks, not in the boardroom. This imperative of subordination of the military to the civilian leadership is a certitude of democracy not only during peacetime but also during wartime. Historically, whenever the military viewpoint has overruled civilian leadership even during war, the result has been a disaster.

The explicit subordination of the military to the civilian leadership is embedded in the constitutional rule of law in modern times, beginning with the first such arrangement in the USA in the late 18th century. Thereafter, it has been formalised in modern civilian democracies the world over, notably in the UK, France, Canada, Australia etc. And in India in 1950, with the adoption of the Constitution. The military has been made accountable to the permanent civilians manning the Defence Ministry, headed by the elected Defence Minister.

The first comprehensive law in India crafted by one of the greatest jurists of the 19th century, Lord Macaulay, was the Criminal Procedure Code,1860. He was the first Chairman of the Law Commission of India, an entirely new invention of the British Raj. According to it, even during serious law and order situations when the civil administration has to summon the assistance of the Army, the most senior military officer is “required” to obey the civilian magistrate’s orders on the scene. The ‘chain of command’, as the military jargon goes, with a civilian in charge, is explicit.

It goes to the credit of India’s sovereign Parliament that it adopted the said legislation verbatim in 1950. Secondly, the CrPC set the model for future legislation in independent India. The military has not been given any role in civilian governance, the powers being vested in the civilian magistracy. This is based on the sound democratic norm that defines civil service (that runs the government) as “that form of governance whereby the armed services of the government are excluded from governance”.

The last century has been one of the bloodiest in history, beginning with the first World War during 1914-18. The traditional military aristocracy, by and large still dominated the politics of major European powers ~ save Great Britain ~ that were engaged relentlessly in mindless bloodletting for years, without a clear political goal save the “destruction of the enemy”. For more than four years, major land battles were fought not so much as to advance into Germany as to fight each other in trenches, to “regain lost ground”. See-saw battles were fought by both sides, killing each other’s soldiers by the thousands every day. In the words of an eminent military strategist, it was “trench stalemate ~ blind (military) leaders blindfolding people.”

The stated objective of military leadership on either side appears to have been “Total War”. The eventual surrender of Germany was achieved at high human cost, as the political objective was lost sight of in between. The military leadership ~ on either side ~ that dominated the conduct of war throughout, was more engaged in an ego play. Personal glory underscored battle objectives, whereby thousands of soldiers were sacrificed daily. There was virtually no counting of the dead or the wounded. “To and fro the struggle swayed, with equal slaughter and ferocity.”
By the time of the Second World War (1939-45), democracy had gradually developed roots in Europe and America save Japan, Germany and Italy. Little wonder that these three powers were the major aggressors in starting the war. In Japan, the control of the civilian government was nominal even prior to the World War. In the early 1930s, the autonomous Japanese military on its own launched an entirely unprovoked attack against China, and occupied Manchuria. The Japanese civilian government was shocked. It could do nothing except acquiesce in impotent rage.
During the Second World War, France was a major world power. Ironically, it was the French military that capitulated to the Nazi invader, and let it overrun and occupy France for four years, ignoring the earlier forebodings of the French Government.

The civilian leadership had been repeatedly urging the French military to read the writing on the wall but to no avail. For four years, the occupying German army ravaged the country and caused untold suffering to the hapless civilian populace. The French army leadership imprisoned its own Prime Minister!

(To be concluded)

The writer is a retired IAS officer.