Thursday, November 14, 2013

BOOK REVIEW – COURAGE AND CONVICTION – An Autobiography by General VK Singh (with Kunal Verma)

BOOK REVIEW – COURAGE AND CONVICTION – An Autobiography by General VK Singh (with Kunal Verma)

Reviewed by VIKRAM KARVE

Details of the Book:

Title: COURAGE AND CONVICTION – An Autobiography
Author: General VK SINGH (with KUNAL VERMA)
Publisher: ALEPH BOOK COMPANY (New Delhi, India)
Year: 2013
ISBN: 978-93-82277-57-6
No. of Pages: 396 (including photographs)
Price: Rs. 595

Book Review:

During the past few days I saw rather sensational accounts of this book in the media and wondered whether the journalists had really read the whole book or were they just sensationalizing a few excerpts.

I got a copy of “Courage and Conviction” and read the whole book.

It is an interesting life story of a distinguished soldier narrated in simple down-to-earth style which makes the book easy to read and engrossing – yes, I found “Courage and Conviction” immensely readable and I would say that this book has seamless “Page Turning Quality (PTQ)”.

Arthur Koestler once remarked that there are two main motives for writing autobiographies:

1. The “The Chronicler’s Urge” which expresses the need to share experiences related to external events

2. The “Ecce Homo Motive” which expresses the need to share internal thoughts based on internal life experiences.

While the “Chronicler” stresses on external events, the “Ecce Homo” contemplates on internal processes.

In his autobiography General VK Singh delves on both these aspects.

It is also said that an autobiography should be “candid” and “controversial”.

“Courage and Conviction” is certainly candid, but I did not find it controversial.

Even when discussing contentious issues the author does not go for the jugular but exercises restraint while describing various knotty events in his long career.

He writes in a frank, unpretentious and friendly manner, without boastfulness or melodrama, and I feel that it is this simple down-to-earth writing style is what makes this book so readable and engrossing.

If you are looking for no-holds-barred bare-all story with startling disclosures or sensational “breaking news” you may be disappointed, for though the book does delve briefly on various controversial topics like “line of succession” “age controversy” and various “scams” and “scandals”, there are no “astonishing revelations” that have not been in the public domain and discussed ad nauseam in the media before.

In fact, I feel that this book is a “must read” for youngsters, especially those young men and women aspiring for a career in the armed forces who want to have a first-hand glimpse of life in the army – I am sure they will love to read this interesting life story of a distinguished soldier, starting from his formative days as a student and cadet at the National Defence Academy (NDA), meandering his way through a remarkable army career all the way to the top as Army Chief.

The book comprises 12 chapters, compiled in 3 parts.

The first part covers the author’s formative years in the army – starting off as a cadet at NDA and IMA, his days as a subaltern in an infantry battalion and his combat experiences in the 1971 Bangladesh War.

Curiously, the author had joined NDA as an Air Force Cadet, but at his father’s behest his service was changed to Army in his 5th term.

The second part of the book comprising 6 chapters is the “meat” of the book and describes the author’s rise through the ranks, as he soldiers on, through combat, peace and training appointments, in India and abroad, and, after undergoing various trials and tribulations, makes it to coveted flag rank.

Comparing and contrasting the training philosophies of the Indian and US Armies (the author is an honour graduate of the prestigious US Army Ranger’s Course and US Army War College), the author comments: “while the US Army prided itself on setting the bar at a level where they looked for reasons to disqualify a soldier-student, in the Indian Army, the establishment was terrified of failure, doing its best to make sure every young officer somehow got across the finish line...in our own set-up, if we ‘failed’ a student, we knew there would be hell to pay with even Army HQ jumping into the fray...in the case of Americans the emphasis was on realism, with combat conditions being created...we, on the other hand, were administratively driven...our system lends itself to a certain amount of pampering...”

Is this “lenient” approach desirable in the military – is this not a point for the powers-that-be to ponder over?

In the same Part 2 of the autobiography, which I called the “meat of the book”, chapters 6 and 7 make absorbing reading, as the author describes his soldiering experiences in, and views on, the eventful 1980’s, in Siachen, in Punjab, with the IPKF in Sri Lanka and the Unconventional War.

Narrating numerous incidents, the author brings out various facets of mid-career army life – like how your postings are at the mercy of the “uniformed bureaucracy”; how your career prospects are subject the whims and fancies of senior officers, the red tape which results in combat soldiers being dominated by “babus”, uniformed and civilian, who are supposed to serve them.

The author narrates how his career may have ended as a Brigadier, as the promotion board had passed him over for promotion to the rank of Major General.

He tells us how a former GOC and some of his seniors prodded him to seek redress which led his case to be reviewed and he was cleared for promotion.

The three chapters in Part 3 of the book, “Life at the Top”, chronicle the author’s eventful journey spanning his higher command appointments, ranging from Victor Force Commander in Counter Insurgency (CI) Operations to Divisional, Corps and Eastern Army Commander, culminating in his appointment as Army Chief, the zenith of his career.

The author mentions various scams and scandals, the “date of birth” and the “line of succession” controversies, his frustration with politicians and “babudom”, and his battles for seeking justice, but like I said, he does not go for the jugular, but delves on these contentious issues rather fleetingly exercising moderation and restraint while writing about these touchy matters. He recounts how a number of his innovative efforts to improve the system were stonewalled, including his proposal to abolish the archaic “sahayak” system still prevalent in the army.

General VK Singh ends his autobiography with an Epilogue “Reclaim India” in which he puts forth some of his views on the current state-of-affairs, civilian and military, and briefly enumerates his post-retirement activities after he hung up his boots on 31 May 2012.

Towards the end the author laments about the army: “Today, virtually everything that we believed in, the very honour code that drove generations of army officers, is under attack. Taking a cue from the ‘system’, in fact with the active encouragement of the system, senior officers who are expected to set examples are playing right into hands of those who are playing kingmakers”.

Hoping that his story would serve a purpose, wondering whether mere words are enough, the author ends his book with a quote from Solzhenitsyn: “…a shout in the mountains has been known to cause an avalanche”.

It is a big book and, including the illustrative pictures, is 396 pages long, but it is written well, as a smoothly flowing story, and is an easy read – in fact, once you start reading it becomes quite “unputdownable” and it is probably in this crucial aspect of enhancing readability and achieving seamless Page Turning Quality (PTQ) that the co-author Kunal Verma, a noted writer and filmmaker, may have contributed significantly.  

The well paced narrative is interspersed with anecdotes and a sprinkling of humour.

Sample this:

After a training session on the topic of morale, a soldier was asked to explain the difference between “fear” and “panic”.

The soldier replied in Hindi:

Saab, phear [fear] dar hota hai! Yeh hamare level pe hota hain
(Fear means being afraid and this happens at our level, to soldiers)

Panik [panic] unche darje ka dar hota hain jo officer level pe hota hai
(Panic is a higher level of fear which happens to officers)

The author writes from the heart and this lends a sense of authenticity to his writing. This quality of verisimilitude and the friendly down-to-earth easy-to-read writing style makes this book an enjoyable reading experience. And there is plenty of food-for-thought in this book.

Every book has a message.

After reading the book, I pondered to myself – the author has said so many things in his book, but what is the cardinal message he is trying to convey?

Well, other readers may have a different perspective, but, in my opinion, the cardinal message of this book is that the biggest problem plaguing the army (and the country) is the increasing TRUST DEFICIT

And, consequently, the main challenge is how to mitigate this “trust deficit” and regain the atmosphere of trust, especially in the context of the armed forces.

TRUST is the bedrock of the armed forces.

In the Navy, on a ship, all shipmates have to trust each other, and, most importantly, everyone has to trust the Captain, and vice versa.

I am sure it is the same in the army.

Trust begets trust.

Senior Officers have to make efforts to win the trust of their juniors by their impeccable conduct and genuine concern for their soldiers.

Let me cite an incident from chapter 7 of the book (IPKF and The Unconventional War).

As war hysteria build up, a Corps Commander asked the Army Chief a pertinent question: “If we go to war, what do I tell the men? What are we fighting for?”

This demonstrates that importance of taking your juniors into confidence to build a relationship of trust.

It is imperative that soldiers have implicit trust in their officers, especially they must fully trust their senior officers in whose hands the soldiers have put their lives at stake.

Just imagine the deleterious effect on their psyche when junior officers and soldiers switch on their TV and watch “breaking news” about involvement of their senior officers in scams, scandals, corruption and other immoral and unscrupulous activities. 

Can you expect juniors to trust such unethical seniors?

Stories of “infighting” “contretemps” “internecine battles” and “succession wars” at senior levels and increasing incidents of clashes between officers and soldiers at the unit level, reported in the media from time to time, are signs of eroding mutual trust which is the root cause of trust deficit at all levels within the army.

There seems to trust deficit at the macro level too, between the top brass of the army and the bureaucrats, and politicians, and the author has brought out many such instances in his book.

Is this atmosphere of trust deficit having an adverse effect on the efficacy of our armed forces?

Well, I will leave that question for you to ponder on after you read the book.

But, after reading “Courage and Conviction” by General VK Singh, I feel that the biggest challenge before the army and the defence establishment is how to tackle and mitigate this problem of growing “trust deficit” with a view to creating a favourable atmosphere of trust, which is the bedrock of the armed forces.

I enjoyed reading this book – it was an enriching experience too.

Should you read this book?

I feel you should, especially if you are in the army, or are interested in the affairs of the armed forces.

And, like I said earlier, I feel that this book is a “must read” for youngsters aspiring for a career in the armed forces.

The production quality of the book is superb.

I am glad I bought this book – it is a valuable addition to my bookcase.

(About the Authors of “Courage and Conviction”: General VK Singh needs no introduction. After a distinguished career in the Indian Army for 42 years, described vividly in his book, culminating at the very top, he retired as Army Chief on 31 May 2012. There is an archaic saying: “Old Soldiers fade away” but after reading his autobiography it looks like he intends to continue to actively contribute to the nation as best as he can. The co-author Kunal Verma is a writer and film maker.)


BOOK REVIEW by VIKRAM KARVE

VIKRAM KARVE
Copyright © Vikram Karve 
Vikram Karve has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this book review. 
© vikram karve., all rights reserved.

© vikram karve., all rights reserved.
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