Saturday, June 15, 2013


How “Civilian Supremacy” Overshadows the Military Fauji
Random Ramblings of a Retired Mind

I was fortunate that I read the classic military novel Catch-22 by Joseph Heller before I joined the Navy.

This gave me a better understand the curious goings on and peculiar behaviour of some of the idiosyncratic characters I came across in the navy and helped me maintain my sanity in the rather atypical naval environment.

There were plenty of  “Cathcarts” “Dreedles” “Scheisskopfs” “Peckems” “Korns” “Captain Blacks” “Milo Minderbinders” “Doc Daneekas” and “Wintergreens” around; and occasionally you also noticed a “Yossarian” or a “Dunbar”.

In fact, during my career in the navy, I saw an analogous caricature of every character of Catch-22 including some of the female characters.

I am sure you have read Catch-22.

In case you haven’t, do read the book – it will surely bring a smile to your lips.

There are many themes and morals in Catch-22 and one such truism which I found relevant in today’s navy (and army) is enunciated in chapter XI:

“Without realizing how it had come about, the combat men in the squadron discovered themselves dominated by the administrators appointed to serve them. They were bullied, insulted, harassed and shoved about all day long by one after the other”

If you are a “fauji” I am sure you have observed this funny phenomenon.

Those who are meant to serve you, turn the tables on you, and soon, they start dominating over you.

Civilian Organizations which were meant to serve the Army Navy and Air Force have actually started dominating over the Uniformed Defence Forces.

If you have served in uniform, you may have experienced how support organisations like the CDA, MES, DRDO, DGQA etc who are meant to serve you actually boss over you and make you run from pillar to post.

Even within the army, the “services” push around the “arms”.

The “non-combatant” doctors are supreme since they can use the “weapon” of “medical category” to make even the most redoubtable combat officer tremble and bring his ambitions crashing down.

In the navy, “Shore Based Moguls” boss over the “man at sea” slogging it out onboard ships.

“Staff Officers” dominate “line officers” and “defence civilians” overshadow the uniformed personnel they are supposed to support.

It is not akin to the tail wagging the dog?

Have things not gone topsy turvy?

Why is the dominance of “supporting civilians” increasing day by day?

In relative terms, has the calibre of our generals, admirals and air marshals diminished vis-à-vis their civilian counterparts?

Over the years, things have changed, but have the defence services kept up with the pace of change?

Scientists are no longer the austere unpretentious “boffins” they used to be once upon a time.

Civil servants have become more clued-up, well-informed, knowledgeable and “on the ball” in defence matters.

On the other hand, do we have generals of the calibre of Manekshaw, the astuteness of Sundarji, the vision of SK Sinha or admirals of the uprightness of Ronnie Pereira who can outwit their shrewd civilian counterparts?

The fact of the matter is that, till such time senior officers develop the acumen to match the stratagems and wiles of the worldly-wise civilians, the tail will continue to wag the dog and the topsy turvy relationship will prevail.

This imbalance and ascendancy of  “civilian supremacy” over the uniformed services will keep increasing over time as this disparity in shrewdness widens.

No other organization can match the extensive training provided by the defence services.

In order to reach senior ranks, officers have to undergo a multitude of training courses and that is why most senior officers have multiple post-graduate qualifications in diverse disciplines.

One wonders why such highly qualified officers are hesitant to formulate imaginative human resource policies to improve the career prospects of serving personnel and enhance the welfare of ex servicemen, like it happened in earlier times?

For example, if I am not wrong, it is said that the “ration in kind” perquisite was conceived and formulated due the initiative of Admiral Ronnie Pereira and General SK Sinha.

However, it seems that things have changed and, now, we look up to politicians and bureaucrats to take the initiative.

For example, the latest “Cadre Review” for improving career prospects, implemented in 2006, bears the name of the bureaucrat who took the lead in formulating the same.

In a democracy there is the concept of “civilian supremacy” which means supremacy of the civilian government.

This is perfectly justified.

But is this connotation of “civilian supremacy” being overstretched and carried a bit too far and, as a result, do all and sundry civilians think they can dominate the defence services?

Is the conservatism, timidity and naivety of senior officers vis-à-vis their shrewd civilian counterparts the reason for this growing trend of “supporting civilians” getting the better of the uniformed services?

I do not wish to “generalise” so let me tell you about my own experience in IAT.

(Though on paper IAT was a DRDO establishment, it was more of an inter-service training organisation).

In 1985, the first time I was appointed as faculty in IAT, it was the defence service officers who called the shots.

Service Officers were way ahead of Scientists in all aspects – qualifications, intellect, calibre and acumen – and the career prospects, status and benefits of service officers were much better then their counterpart civilian scientists.

Gradually, things changed, and there was a complete reversal.

Resourceful revamping of recruitment system, modernising induction training, improvement in perks, enhanced facilities and ingenious HR initiatives like “flexible complementing” which vastly improved the career advancement prospects of Scientists made DRDO an attractive career option for bright young engineers.

25 years later, towards the end of my naval career, I had a very interesting experience.

I was back again IAT finishing my last tenure in service (IAT had since been re-christened DIAT) and I observed that there had been quite a transformation during the long hiatus.

It was incredible to see the ascendancy of civilian scientists vis-à-vis their uniformed counterparts.

I was tasked with conducting the induction training of newly recruited scientists.

I was amazed to see the large number of bright young men and women engineers from IIT, IISc, BITS, NIT and premier Engineering Colleges that the DRDO had been able to attract. 

The young trainee scientists had to qualify a highly competitive entrance exam and interview.

In one batch, among the trainees, there was very smart boy with an excellent all round personality and he was topping the course too.

He was an IITian and his father had recently retired from the Army.

I was impressed by his overall personality, apt for a service officer, so I asked him why he had joined the DRDO and not the Army.

He said, “As a DRDO Scientist I will get all the facilities I get in the Army like CSD canteen, campus accommodation, medical coverage, social perks like sports, clubs etc. In addition I will have a stable life without transfers, faster promotions and much better career prospects, more flexibility to enhance my qualifications, and more freedom on how to live my life – if I want to leave for better prospects I can easily do so, and if I want to stay I can serve till 60 unlike the Army where I cannot leave and they will retire me off at a much younger age.”

Isn’t it ironical that a “support” organization like DRDO has become a better career option for bright young men and women than the mainstream uniformed services?

Today’s youth are well-informed and if you want to attract the best then you have to devise appropriate recruitment strategies. Money is not the only consideration – in fact, if the defence services want to attract the best they must not emphasize on material aspects like “pay packet” but highlight the intangible USPs because youngsters are very conscious and quite holistic in their approach nowadays.

But do the defence services want to attract the cream of the youth?

A retired army officer recently expressed the view that the services do not need “intellectuals”. 

He said: We need officers who “do” rather than officers who “think”.

Another officer recently commented that the defence services do not need “intelligent” officers and that it was better to recruit “average” individuals.

This seems to be the current opinion.

But tell me one thing.

Will these “mediocre” officers be able to outwit their “clever” civilian counterparts?

Will this not result in “civilian supremacy” getting more pronounced and the defence services slide down further in relative status?

Is anti-intellectualism good for the defence services?

There is a school of thought that “intellectualism” is not conducive to the regimented culture of “instant obedience of orders”.

While “do as you are told no questions asked” obedience may be relevant at junior levels and in combat operations; is such regimented blind obedience desirable at higher levels where perhaps more imaginative “out of the box” thinking may be apt?

Unfortunately, this “unquestioning blind obedience” culture gets so ingrained that it becomes difficult to “unfreeze” and change one’s way of thinking.

I will end with a remark by Liddel Hart on the dangers of anti-intellectualism and conformist military culture quoted by Norman Dixon in his book “On The Psychology of Military Incompetence”:

“A lifetime of having to curb the expression of original thought culminates so often in there being nothing left to express”

Dear Reader: Please comment. Your views and feedback would be highly appreciated. 

Copyright © Vikram Karve 2013
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.

All stories in this blog are a work of fiction. The characters do not exist and are purely imaginary. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
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A creative person with a zest for life, Vikram Karve is a retired Naval Officer turned full time writer and blogger. Educated at IIT Delhi, IIT (BHU) Varanasi, The Lawrence School Lovedale and Bishops School Pune, Vikram has published two books: COCKTAIL a collection of fiction short stories about relationships (2011) and APPETITE FOR A STROLL a book of Foodie Adventures (2008) and is currently working on his novel and a book of vignettes and an anthology of short fiction. An avid blogger, he has written a number of fiction short stories and creative non-fiction articles on a variety of topics including food, travel, philosophy, academics, technology, management, health, pet parenting, teaching stories and self help in magazines and published a large number of professional  and academic research papers in journals and edited in-house journals and magazines for many years, before the advent of blogging. Vikram has taught at a University as a Professor for 15 years and now teaches as a visiting faculty and devotes most of his time to creative writing and blogging. Vikram Karve lives in Pune India with his family and muse - his pet dog Sherry with whom he takes long walks thinking creative thoughts.

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Deepak said...

Very well written sir, i love the style of your writing.. keep it coming sir. Thank you.

Unknown said...

Completely agree with your thoughts. The concluding line is so very true.
We do not have a HR policy which looks at the development of personnel to benefit the Services. It is tailored to support selected individual's career. We do look up to our civilian bureaucrats to rescue us from hard postings and get cushy foreign appointments. In return we become slaves to their thoughts and ulterior requirements to maintain civilian supremacy. Politicians rule the police and bureaucrats rule the services.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful and how true. Doesn't our HR pride itself on putting round pegs in square holes and haven't we seen other considerations in transfers postings and career planning of personnel. So from where do we get thinking speaking people when we ensure the same attributes have been thumped down umpteen times to ensure meek compliance else suffer repercussions. We need to change our culture before trying to take on the others.

Vikram Waman Karve said...

@ HG Harsha - Well said and succinctly put.

Vikram Waman Karve said...

Anonymous - You have a point - it is high time to change the "feudal" HR Culture