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What Makes the Military so Efficient in Its Response to Crises? It’s the Ethos

Soldiers rescue a girl from her flooded house in Srinagar on September 10, 2014. The Indian Army and Air Force rescued over 200,000 civilians, established relief camps, restored road communications, and reconstructed damaged bridges that year. (REUTERS/Adnan Abidi)

Soldiers rescue a girl from her flooded house in Srinagar on September 10, 2014. The Indian Army and Air Force rescued over 200,000 civilians, established relief camps, restored road communications, and reconstructed damaged bridges that year. (REUTERS/Adnan Abidi)

Military values are reinforced continuously among individuals until they become second nature. These values guide the conduct of soldiers during times of crises or personal dilemmas on the right way ahead. Values also shape an individual's perception of his role within the organization.

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Lt Gen (Retd) DS Hooda

On September 2, 2014, Jammu and Kashmir was hit by 200 mm of rain, four times the average monthly rainfall. Incessant rain over the next few days turned the rivers of the state into raging torrents. On September 7, the Jhelum river breached its banks and flooded south Kashmir and the capital city of Srinagar, cutting off road links, snapping all communication, and disrupting water and electricity supply.

Badami Bagh, the headquarters of XV Corps, which was spearheading the rescue and relief operations in Kashmir, came under 15 feet of water, facing the same catastrophe as citizens of the city. Despite this, there was only a few hours delay, and by evening, boats had been launched from Badami Bagh with soldiers tasked with rescuing and providing essential supplies to stranded civilians. Over the next two weeks, the Indian Army and Air Force rescued over 200,000 civilians, established relief camps, restored road communications, and reconstructed damaged bridges.

It is often asked as to what makes the military so efficient in its response to crises. Some obvious answers can be found in the military's training, discipline, and high leadership standards. These are undoubtedly essential factors, but, in my view, the primary reason is the military’s organizational ethos.

Ethos is defined as the core set of attitudes, beliefs, and values that give an identity to a person, community, institution, etc. In a crisis, the military ethos kicks in to shape and guide the immediate collective response of thousands of soldiers. In normal times, leaders can control decision-making and keep a close watch over unfolding events, but this becomes almost impossible in a crisis when small teams, or even individuals, must make their own choices.

The military prides itself on being a profession as opposed to an occupation. Morris Janowitz, the author of The Professional Soldier, states, “profession is more than a group with special skills, acquired through intensive training. A professional group develops a sense of group identity and a system of internal administration. Self-administration…implies the growth of a body of ethics and standards of performance."

What constitutes military ethos? It is an intangible mix of customs, traditions, and expected behaviour, but its two defining characteristics are first, a set of institutional core values, and second, how members of the military view their role within the organization.

If we look at the set of values adopted by professional militaries around the world, the only differences would perhaps be in the shades of emphasis. Universal military values include integrity, honour, courage, loyalty, selfless service, and competence, which lie at the heart of the profession of soldiering.

It could be said that these values are desirable in any profession. That is true, but in the military, they move from being desirable to being indispensable. General John Hackett, in his classic The Profession of Arms, puts this forcefully when he writes, “The program, the group organizations, the whole pattern of life of the professional man-at-arms is designed in a deliberate effort to foster them (values), not just because they are morally desirable in themselves, but because they are essential to military efficiency”.

Military values are reinforced continuously among individuals until they become second nature. These values guide the conduct of soldiers during times of crises or personal dilemmas on the right way ahead. Values also shape an individual's perception of his role within the organization.

Tasked with the responsibility of ensuring the nation's security, the individual accepts that he must subordinate his personal will and desires for the greater cause that his profession demands. It is for this reason that soldiers serve in conditions that seem almost impossible to bear and readily charge into a hail of bullets with full knowledge that many of them will fall. This is known as the concept of "unlimited liability" in which soldiers will go to any extent, including putting themselves in harm's way, in the discharge of their duty. The honour in the military profession comes not with the expertise to kill but in the willingness to sacrifice oneself.

It would appear that the burden of military life is entirely on the shoulders of the individual. He is supposed to be steadfast in practising military values and be willing to sacrifice all in the line of duty. This is not entirely true as the military profession puts great emphasis on caring for its members. There is an obligation on leaders to ensure the safety, comfort, and welfare of those they command. This may seem paradoxical, but it is the moral duty of a leader to accomplish his mission with minimum loss of men under his command.

Beyond the military organization is the society's responsibility towards the soldier, often called the "covenant between the soldier and the state”. This covenant is a mutual obligation in which a soldier put the nation's needs above his own. In return, the nation promises him dignity, respect, and terms of service that will provide him and his family appropriate compensation for his sacrifices. This covenant, unwritten but sacred, goes a long way in sustaining soldiers during the harshest of times. Therefore, it is most depressing to see the debate on pensions and disability allowance of soldiers who have retired after giving their best years in serving the nation.

Are there any lessons that can be drawn by other organizations from the military ethos? Not very directly because each organization must develop its own ethos based on its role. However, what is unquestionable is the role of values in creating a resilient institution. Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman, who wrote In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies, state, "a leader's role is to harness the social forces in the organization; to shape and guide values”. They go on to say that in good companies, "major decisions are shaped more by their values than by their dexterity with numbers”.

The economic impact of the pandemic has been harsh on businesses, and difficult decisions have to be made. However, organizations that display care and compassion towards its members will emerge stronger. If individuals don't value their role and organizational support is weak, no institution can successfully weather a crisis.

Disclaimer:The author is former Northern Commander, Indian Army, under whose leadership India carried out surgical strikes against Pakistan in 2016. Views expressed are personal.


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