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Military Leadership and Humanities
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Lt Gen (Dr) Rakesh Sharma, PVSM,UYSM,AVSM,VSM (Retd.)
is an infantry officer commissioned in Gorkha Rifles in 1977, with career span of forty years. He is currently DISTINGUISHED FELLOW with the Centre for Land Warfare Studies.

“The humanities and social sciences teach us to question, analyze, debate, evaluate, interpret, synthesize, compare evidence, and communicate—skills that are critically important in shaping adults who can become independent thinkers.”  

“Undergraduates will tell you that they’re under pressure—from their parents, from the burden of debt they incur, from society at large—to choose majors they believe will lead as directly as possible to good jobs. Too often, that means skipping the humanities.”

The above two are quotes from studies in the United States, from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and seem to resonate so well with the dilemma that children face at the crucial deciding years in Schools.  For humanities, or liberal arts, are not meant for anybody who aspires to succeed in life!

As a follow-up to an erudite presentation on Technology Update, this issue came up for special mention recently in a Fellows Interaction at this Institution, on the officer-intake system largely relevant to the armed forces. With the Indian Navy (IN) and the Air Force (IAF) opting for total B Tech intake, and the Army still considering, National Defence Academy, the premier intake institution must be pulled in differing directions.  First, the UPSC mathematics paper is supposedly so tough, that it has been authoritatively stated that the entire Academy has cadets of PCM (Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics) background at 10+2.  Second, while the IN and IAF have no option but to study for the technical degree, the Army ones are split into BA and BSc – though all came in with PCM in school.  The Academy’s academic curriculum hence has many subsets –BA, BSc, and the varied streams of B Tech.

Indeed, the technological ambit in the armed forces has grown immensely, the future wars will be technology driven. In fact the technological changes seem to drive doctrines and strategies in the armed forces, which lead to this inordinate rush for taking in all officers as technical graduates.  This technological shine will but increase with artificial intelligence, quantum, nano, autonomous systems, robotics and the like.

On the contrary, the working environment within the armed forces is changing at a rapid pace, greatly influenced by the growing manpower challenges of attracting and retaining a quality workforce and shifting changes in social value systems. These trends cannot be treated as unimportant issues. Their interdependent effects will continue to exert powerful influences on the armed forces, its culture, and how military leadership is viewed. Gen George Patton in a valuable statement had stated, that “during actual war, in a sample of 100 combat troops, about 10% are courageous, 10% non-courageous and 80% can be influenced either way.  Successful leadership consists of pointing the most courageous in the right direction and influencing the remaining to follow”.

To define humanities is a difficult task. However, it can be said in a few words that it is an academic discipline which deals with the study of the ‘Human Condition’.  The social sciences have been characterized by a distinctive culture of enquiry. More so liberal arts prepare officers to make decisions about human complexity.  There are many nondescript fields of genuine social sciences inquiries, area studies became the most prominent.  History, geography international relations theories are many such fields, indeed war and peace are social science theories. While the relationship between liberal arts and the armed forces are yet unresearched, undoubtedly these provide a variety of capabilities to address the human dimensions of military organizations and their operational contexts. For instance, psychological and human performance criteria are firmly rooted in social science . Men who are to be led in war are not robots, and are not autonomous drones!

The officers in service also need to be are encouraged to widen their horizons from specialist areas of technical expertise, towards a more balanced coverage of wider strategic issues, requiring a level of critical, analytical, conceptual thinking and a complex problem solving approach. Creativity is one of the central competencies taught in the humanities and social sciences, and would be the most crucial factor for future success. Whilst communication and staff skills remain important, greater attention should be given to strategic issues and operational studies.   A social science based education empowers the leadership to interpret the utility of data and findings intelligence professionals, research professionals, and policy makers put before them.   Perhaps, no more important areas exist than in pure intelligence works, perspective planning and analysis and, logistical management.

STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) sciences are very important. In actuality, the choice between STEM and the social sciences is really a false one as armed forces need people trained in both – and not technocrats alone. In fact both disciplines need each other. It is opined that a social science-friendly approach empowers analysts to stop justifying data outcomes in favour of explaining them. Indeed increasing emphasis on humanities and social sciences will prepare officers to question, analyze, debate, evaluate, interpret, synthesize, compare evidence, and communicate to become independent thinkers.  Armed forces require a fair admixture of variety of talents, and not a pure scientific/ technological approach that is currently underway.  The army especially with its large human capital and intensive employment in counter terrorism require a balance.  The officers’ intake should endeavour to provide fair opportunity to aspirants schooled in humanities in the army, even when the Indian Navy and Indian Air Force have decided for hundred percent technocrats.

Military leadership is yet and will ever remain imaginative, providing positive energy, cognitive thinking skills and abilities to build consensus and shape the environment by communicating effectively. Sacrificing study of Humanities on the altar of fast-paced march of technocracy will be at the peril of human empathy, critical reasoning and analytical regimen.


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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

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One thought on “Military Leadership and Humanities

  1. An articke that so well articulates the imperitiveness of critical thinking and correct reasoning in operational endeavours. Military decision making in a tactical domain maybe a trainable trait, however, strategic military thought or for that matter an endeavour in any non military field will always remain incomplete without an adequate philosophical insight as was so clearly evident during the leadership failures in Vietnam war.
    I wish to complement the authour on bring into light such a critical aspect.

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