Military & Aerospace

Civil Power and the Army
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Issue Vol. 2.1 Jan-Mar 1987 | Date : 20 Sep , 2015


Civil Power is the ultimate authority charged with the governance of the State. The execu­tive; the legislature and the judiciary, functioning in their respective spheres and in the prescribed manner, are the various elements that constitute Civil Power. Civil administration and the Army are the two in­struments available to Civil Power to execute in its decisions.

In this scheme of things, the Army must always remain subordinate to Civil Power no matter what the form of Government. The Army is here referred to in its generic sense, meaning the military and stands for the Defence Services as a whole.

Lenin talked of the need for the Party to control the gun and advocated a politically committed Army. This is the pattern obtaining in socialist states, where the Army remains totally aligned with the Party. Senior military officers are important functionaries in the Party. Through political education and with political commissars monitoring the Army’s functioning at all levels, the Party exercises strict control over the Army.

In addition to this, professional control over the Army is exercised by the State at the na­tional level as in other forms of Government. In democracies, the Army is not required to be committed to any party. In fact the em­phasis is on the Army remaining apolitical. At the national level, full control is exer­cised by Civil Power over the Army which is required to function in accordance with its directions.

At other levels there is no interference or interaction by political leaders with the functioning of the Army. Both in socialist and democratic countries, the subordination of the Army to Civil Power is a well established fact. In military dic­tatorships the Army is not subordinate to Civil Power.

There it replaces Civil Power. Military dictatorships are aberrations and are something foreign to the Indian ethos and Indian traditions. In thousands of years of our history there has been’ only one instance of a military coup. That was in Be 185 when Pushyamitra, the Mauryan Commander-in-Chief assassinated Bridharta, the last Mauryan Em­peror and assumed the reins of Power.

Historical background

It is not generally realised that the subor­dination of the Army to Civil Power was truly established only in the twentieth century. Earlier, both political and military authority used to be concentrated in one in­dividual. Alexander, Chandragupta, Caesar, Shivaji or Napoleon exercised both political and military authority. With the advance of democracy, monarchs became constitutional Heads of State or were replaced by Presi­dents. Political authority began to be exer­cised by elected Heads of Government owing responsibility to the people and military authority by Generals was required to func­tion under the control of the Head of Govern­ment.

Long after Char les I was beheaded in England and Louis XVI guillotined in France, the required pattern of relationship between the civil authority and the military estab­lishment did not get fully formalised or properly institutionalised. There was a ten­dency on the part of Generals not to accept subordination vis-a-vis the Head of Govern­ment. Possibly, the practice of the Head of State for ceremonial purposes also being the Commander-in-Chief or Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces provided some legitimacy for the outlook of the Generals. Till as late as the nineteenth century, there were instances of Army Chiefs not accepting the supremacy of the Head of Government. Von Moltke, the Ger­man Chief of Staff considered himself inde­pendent of the great German chancellor, Bis­marck. He used to deal directly with the sovereign, ignoring the Chancellor. During the Franco Prussian War of 1870, Bismarck complained to a correspondent of the Times that he knew less about the plans of opera­tions and progress of the Prussian army than was known to that correspondent.

During the American Civil War, MacClellan, the Commander-in-Chief, would, keep President Abraham Lincoln waiting before agreeing to see him. On one occasion he even sent him away without seeing him. This was despite the fact that Lincoln was both the Head of State and the Head of government. Later, following MacClellan’s failure in battle, Lincoln removed him from command of the Army. In Britain, Prime Minister Disraeli lamented his difficulties in dealing with the Commander in-chief, the Duke of Cambridge who was the cousin of the reigning sovereign, Queen Vic­toria. It was only after both the Queen and the Duke had died that a major reorganisation of the British War Office was carried out which fully institutionalised the control of Civil Power over the British Army.


With the dawn of the twentieth century, the supremacy of Civil Power over the Army became fully established in most countries. However, there have been some serious controversies between Heads of Government and Generals over matters of policy. These need to be dis­cussed. The first such controversy arose in India, when Curzon and Kitchener clashed. Their dispute is often misrepresented as an attempt by the military to subvert the authority of the Civil Power.

In fact this is a twist which Curzon wanted to give to the dispute. At no stage did Kitchener question the supremacy of the Civil Power or the Viceroy. He only questioned the duality of functioning inherent in having two army of­ficers in the Viceroy’s Executive Council ­the Commander-in-chief and the Military Mem­ber.

The latter was far junior in rank and status to the Commander-in-chief but was a co-equal member in the Viceroy’s Executive Council. He rendered advice on military mat­ters but had no responsibility for executing decisions. Though not responsible for opera­tions, he controlled the logistics of the Army functioning independently of the Commander-in-Chief.

He also acted as a link between the Viceroy and the Commander-in­Chief commenting on all proposals put up by the latter. Kitchener found this arrangement irksome and unsatisfactory. He felt that military advice to the’ Viceroy and the Government should be available from only one source and that should be the Commander-in­ Chief who was responsible for executing the military decisions taken by the Government.

He insisted that there should be only one military officer in the Viceroy’s Executive Council – the Commander-in-Chief. Curzon, on the other hand, argued that the Civil Power was supreme, and that it should have the benefit of military advice from more than one source so that could choose between them rather than be merely a rubber stamp to en­dorse the advice received from only one source.

The British Government rejected the stand taken by Curzon and he resigned in protest. The reorganisation of the Defence High Command in India, as demanded by Kit­chener, was then carried out. The appointment of Military Member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council was abolished. The reorganised setup stood the test of two world wars and con­tributed towards the Indian Army acquitting itself so well in these wars.

During World War I, differences arose be­tween Churchill and Fisher, and also between Lloyd George and Robertson. As the Lord of Admiralty in World War I, Winston Churchill, was keen on a naval operation to break through the Dardanelles into the Black Sea. Lord Fisher, the First Sea Lord, was opposed to this operation and represented his views to Churchill who overruled him. The proposal to launch this operation was discussed at a meeting of the War Cabinet at which Fisher was present.

Churchill argued in favour of the proposed operation and Fisher remained silent at the meeting. Fisher felt that it would be an act of disloyalty on his part to express views contrary to those of his Minis­ter. His responsibility had ended in this regard after he had represented his views to Churchill and had been overruled. Loyalty on his part demanded that he should now fall in line with whatever the Minister wanted. The War Cabinet approved the Dardanelles plan.

The operation was launched but it ended in a fiasco with the loss of thousands of lives. There was an uproar in the country and a Parliamentary Committee was set up to probe the reasons for the failure. Churchill had to resign from the Cabinet and he went into political oblivion for a long time.

The Com­mittee castigated Fisher for his silence at the meeting of the War Cabinet which was con­strued to mean his concurrence with the plan. As the nation’s top naval officer, it was his duty to apprise the members of the War Cabinet of his professional views even if they happened to be contrary to those of his Minister. Fisher was removed from his ap­pointment

There was another controversy between a statesman and a soldier during World War I on a strategic issue. By 1917 the war in Europe had been fought to a stalemate with the op­posing armies stuck in trenches. Big offen­sives launched by either side did not yield more than a few thousand yards of territory but cost each side several thousands of casual ties.

There arose a school of thought which began to propagate that the war would not be won in the West. This group wanted resources to be concentrated in the East so that Turkey could be knocked out of the war thereby weakening Germany and making possible its defeat.

The other school argued that the defeat of Turkey would hardly affect Germany: the war had to be won or lost in the West. Therefore, any diversion of resources from the Western theatre to the East would be very dangerous. France was the main theatre of operations and the war was being fought on French soil. For the French, it was a matter of life and death and they were totally op­posed to any diversion of effort from the West. Lloyd George, the British Prime Minis­ter, was a proponent of the eastern theory.

At a meeting of the Supreme War Council at Paris, presided over by Clemencau, the French Prime Minister, future strategy was being discussed. Lloyd George advocated diversion of some effort from the Western theatre to the East where, he maintained decisive results could be achieved. Clemencau was op­posed to this proposal.

He invited comments from the others present at the meeting. When asked to give his views, Robertson was very forthright. He fully supported Clemencau and opposed the suggestion of his own Prime Min­ister. The Supreme Council decided against any diversion of resources to the East. It was just as well that it did so otherwise the Allied front may have crumbled when the Ger­mans launched their big offensive of 1918. After the meeting of the Supreme War Council, Lloyd George was furious.

He considered that Robertson had shown rank disloyalty to him and he dismissed him from the appointment of Chief of the Imperial General Staff. Robertson’s view was that as Britain’s top military advisor and a member of the Supreme War Council in his own right he could not af­ford to remain silent like Fisher at the meeting of the War cabinet and allow his silence to be interpreted as his concurrence.

His loyalty to his nation and to ensuring victory in the war transcended his loyalty to any individual. It was his duty to give his professional views at the Supreme War Council even if these views were contrary to the views of his Prime Minister. He felt that if he was not free to express his views at the Council then there was no point in his being asked to participate in its deliberations.

Yet another controversy on strategy, in­volving Truman and MacArthur, took place during the Korean War. President Truman wanted the war in Korea to be kept localised and not be allowed to escalate. This was also the view of the Governments allied to America who had sent troops to serve in the UN Command in Korea. On the other hand, General MacArthur felt that in war there could be no substitute for victory.

He advo­cated. utilisation of all resources towards defeating international communism in Asia, because otherwise its tentacles would spread to Tibet and Indo China. He proposed a four point programme: (a) Blockading of the Chinese mainlandi (b) Destruction of Chinese industrial capability (c) Reinforcing the UN Force in Korea with the Chinese Nationalist Army of Chiang Kai Shekhi and (d) Removing restrictions on Chiang conducting operations from Formosa against the Chinese mainland. He even proposed the laying of active nuclear waste along the Yalu River to isolate Korea from China. MacArthur represented his views to Truman but these were not accepted.

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In April 1951 MacArthur told foreign press cor­respondents that the UN Force in Korea was circumscribed by many artificial restrictions in a war without any definite objective. An American Senator wrote to MacArthur that if American soldiers were not in Korea to win the war then the Truman Administration should be indicted for the murder of thousands of American boys. MacArthur wrote back to the Senator that he fully agreed with his views.

The Senator released this letter to the press. This led to the dismissal of MacArthur. Truman may have been right in deciding to remove MacArthur from his command but the ham – handed manner in which he chose to dis­miss the most renowned and brilliant General known to American history led to a storm – in the USA the like of which had never happened before. The consequences were that Truman could not be the candidate of the Democrat Party at the next Presidential election and the Democrats lost to the Republicans at that election.

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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.

About the Author

Lt Gen SK Sinha

Lt Gen SK Sinha, Vice-Chief of Army Staff and has served as governor of Assam and Jammu & Kashmir.

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3 thoughts on “Civil Power and the Army

  1. Beaurocracy abhors accountability, the r never hold themselves accountabel to mistakes, for this they have created departments where professionals work and they love 2 hang them in case of mistakes, defence forces are considered as department by beaurocrates and further they tightly control finances and its release and utilization where corruption takes place through pliable officers preferred and selected by beaurocrates and who r willing 2 b hanged for the chair. This viscious circle needs to be destroyed if we want 2 secure country.

  2. Civil Power control does not mean Bureaucratic control. It is mean Political control. Bureaucracy and Military must stand on equal footing. A Secretary to the Govt cannot be the boss of Military Chief. This particular situation came into being because the Politicians in the early stages of our country’s life did not understand what is a National Army. They only had seen the British army and they were afraid of it. Specially Nehru who was a manipulator and unsure of himself tried to put down the Army. The consequence was the humiliation of India by the Chinese. Unfortunately the situation has not changed during the last 70 years.

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