A wise soldier learns from the past, both the successes and failures.
Wars shape the destinies of nations and are characterised by tales of courage, resilience, and bravery. Military history or the study of past wars is thus, a fascinating subject. It has the added advantage of highlighting lessons for future leaders. For military professionals, study of past wars is critical since it aids current decision makers and provides a foundation to understand wars and the nuances of the use of the military force as an instrument of national power. Most writers and followers tend to take a narrow and microscopic view of military history; seeking detailed answers to questions such as:What happened? Who were the military commanders and their acts of omission and commission? What did the military do right or wrong? What worked and what failed? This degree of granularity, while helping to analyse past events leads to deductions or conclusions which are very specific to that event and thus not applicable to other contexts. On the other hand, a broader look reveals the larger perspectives which become apparent when happenings are viewed from far above, looking beyond details at the bigger picture. Such perspectives offer greater relevance since human nature is unchanging and tends to repeat over time. These larger perspectives are the foundation on which national strategies are formulated. In view of the above, it would be interesting to identify the larger perspectives which emerge from India’s post-independence wartime experiences.
Such an exercise would focus on the big takeaways to be kept in mind as India ascends the hierarchy of international power. History is replete with examples of powerful nations overreaching while resorting to the use of military force and then floundering. As India’s power quotient goes up, it needs to avoid pitfalls by keeping in mind the big takeaways from its experiences on the use of military force.
India’s military history as an independent nation spans a little over seven decades. In this short period of time, many wars and battles have shaped its military. India confronted a spectrum of threats: insurgencies, border skirmishes, proxy wars, limited wars, full-fledged wars, and even nuclear threats. Except for the disastrous Indo-China war, which left a deep scar on the Indian psyche, the Indian military performed creditably in other wars and war like situations. What is equally evident is that the Indian military gained confidence and upped its performance with every passing challenge. Its history is peppered with displays of courage, confidence, and fortitude such as those of “Dil Maange More” Batra, the audacity of Abhinandan in Pak captivity and Captain Narendra Nath Mullah’s decision to go down with his ship, INS Khukri.
With this as the backdrop, let’s trace some selected larger perspectives as threads through the numerous security challenges that India confronted. The aim is to move the focus away from personalities to seek some important perspectives for future guidance. While many of us are unconsciously aware of these perspectives they have somehow, remained unarticulated.
Congruence of Political and Military Objectives
Let us start by discussing the issue of political and military objectives. One noticeable aspect emerging from recent military confrontations is an apparent decline in the achievement of political objectives. Political and military objectives do not seem to be in consonance, thus leading to situations where military outcomes do not necessarily lead to achievement of political objectives set at the commencement of war. Political objectives nowadays have moved away from legacy ones such as annexing territory, seeking total surrender of enemy’s military forces or economic exploitation of the conquered countries. Objectives have become subjective like regime change, coercing the adversary, deterrence, democratization or maintaining peace. Achievement of such objectives requires the cooperation of the adversary. In a divided world, such cooperation is not easily forthcoming, even from weak states. When the enemy refuses to feel threatened, more force is applied which reinforces failure. Since retrieval may lead to loss of face, the engagement becomes endless and debilitating. One can observe this in the ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia. USA faced this problem in its numerous interventions in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria. In India’s case this anomaly occurred in Op Pavan, the IPKF operation in Sri Lanka. The political objective was implementation of the Peace Accord. Indian Forces were initially deployed for safeguarding the peace agreement. But peace keeping morphed into peace enforcement, then counterinsurgency and finally graduating to a near conventional war; as the LTTE which was expected to cooperate, turned rogue and upped the ante. Military outcomes dictated policies and the initial political objective fell by the wayside. The larger learning from the IPKF intervention and other such wars is to avoid employing military force unless there is near certainty that specific military objectives will lead to the desired political outcomes. An afterthought: did the 2020 Chinese misadventure in East Ladakh fall into this trap? The Indian Army instead of acquiescing, responded with ferocity! In the current milieu, there is little assurance that use of force would ensure achievement of political ends. Wisdom thus lies in exercising utmost care before employing military force.
Avoid Aiding Rebels in Neighbouring Countries
The Sri Lankan IPKF misadventure highlighted another interesting takeaway. This doesn’t get discussed but appears to have been imbibed by our polity. It is that supporting rebellions or insurgencies in neighbouring countries or training and arming the rebels is unwise. Sympathy for LTTE and Sri Lankan Tamils was rampant in Tamil Nadu and India’s attacks on the LTTE led to emotional turmoil in the state. This was exploited politically by many. In South Asia, ethnicity and religion stretch seamlessly across borders and meddling in a rivalry between communities in neighbouring countries carries an inherent risk of violence, lawlessness and separatism spreading to our border regions. Pakistan is a standing example, exhorting us to avoid dabbling in such activities. The Indian state appears to have understood this lesson well.
Connected with the same issue is also the unspoken learning that nations do not tolerate foreign militaries in their territory, even if the military was inducted to help establish peace. Foreign troops should not linger longer than the mission requires. The Sri Lankan state in the final days of IPKF operations turned somewhat hostile towards the Indian forces. In its earlier interventions, India was wise to quickly withdraw its military from Bangladesh and Maldives after successful completion of its tasks.
Political Support during Wartime
Continuing along the same thread,it is a well-known fact that wars require a gutsy and resilient political leadership, able to drum up support for the war effort and enthuse combatants to face adversaries with vigour, courage, and fortitude. As Napoleon said, “In war, the moral is to the physical as ten to one.” Leaders have used their eloquence to motivate their troops and on occasions, these words have turned the tide of wars. This is true from the time of Pericles in 432 BCE to George Patton and John Kennedy. Surprisingly, there is no record of such rousing speeches when the Indian Army was suffering major reverses in the 1962 Indo-China war. Instead, what is remembered is PM Nehru’sbroadcast stating, “My heart goes out to the people of Assam at this hour”. This was rightly or otherwise interpreted as saying “goodbye” to the Assam. The armed forces were left on their own to reorganise and bolster their spirits to face unnerving odds. However, in subsequent wars, the political leadership always attempted to boost the morale of the fighting soldier. The small statured but gritty PM, Lal Bahadur Shastri delivered the famous “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan” slogan while exhorting the Army to march to Lahore. This trend of rousing speeches to bolster the armed forces and the citizenry continued during later wars. But the blip of 1962 still rankles Assamese to this day.
The high point of the nation’s overwhelming support for the armed forces was observed during the Kargil war, when the media brought the happenings live to the people. The big takeaway is that bipartisan political and media support must always be forthcoming during difficult times in wars to boost the morale of combatants.
Cooperation and Trust between Land and Air Forces
Moving on, a second look at the 1947-48 Indo Pak war is needed since it has somehow not received the attention it merits. The war started due to the Pak Army sponsored tribal invasion of Jammu and Kashmir, even as the state acceded to the Indian union. The fourteen-month long war was fought under extremely harsh conditions of weather and terrain. It was an intense war, in which the Indian military came of age and proved its mettle, displaying commendable leadership, courage and resilience. The outstanding aspect of Indian performance which needs to be highlighted is the close and rewarding relationship between the land and air forces. This is something rarely seen even among mature militaries. The air force undertook many risky missions to meet critical demands of Army such as the airlift of forces to defend Srinagar, landing and air maintenance of the Poonch garrison, casevac from Potha undertaken by Flying Officer Barty, and the air landing at Leh by Air Cmde “Baba” Meher Singh with Gen Thimayya onboard . Visual recce and offensive support were available for the asking with aircraft operating at the design limits of range and altitude. This cooperation occurred without any formal organizational structures. Quite obviously there was excellent communication between the two forces, with each keeping the other in the loop on the happenings. This wartime experience does indicate that wholehearted cooperation and working hand in hand does not require top heavy organization structures. It just requires good communication and trust in each other’s capabilities and intentions.
But after the war this big takeaway was soon forgotten. In the 1962 Indo-China war, the Air Force was not even aware of the reasons for non-use of airpower. Similarly, in the 1965 Indo-Pak war, the Air Force was not even alerted and received the information through informal channels. However, when hostilities commenced and the call for air support arose, there was no looking back, and cooperation was not found wanting. This see-saw between peace time silos and wartime cooperation continued as 1971 witnessed unparalleled jointness between the three services. Then Kargil once again brought to the fore the ‘need to know’ syndrome with the Air Force being brought into the loop late.
A few years after the Kargil war, Pak forces sneaked up and occupied a hilltop on the Indian side of the LoC. Cooperation and good communication came to the fore again when the Army asked the Air Force to clear the enemy occupation through an air strike. Aircraft located over 1500 kms away were positioned, armed and the strike was successful with the enemy forces vacating the post. All communications were in person to retain secrecy. In this regard, late Air Chief Marshal PC Lal’s comments seem to sum up this see-saw relationship. He wrote, “It takes a war for people to work together. Peace breaks them up into narrow sectional pieces.” This contentious issue remains unsettled. It is ‘work in progress’ with new organizational structures being proposed. However, even as new structures are contemplated, we need to remember the takeaway from our own history of establishing good communication and building trust in each other’s capabilities and intentions.
Senior Military Appointments
The Indo-China war of 1962 brought to the fore some valuable takeaways regarding senior appointments of the military. The details of the appointment of the Army Chief and some others particularly, Gen BM Kaul are in public domain. The commonly held view is that a few favoured, mild mannered and well-connected generals were appointed to crucial positions, disregarding their background and recommendations of previous occupants of such positions. Such changes led to weak generals who did not oppose flawed strategies or political interference. Commanders who opposed the flawed policies were overruled or side lined. This issue resurfaces regularly during appointment of Chiefs, with talk of chain of succession or succession plans and manipulation to favour selected candidates. It becomes a free for all discussion in the media and among the knowledgeable. The solutions range from the ‘seniority principle’ to ‘seniority cum merit’ with transparency and the committee approach. However, this issue which has an important bearing on the military’s performance needs careful handling by the political elite remembering that capability and merit must remain the basis of such appointments.
There is also a secondary issue which flows out of the happenings during the 1962 debacle. It is that even clearly unprofessional decisions on deployment were never questioned down the line by the leaders on the battlefront. After objections were overruled, the attitude became “Ours is not to question why?” Patently suicidal decisions went unquestioned. In this regard, an incident from the past may be relevant. The dramatis personae are not being named about this Corps level wargame. The Army Commander while being presented the plan by one Div Cdr observed that the Armour element was deployed in penny packets. On the CO of the armour regiment being questioned on the improper deployment, the reply was that he had objected but was overruled. On this the Army Cdr’s response was classic. He asked the CO, “Why he did not put in his resignation?” As per him, the 1962 debacle occurred because no one stood up to be counted. Indeed, what emerges from that war is that if echelons down the line had taken a firm, no nonsense stand, maybe the rout could have been avoided. This carries an important message of ‘not being party to a patently incorrect decision.’ The takeaway is for the military to consider and think of creating avenues to raise the red flag on patently improper decisions during wartime.
Study of our past conflicts does not necessarily provide a key to future success, but as Clausewitz said it is “meant to educate the mind of the future commander”. Review of India’s post-independence military history brings out some important and relevant larger perspectives which can provide guidance in the future. One of the big takeaways is that there is a noticeable disharmony between the political and military objectives in recent conflicts. India has also experienced this in the past and needs to be careful about employment of military force. Another perspective emerging from India’s past experiences is the need to bolster the morale of combatants through political eloquence and media support. The review also highlighted the need for cooperation, communication and trust between the land and air forces. This aspect requires to be kept in mind as Indian military looks at organizational changes to further integration. Lastly, is the need for care during selection and appointment senior military leadership giving due importance to capability and merit. These big takeaways from India’s post-independence war experiences would prove useful to military professionals in the future.
16 of the best excerpts from the greatest military speeches ever given, Team Mighty, Published March 05, 2021, 09:35:00, https://www.wearethemighty.com/lists/16-best-excerpts-greatest-military-speeches-ever-given/
Kuldip Nayyar,During 1962 War, Nehru Was ‘Quieter Than Usual, Often In A Reverie And Sometimes Trembling’,24 August 2018, https://theprint.in/pageturner/excerpt/during-1962-war-nehru-was-quieter-than-usual-often-in-a-reverie-and-sometimes-trembling/104642/
Arjun Subramaniam, India’s Wars, Harper Collins, Publishers, 2016, pp 123-143.
Ibid p 257.
 Ibidp 333.
Air Chief Marshal S Krishnaswamy, Why Theatre Commands Is an Unnecessary Idea? 20 August 2018, https://capsindia.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/CAPS_Infocus_SK_00.pdf
ACM PC Lal, My Years with the IAF, Lancer, New Delhi, 1986, page 319.