The United States has an enviable and unbroken record of civilian control of the military. The armed forces uphold the constitution and are accountable to the nation through the elected president and the legislature—a relationship maintained by robust institutions. However, under former president Donald Trump, this relationship came under tremendous strain.
Like the US, in India too, the supremacy of the civil government over the military is well established. However, this control is not above the Constitution, which guides the conduct of both. The military gives considered advice and the government makes the decision. So long as the government’s command is lawful, the armed forces are duty bound to obey. In India, too, this relationship is straying away from the well-established norms due to a marked tendency for political exploitation of the military by the elected government.
Trump had a fascination for the military. He flooded his administration with retired generals and referred to the serving ones as “my generals.” He expected the military to be an extension of his politics and demanded unquestioned obedience in the mould of Hitler and his generals. Much to his chagrin, he discovered that the values of the US military were enshrined in the constitution. Soon, his relationship soured with the former generals, most of whom were summarily sacked. After initial dithering, the serving generals carried out course correction by upholding the constitution and refusing to be part of Trump’s political machinations.
All this and much more has been covered in The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021—a forthcoming book by Peter Baker of The New York Times and Susan Glasser of The New Yorker. In a curtain raiser article, the authors cover Trump’s relationship with the military as it appeared in The New Yorker. The warts and all report contains important lessons that need to be learnt by the militaries of all democracies, including India, where political parties with nationalism-driven ideology have been elected to power.
Clash over spectacles
In 2017, after watching a spectacular military parade to commemorate Bastille Day and the 100th anniversary of the US’ entry into World War 1 in France, Trump wanted to replicate the same spectacle with a grand military parade showcasing US military prowess as part of the 4th of July celebrations. This was resisted by the Defense Secretary, former General James Mattis and the military brass, on grounds of high cost. Traditionally, the US military does not showcase its capabilities through parades because they are perceived as a tool for grandstanding by politicians, dictators and communist regimes.
General Paul J. Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, bluntly told Trump: “I didn’t grow up in the United States, I actually grew up in Portugal. Portugal was a dictatorship—and parades were about showing the people who had the guns. And in this country, we don’t do that. It’s not who we are.” The military saw through the shrouded political intent of the president for political grandiosity, which was evident when he told his Chief of Staff, former General John Kelly, that he did not want wounded soldiers to be part of the parade because it “didn’t look good” for him. It took two years for Trump to overcome the resistance of his generals and force them to hold a grand military parade on 4 July 2019, a move that invited severe public and media criticism.
Loyalty to constitution vs political control
Trump expected unquestioned loyalty from the retired generals in his administration and from those in service, but the exact opposite happened. The heads of the retired generals rolled first. Trump was to tell the authors, “These were very untalented people and once I realised it, I did not rely on them, I relied on the real generals and admirals within the system.” However, even with the latter, he did not have his way.
It turned out that the generals had rules, standards, and expertise, not blind loyalty. Displaying the typical trait of authoritarian leaders, he once told his Chief of Staff, former General Kelly, that “You fu……ng generals, why can’t you be like the German generals?” Kelly told him that there were no such American generals. However, Trump’s search did not stop.
Trump’s selected Chief does not play ball
Trump was not happy with his Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCOS), General Joseph Dunford, who, along with the Secretary of Defense, former General James Mattis, resisted some of his outlandish ideas with respect to national security. Against the advice of his Defense Secretary, he selected General Mark Milley, then the Chief of Army Staff, to be the CJCOS. Milley had excellent credentials but also had a reputation for bluntness. But what endeared him to Trump were his never-ending one-liners, such as “Mr President, our Army is here to serve you. Because you’re the Commander-in-Chief,” and “Mr President, you’re going to be making the decisions…I am going to give you an honest answer … and as long as they (the decisions) are legal, I’ll support it.”
Trump, in all likelihood, missed the caveat—“as long as they are legal”. Two generals refused to be considered. One felt he could not work with Trump and the other with Mattis. By appointing Milley, Trump wanted to get even with Mattis. He told the authors that he appointed Milley only because Mattis “could not stand him, had no respect for him, and would not recommend him.” Deep selection or selecting the first among equals was certainly not Trump’s intent
Be that as it may, after the controversial selection and the initial timid and pliant conduct which faced the ire of Congressmen, Milley carried out course correction and stood by military ethos and constitutional ideals. Milley noted that Trump disregarded rational advice with impunity. He also realised he was faced with an unprecedented challenge.
1 June 2020 was a turning point. In the morning, Milley strongly resisted Trump’s demand to deploy the army against Black Lives Matter protesters and advised that the National Guards (the equivalent of CRPF in India) were adequate. Milley was aghast when Trump shouted at him, “You are all losers! You are all fu…ng losers! Can’t you just shoot them? Just shoot them in the legs or something?” The same day, Milley became part of the entourage accompanying Trump through Washington’s Lafayette Square for a photo shoot outside a damaged church. It was too late before the realisation dawned on him.
This was Milley’s ‘road to Damascus moment.’ He drafted his resignation on four counts—politicisation of the military, use of the military to create fear, discrimination against minorities, and ruining the established international order. However, after introspection, he decided to fight from within.
He publicly apologised for his presence outside the church. He took his fellow chiefs into confidence and together they prepared a plan to uphold the constitution, to guard against any external or internal irrational action of the president, like military action against Iran or invoking martial law on the pretext of domestic unrest. They even planned to prevent any interference with the electoral process, and constitutional transition of power. The rest, they say, is history.
Lessons for Indian military
Indian politicians in power cover up their political exploitation of the military with themes of patriotism and nationalism. Willingly or due to lack of spine, India’s military has also become part of political spectacles. It is showcasing itself in every facet of government activity with political undertones. If this trend continues, political ideologies will creep into the military and there will be serious problems when a political party with a different ideology will come to power.
The secular traditions of the armed forces are under stress. We have had the spectacle of religious rituals being performed on parade. The Chief of Defence Staff giving the Navy Day a miss to be seen at a Math in Gorakhpur with the head priest—who is also a chief minister. Generals are making political statements and posting servile birthday greetings on social media for political leaders.
More dangerously, the military is not rendering forthright advice to the government. In fact, there seems to be politico-military collusion to cover up failures and exaggerate success to present a false picture of our military prowess.
It is time for the military to introspect and carry out course correction. The issue is moral and all you need is a straight spine.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R), served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post-retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. He tweets @rwac48. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)