Ethics: At the Heart of the Profession of Arms

 By Col. Harsh Vardhan Singh

Introduction. Ethics are the heart of the Indian Army and the inspiration for our shared professional identity; the who, why and how of our profession. It must govern and perambulate our conduct as Army professionals, soldiers and officers are bound together in common moral purpose to support and defend the Constitution and the Indian people. A doctrinal ethic is critical for the Profession of Arms as it would legislate the moral basis for why our Army exists. The ethical foundation would define the imperatives of being an honorable leader, follower and agent of trust with the society. Rapid changes in the nature of armed conflict and societal interactions present ethical challenges to mission accomplishment. These include complexity on future battlefields and during peace, particularly within the human and information domain. We must anticipate the ethical challenges associated with this uncertainty and be governed by our Ethical Framework.

Etymology of Ethics. Our Ethics have their origin in the philosophical heritage, theological and cultural traditions, and the historical legacy that frame our Nation. We respect “Satyamev Jayate”; ‘truth shall prevail’. These principles are enshrined in the Constitution. Officers of the Indian Army, by our oath of service commit ourselves to these time-honored and enduring ideals and establish the datum line for ethical conduct. Army Ethics are not a law or regulations, they establish the expectations to which we aspire institutionally as a profession and individually as trusted professionals.

Centrality of Ethics. Armed Forces in the role as honorable guardians of the Nation are professionals of character. As subject matter experts, the officer corps is competent and committed professionals accountable to each other, the profession, and the Indian people. By taking our solemn oath of service, we voluntarily incur an extraordinary moral obligation inherent in the shared identity to which we aspire. Living by and upholding the Army Ethic requires that we honor these moral principles in our decisions and actions in all aspects of life. As leaders, the officer corps must embrace and uphold the Army Values and standards of the profession, always accountable to each other and the people for our decisions and actions. Every individual within the Army has the opportunity to simultaneously be a leader, follower, and custodian of the Army Profession. The leader is accountable to the people to accomplish the mission in the right way and accept responsibility for making right decisions and taking right actions, always. The officer corps must exemplify lifelong commitment to defend India and secure the national interest by performing our duty consistent with Army Ethics. The Army Ethics motivates and inspires our shared identity as trusted Army professionals. Preservation of the peace and winning the Nation’s wars is inherent to our ethos; this is Why We Are. The ethical, effective, and efficient accomplishment of the mission is the core of our ethos; How We Are. The metallurgic ingredients of this veritable moral crucible are described in the succeeding paragraphs.

Trust. Trust stands out as the defining element that enabled Indian Army to overcome adversity and endure the demands of combat, internal trust is integral to the chain of command. It is both inherent in and demanded amongst peers, between seniors and subordinates. External trust is the bond with which we connect with those we serve, our government and the people. It must be continually earned. Special trust and confidence is placed in military leaders. This trust is based upon the fact that the members of our profession remain apolitical and would never betray the principles and intent of the Constitution, even at the risk of their own lives. Trust also has a ruminative as well as an extroverted paradigm.

External Trust. It is the confidence and faith that the society has on the Army to serve the Nation ethically, effectively, and efficiently. It is the bedrock of our relationship with society. Army as a profession has so far been successful in sustaining the respect and trust of the people. However, this trust is fragile and easily damaged if we do not understand who we are, who we serve, why we serve, and how we serve. Essential to reinforcing trust is performing our duty every day in a manner that the common person judges us to be ethical according to the beliefs and values enshrined in the Nation’s Constitution.

Internal Trust. Within the Army, internal trust is reliance on the character, competence, and commitment of Army professionals to live by and uphold the Army Ethic. It serves as a vital organizing principle that establishes the conditions necessary for mission command. Trust is earned and reinforced as Army professionals contribute to the mission and perform their duty, seeking and communicating the truth and acting with integrity. With trust, there is less need for detailed guidance and close supervision.

Trust and Officer Corps. Officers certified develop mutual trust within cohesive teams by strength of character.  The dedication and adherence to the Army Ethic, including values, as consistently and faithfully demonstrated in decisions and actions. Officers can’t afford to lead without having the capability to do so; it is the demonstrated ability to successfully perform duty with discipline and to the required standard. Officer Corps has an obligation to contribute to the service of Nation and accomplish the mission despite adversity, obstacles and challenges.

Trust is a Two Way Street. Army leaders, at all levels, are responsible for reinforcing the Army culture of trust and establishing a professional organization and command climate essential for directive style of command. Directive Style of Command is based on mutual trust and shared understanding and purpose. Operations under this philosophy of command require trust up and down the chain of command and left and right between units. Superiors trust subordinates and expect them to accomplish missions consistent with the commander’s intent. Subordinates trust superiors to give them the freedom to accomplish the mission with disciplined initiative.

Trust: An Experiential Process. Leaders earn the trust of their team when they lead by example and demonstrate character, capability and obligation. Leaders also develop mutual trust through difficult training and shared experiences. Strong bonds of trust built through these collective experiences enable the team to overcome challenge and adversity. Training and shared experience allow leaders to earn the trust of subordinates and for subordinates to earn the trust of leaders. Officer Corps is required to adhere to the Army Ethic in the conduct of the mission, performance of duty, and all aspects of life. The Army Ethic is an integrated and coherent whole. It may be discussed in segments or in part for purposes of understanding, but altogether it applies to what Officer Corps is and does, everywhere, always.

Discipline. Disciplinary standards are intrinsic to the Army culture of trust. Discipline guides our manner of performance. We conduct ourselves according to the discipline of our military art and science. With discipline, we choose the harder right over the easier wrong in the face of temptation, obstacles, and adversity. Standards establish acceptable levels of performance and achievement. As a result, Army professionals strive for standards of excellence and may take justifiable pride in their contribution of honorable service. Some may associate discipline only with regulations and the consequences for errors in judgment and conduct. However, it is important to understand that our professional discipline is fundamentally about how we practice our profession. Discipline is a hallmark of the Army and is the expected manner in which we perform our duty, striving for standards of excellence. Inability to exercise discipline in our conduct is ordained to be un-ethical either by not striving to achieve excellence or by sub-standard conduct.

Esprit de Corps. It is the glue that permeates through all levels, influencing individual morale, team cohesion, and ethos within the Profession. It contributes to our sense of community; a Family. Within the unit, command, and organization, esprit de corps is reflected in a shared sense of professional identity, a common mission, technical and tactical proficiency and cohesive teamwork that develops mutual trust. The camaraderie is a derivative of shared values and experiences; working and training together, respecting each other and mutually overcoming adversity and challenge. The classic case of Mai Lai massacre in Vietnam is the antithesis to what we would believe in ie conduct of the mission in the just way. A professional command climate of trust, respect and candor is sine qua non for fostering this spirit. Generations connect with each other by honoring customs, courtesies, and traditions coupled with sustained specialized, demanding, and intellectually rigorous education and training. The cul de sac for such an argument is the shared understanding of why and how we serve India.

Non-ephemerality of Ethics. The mutation of spectrum of conflict and rapid advances in technology, the Army’s practice of warfare continuously evolves. However, the moral principles of the Army Ethics are timeless and enduring. The Army Ethics guides us in meeting the challenges of present and future threats. At the strategic level, senior Army leaders address ends, ways, and means to accomplish the mission. Our ethic provides strategic leaders with moral guidance when considering prudent risk, disciplined initiative, and the consequences of military operations. Tactically and operationally, Army leaders apply legal principles to determine how their units use lethal force. The Hague and Geneva Conventions express the legal formulation of these principles further described in Army doctrine. The principle of military necessity requires combat forces to engage in only those acts essential to secure a legitimate military objective. This principle justifies those measures, not forbidden by international law, necessary to accomplish the mission. As leaders the officer corps must believe that it is not enough to win a war but to win in a way that is consistent with the values of our society and principles of human rights, even for the enemy.

Conclusion. The apotheosis of military profession is in truth, its victory, as well as the absence of fear about it. This cements the bond of trust between officer and his command, it is always to be pursued and displayed with exceptional vigor. Utter transparency is the desired and indeed obligatory. That means as a matter of highest principal that the officer speaks “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” at all times because he or she is perpetually under moral oath to not modify truth in post-modernist construct.