Tuesday July 23, 2019
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Politicising the military: A strategic blunder

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India’s armed forces, apart from their role of safeguarding the nation, provide a bright strand in the national fabric, which represents the ideals of integrity, discipline, secularism and professional excellence. Indian_Army_soldier_at_Camp_Babina

Since independence, they have embodied a proud pan-Indian martial tradition that promotes a sense of national unity and cohesion. In a region full of praetorian militaries, the Indian armed forces have remained scrupulously apolitical and a staunch pillar of democracy. Above all, they have come to the rescue when all other agencies have failed the Indian state.

Like those who take up government service or political office, the serviceman, too, swears an oath to the constitution of India. But, unlike them, the soldier bears an ‘unlimited liability’ for defense of the nation. His oath of allegiance includes this commitment: “I will obey all commands of the president of India …..even to the peril of my life.” It is for this reason that the soldier is given a special place in society.

However, this year’s Kargil Vijay Diwas, meant to celebrate the victory of Indian armed forces over Pakistani intruders and to honor those who fell in battle, left a bitter taste in every soldier’s mouth. While politicians paid saccharine tributes to our fallen Kargil heroes, veterans – many in their 80s – were into the fifth week of a public agitation, asking the NDA government to redeem its promise of granting ‘one rank one pension’ or OROP. 130507-A-DK678-010

It was government inaction on the 6th Pay Commission anomalies that first drove the veterans on the streets in 2008. Political indifference was compounded by the hostile approach of MoD (ministry of defense) bureaucracy in handling problems related to pensions and allowances of aging veterans, war widows and battle casualties. Forced to go to the courts, they were stunned to find a litigious MoD fighting them at every step through appeals. In a bizarre development, the MoD perversely refused to implement even Supreme Court judgments favorable to the veterans. This was what eventually forced a disciplined and politically-neutral segment of society into the maw of party-politics.

In the run-up to the 2014 elections, dismayed by the traditionally disdainful attitude of the Congress, the veterans allowed themselves to be lured by the BJP’s putative nationalist stance. Jumping on the party’s bandwagon seemed like a sure way of getting their demands met. The post-election allocation of cabinet portfolios to freshly retired military officers – a move of questionable wisdom – seemed to bear out the veterans’ optimism. A year later, however, the disillusioned veterans are seeking alternative political options.

Once he doffs his uniform, a veteran is, technically, liberated from the restraints of military discipline and is free to adopt the demeanor of an ordinary civilian. But deep inside, his soul cringes at the very thought of conducting himself in a manner which would have brought disrepute to his uniform, unit or Service. Public agitations and undertaking fasts and dharnas are activities he instinctively associates with trade unionism. They are the antithesis of military discipline and fortitude; a creed he has followed for a lifetime. Similarly, he harbors distaste for political horse-trading. Unfortunately, misrepresentations and prevarication, by successive governments, on the issue of OROP have driven our Veterans to adopt this approach.

It seems incredible that none of the wise-heads amongst India’s political leadership has taken cognizance of two stark realities. Firstly: that veterans retain a strong umbilical connection with serving personnel because the two constitute an extended family. Whatever happens at Jantar Mantar is flashed across to the men in uniform, almost instantly, through print, electronic and social media. Secondly: anything that humiliates the veteran also hurts the self-esteem of the soldier – because he is tomorrow’s veteran.

And yet, in an inexplicable and self-destructive continuum, governments have deliberately proceeded to downgrade and demoralize their own armed forces and veterans. This insidious process, orchestrated by the bureaucracy, has employed the instrumentality of successive pay commissions to whittle down the financial and protocol status of the military while bolstering their own. Politicians have allowed themselves to be persuaded that the key to ‘civilian control’ of the military lies in equating it with the police and paramilitary forces and making it subservient to the bureaucracy.

A savvy political leadership should have seen through this ploy and realized that: (a) soldiers and veterans are emblematic of a nation’s pride and honor and need to be protected from such internal assaults, (b) demoralization of the military erodes national security and benefits the nation’s enemies, and (c) allowing politicization of the military is a strategic blunder that will have long-term consequences.

It is appalling to think that, from 2008 onwards, no political leader has had the good sense to visualize the damage that would be caused to India’s security edifice by veterans taking to the streets and seeking political support. All this could have been nipped in the bud, very simply, by reaching out to the veterans, creating grievance redressal mechanisms and establishing direct communication with them. By egregious neglect and inaction, politicians themselves have helped destroy the apolitical ethos of our military, which the nation has been so proud of.

Irresponsible and intemperate voices of the veterans are already being heard on the social media; some demanding that the three service chiefs should offer their resignations over the OROP issue. Worse suggestions may follow.

Even at this late hour, a spark of statesmanship, sagacity and empathy for the Indian soldier can pull us back from the precipice. Recognition of the sacrifices made in fulfilling the extraordinary demands of military service, articulated at the apex political level, and earliest accord of OROP would justify a quid-pro-quo demand for cessation of the veterans’ agitation and their participation in politics.

(IANS)

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Nearly Three-Quarters of Young Americans Unfit to Serve in America’s Military

U.S. President Donald Trump encouraged Americans to enlist in the military

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Americans, Unfit, Military
FILE - Matt Elam, center, competes in a US Marine pull-up contest while Marine recruiters watch. VOA

As he reveled in the huge display of military might during last week’s Independence Day celebration on the National Mall, U.S. President Donald Trump encouraged Americans to enlist in the military.

“To young Americans across our country, now is your chance to join our military and make a truly great statement in life, and you should do it,” Trump said in his speech at the Lincoln Memorial.

Speaking to reporters outside the White House the following day, Trump predicted that his display would boost military enlistment. “Based on that, we’re going to have a lot of people joining our military,” he said.

However, with a 2016 Department of Defense report finding that nearly three-quarters of young Americans are unfit to serve in America’s military, Trump’s encouragement and military display may not be enough to reverse declining military recruitment.

Americans, Unfit, Military
President Donald Trump applauds during an Independence Day celebration in front of the Lincoln Memorial, July 4, 2019, in Washington. VOA

According to the Department of Defense, the Navy, Marines, and Air Force met their recruiting goals in 2018, but the Army, the military’s largest branch, fell more than 6,500 recruits short – about 8% below its target of 76,500.

A 2018 report by Mission: Readiness, a group of 750 retired military professionals that makes policy recommendations to increase the percentage of young Americans eligible to serve in the military, found that 71% of Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 fail to meet all of the basic requirements for military service.

The biggest disqualifier is obesity, with roughly 31% of American youths disqualified because they are overweight. Other factors explaining the shortage of eligible recruits are inadequate education, criminal history and drug use. According to Army Major Gen. (Ret.) Allen Youngman, a member of Mission: Readiness, almost 25% of high school graduates are unable to pass the basic military entrance exams, which not only disqualifies them from technical positions within the service but also from military service as a whole.

Not only is the pool of eligible recruits shrinking, but the number of young Americans interested in military careers is dropping as well, the report found. This is partly the result of a strong national economy, since plentiful civilian jobs may make military careers seem less appealing, according to Youngman.

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As the number of people serving in the military declines, the problem is likely to get worse. “The number of what we call influencers in a young person’s life – people who may have had military service of their own who would serve as a role model or even encourage a young person to consider military service – is down because the number of persons who participate in the military over the years has gone down,” said  Youngman. The U.S. Army Recruiting Command reports that 79% of recruits have a relative who also served in the military.

Relaxing education or criminal history standards in order to enlarge the recruiting pool in light of the obesity issue isn’t an option, said General Youngman. “The position today is that the standards are the standards. We’ve just got to work harder to find young people who can meet them.”

However, the trends are not encouraging.

By age two, 14% of American children are already considered obese, and the proportion of overweight or obese children increases with age, the Mission: Readiness report finds. In the 16-19 age group, 42% of Americans are overweight. These statistics carry over into adulthood, with 70% of overweight teens becoming overweight or obese adults.

Americans, Unfit, Military
This Tuesday, April 3, 2018 photo shows a closeup of a beam scale in New York. VOA

The problem is especially acute in southern states, which provide a disproportionately large percentage of military recruits, but also have some of the highest rates of obesity in the nation.

Efforts are under way to improve the health of America’s youth.

As an example, Youngman cited the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which provides improved nutrition guidelines for school lunches. The program is the latest in a series of initiatives beginning with the National School Lunch Program in 1946.

“A lot of people don’t realize that the School Lunch Program started right after World War II as a national security program,” General Youngman said. “There was such concern about the overwhelming numbers of young people who were not qualified for military service in World War II because they grew up during the Great Depression and they had all sorts of nutrition issues that resulted in health issues later on.”

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In the wake of the Great Depression, the goal of the School Lunch Program was to ensure that kids got enough calories from their school lunches. Today, calories are in general much easier to come by, so modern school lunch programs focus on helping students make healthier food choices. A 2014 study of 1,030 elementary-school children found that students selected 23% more fruit for their lunches and ate 16% more vegetables after the implementation of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

Programs that seek to improve nutrition for school-aged children as well as encourage active lifestyles are important not only for military readiness, but also for society as a whole.

“There are some bright spots out there, but as a nation we still have a long way to go,” Youngman said. (VOA)