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LESSONS IN MILITARY LEADERSHIP FROM USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT By Lt Gen P R Shankar (R)

The Need to Examine ‘Theodore Roosevelt’ Incident

Military leadership has been a subject of debate for long. The leadership conundrum in the Armed Forces is beautifully brought out in Herman Wouk’s classic – ‘The Caine Mutiny’. In the same context, the ‘Theodore Roosevelt’ incident brings forth the stringent and conflicting demands on leadership in the Armed Forces. I am delving into this, despite the Chinese Virus , since this is far more important than a transient phenomenon.
At the end of the day unless the leadership of the Armed Forces is apolitical and professional, nations do not grow to greatness. History is witness to the fact that great nations have had great military leadership. Alternately nations have collapsed due to poor leadership. The Third Reich in Germany is the prime example whose military leadership was the acme of professionalism but politically aligned. It invented the Blitzkrieg. However on the days of reckoning it was found wanting and Hitler’s Germany fell like a pack of cards. On the other hand, in our context Sam Bahadurs apolitical military leadership role enabled us to undertake the best example of a Blitzkrieg in history. It culminated when Bangladesh was created in a mere 14 days. In this context the sacking of the Captain of the nuclear -powered US carrier ‘Theodore Roosevelt’ needs examination in a larger context. I feel that there are major lessons in military leadership one can draw from it.  
The Perspective on ‘Theodore Roosevelt’

To put in perspective, Captain Grozier of the nuclear-powered carrier Theodore Roosevelt, raises alarm about the Chinese Virus spreading on his ship. He writes a strong unclassified letter which is widely circulated. It gets leaked to the public. The core of his contention was “We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die. If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset – our sailors”. He gets sacked.  The public explanation given is that the Captain demonstrated extremely poor judgement at a time of crisis by sending a request for urgent help outside his chain of command. He could have walked up to his Admiral and sought the same in a more dignified manner. The Navy Secretary denies that the Captain’s firing was ‘retribution’ and even praises him for looking out for his crew. The Captain is given a hero’s send off by the Ship’s crew for having stood up for them despite knowing that the consequence would be a sacking and the end of his career. Most importantly the Navy starts acting post haste to act on his requests.  Who is right or wrong in this issue? The Captain is right for having stood up to his men regardless of the consequences. The Government is right for upholding the tradition and official protocols demanded from a disciplined force. Both probably acknowledge each other’s position and have done so. To me, the Captain of the ship and the Navy Secretary have both exhibited great leadership. One for standing up to his men irrespective of personal consequences. The other for uncompromisingly upholding the edifice of discipline on which the US Navy rests. The core issue which stands out is the absence of politics and cold professional conduct when the chips are down.  

The American Turnaround

While the incident will be debated for a long time and there will be views on both sides as is expected in a democracy, it is a great lesson in turnaround in military leadership. When I was a young officer, I read a book which made a lasting impression on me as far as military leadership is concerned. It was ‘Crisis in Command’.  It was about the performance or rather nonperformance of the American officer corps in Vietnam. It outlined vividly how the officers did not care for their men. They had developed a culture of ‘punching minimum time’ on the front line at least cost to tick the right boxes to go up the ladder. Soon when men felt that they were poorly led in operations, incidents of ‘fragging’ were widely reported. That time, I believe was the nadir of the military leadership in the US Armed Forces. No wonder USA lost that war. From that depth to rebound to a stage where a Captain of a nuclear-powered carrier stands up for his men, puts his career on the line and gets sacked is some turn around in leadership. It did not start here.  Go back to Gen Stanley McChrystal who resigned over disagreements with the Obama Administration in the way the Afghan War was being conducted. See both these in continuum and the picture of robust military leadership is complete. If USA is not winning its wars, it is clearly for other reasons.  

The Question of Chinese Military Leadership

Now juxtapose this issue with China. Could you say the same about the PLA? Can you imagine an incident like this being reported or debated in China?  After all we are talking of a Chinese system where people have disappeared for dissenting or reporting the outbreak of Covid 19. Information has been suppressed, blanketed and doctored. There is an unexplained disappearance of its leader, Xi Jinping for two weeks during the critical initial stages of the crisis for which we are all paying. There is a clear Chinese refusal to accept any responsibility for its ineptitude during the pandemic since it fears loss of face, international power and authority. It is hyper on an image building PR exercise to position itself as the global leader and savior. How does the national character of China come through? What will the military leadership of such a nation be all about? If the Captain of a Chinese Carrier does a similar act what will be the outcome or the optics? I think the leadership of the Chinese Armed Forces has not come under international scrutiny. That is a great danger. We are talking of an aggressive autocratic nation wanting to give us a new global order, with an untested and inexperienced military leadership, slaved to a regressive political system and equipped with new weapons of war of the next generation technologies. A very iffy situation for all of us. Reminds me of the possibility of the ‘Fourth Reich’.  

The Indian Context

What about leadership in the Indian context? Is the leadership of the Indian Armed Forces up to something like ‘Theodore Roosevelt’? There are two shades to it. At one time we had this disease of punching time at command and junior levels. We had cases where Commanding Officers even staged encounters for personal enhancement. Two cases – one in Siachen and one in the NE come to mind. The first involved a fake video showing a staged action on the Glacier with own soldiers. The latter incident was infamously known as the ‘ketchup colonel’ case. That was the time of our ‘Crisis in Command’. However we have got over that due to policy and some structural changes. It included reducing ages of command significantly and looking beyond the ‘kills’ in CI ops. It took us a long time. Today when I interact with dynamic Commanding Officers and younger officers, I am very optimistic and enthused. I have seen a cross section of them at various military functions and events. I am sanguine about the future of our military leadership at junior levels. However my worry is about our senior leadership. From being an apolitical and professional force led by astute generals we have slid down. There is a clear stain of politicization. When a host of senior officers, a Deputy Chief of Army Staff and a Vice Chief of Army Staff make a bee line for a political party on retirement there is reason to think. Further when a bevy of chiefs are seen to be politically aligned politically by the nation at large and the Armed Forces in particular, there is a problem. When they are mostly from Infantry, the problem magnifies. To top it if the entire Army hierarchy is to be from Infantry in future, by design, there is a “big” problem. We need to acknowledge that our Military leadership is listed and not on an even keel. The larger danger is that we are in a democracy. Tomorrow the political condition might change. Will a politically aligned apex leadership serve that new political dispensation as enthusiastically? The point I am making is that, over or under enthusiastic following of a governments wish list / edicts in a partisan manner leads us to an even larger question. Will we have served either the national interest or the interests of the men we command?  The answer is neither. Or have we abandoned both to serve a detrimental self-interest? The answer is yes since there is ample evidence of that. The answer lies in a severe re-examination of the outdated tradition of General Cadre which has contributed to this situation. Incidentally that is a major policy which is neither transparent nor fully legal. Unless we have a level playing field and enforce strict apolitical norms, we will continue to produce that class of Generals who will sit mute like those; when our venerated veterans were lathi charged by police. An incident like that of ‘Theodore Roosevelt’ in our context is unthinkable.
I Hope

I do hope this leads to some introspection and reform once this Chinese Virus is done and dusted. I do hope my Chief of Army Staff has some time to have a look at this. I also hope that I have made my point. The consequences of ignoring this that the nation will pay a price on its day of reckoning due to a substandard senior military hierarchy. I hope I am dead and gone by then.   
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11 responses to “LESSONS IN MILITARY LEADERSHIP FROM USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT By Lt Gen P R Shankar (R)”

  1. A very well written piece…I do hope someone someday takes note of serious danger involved in promoting yes men to the top positions

  2. The Paki army fits in grotesquely in all this.

  3. Sir, very indepth & insightfully, written, one can never anticipate such possibilities, even you praise both sides, so all we can do is keep our fingers crossed, & hope our generals & political leaders, work out such eventualities acceptable to all. Heard President Trump also say that an officers career is on the line and he will see that it is not wasted.

  4. Sir, please elucidate the steps taken by you to improve senior leadership when you were serving…why to write such articles only after retirement

  5. if you have friends in the regiment of Artillery, just inquire from them as to what i did to improve senior leadership and promote junior leadership.

  6. I can confirm as his subordinate that sir took various steps within his chain of influence to encourage junior leadership. What he writes today is he what he practiced while in service

  7. Easy peasy thing..write scores after retirement. Whilst serving do not..even if u did sir, it had no ramifications. So ur article holds no water. Infantry, armoured, artillery..chief..perks.. blah..is what the take away of this article. The last man of honour was admiral joshi..rest all r same

  8. I read the capts letter and the letter of Secy.Both have their point of view.One thing which stood out is the Secretary taking full responsibility for his decision unlike our bureaucrats who would have made the army leadership act by putting pressure.There are number of lessons in this episode

  9. The sordid affair of a great Captain and bumbling bloody businessman masquerading as a know all and be all regarding the armed forces is a sorry state of affairs,and has large ramifications even in India,a CDS appointed solely on political grounds, a controversial ex Chief of Army appointed as a junior minister sets a poor example.such a buerocratic control and short term political fixes will not lead to an ideal situation on times of war.

  10. It is not fair to compare our military or the leadership with that of United States. First and foremost, Americans do not flaunt their position. Be it the bungalows with big name plate, guard at the gate, the flag, the stars, the staff, the car etc.etc. Secondly, Americans though have social security, but they love working with their own hands, be it at a ranch or in workshop in their garage. There are numerous other differences, through which leadership qualities thrive, as they normally remain focused on the job they are assigned to do. Yes, Indian military generals can be compared to Pakistanis, where we are better. To some extent close to British generals, snob, formal and bookish.

  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

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