Published in The Nation, November 17, 2012
Brigadier Mike was an ‘old timer’. But he did not want to stay anymore, so he left. Along with him passed away all that the army stood for - the pride in uniform, the self-respect, the grace and chivalry, the measure of an officer - his ethical and moral standards and, of course, the small courtesies. Mike left us to continue to fumble in the dark, for standards!
His are times long forgotten. Commissioned in the British Indian Army, when he set foot on this sacred soil, he declared, “my claim was Pakistan, and I got it”, refusing to make any further claims. He has now departed, leaving behind a pocket watch, reading glasses, and a walking stick as his sole worldly possessions; and, of course, a copy of the Holy Quran. Along with all this, he also left behind memories of some soldierly values now considered outmoded. May Allah bless his soul.
Such was the confidence placed in him by the Army, that on promotion to the rank of a colonel, he was placed as head of the Welfare Directorate at the GHQ, handling all allotment of lands to army personnel and managing its welfare budget and activities. Once settled in his new office, he initiated a detailed report, revealing how their substantial accounts placed with the Standard Bank were on terms most unsuited to the Army. The same evening he was ‘advised’ by the well informed President of the bank to withdraw the report, which he declined. The next morning brought his unceremonious departure from GHQ. This was 1971 – the country was under military rule!
After the change in government, the Standard Bank scandal came to light, as did the man, who had tried to protect institutional interest, at personal cost. He was promoted brigadier, out of turn, and brought back to GHQ. However, the environment does not change merely with change in command; and eventually, with much heartburn, he decided to ask for premature release from the army. The same year, he was due to be considered for promotion to the rank of a general.
I remember a time in 1960, when he made purchases from a store in Quetta and started to write out a cheque. He was then a major. And I merely a boy, queried with some uncertainty: “Will he accept your cheque?” He looked at me with surprise, “of course, he will; I am an officer.” And the storekeeper thanked him with a smile. Such was the credibility of an officer, once upon a time. Yes, it does seem like a fairytale now.
The storekeeper has not changed. We, the soldiers, have! True, that over the years there has been a national ethical nosedive, which has also left its mark on the army. Nevertheless, a quarter century of filtration through its tight assessment and promotion system should enable the Army to produce generals, who cannot be pointed at. But somehow, every other day, a new tale crops up. This is not the consequence of our social milieu alone; martial laws have, most certainly, taken their toll.
Whatever good or bad military governments bring with them, they leave the army diseased and scarred, with a systemic deterioration in the command environment. The Army Chief has little time for the Army, leaving it to be managed by a Vice Chief, whose wings are so drastically clipped that he ends up basically overseeing the GHQ, and that too partly.
The military ruler, meanwhile, needs to keep the army happy, so an atmosphere of forgive and forget prevails. Misdemeanour at senior levels is brushed under the rug, purportedly to save the good name of the institution. And there, hidden from public view, it thrives and grows, and spreads like cancer, seeping down to the lowest levels.
Another facet of the same sickness is that in a military regime the system becomes irrelevant; personal submission and loyalty counts. The Army gets thoroughly politicised. In this setting, which breeds yes-men and where sycophancy abounds, it is difficult for the ruler to identify fidelity. An easy shortcut is to spot the dishonest. Their submission and loyalty is prepaid and guaranteed, and no questions asked. Thus, corruption thrives. The cleverer one goes as far as advertising his vices.
Despite the handicap of repeated martial laws, the army is still the best institution in the country. If there is 80 percent rot in the government, there is 80 percent good here. It is a disciplined and professional force, not easy to be reckoned with on the battlefield. What little grime comes to light should neither be believed at face value, nor be taken as the norm. One should leave a substantial margin for the undercurrents that are operative in our environment today.
Nonetheless, the Army needs to extract itself from this quagmire and chart a firm and decisive course to halt the moral and ethical decline within its ranks. Strong corrective measures at the highest levels are needed - a gigantic task for a post-military government Army Chief. The Army as a whole has to be sensitised to their predicament. The officers need to take courage and speak up. This has always been the hallmark of professional soldiers, who recognise the clear distinction between good discipline and moral courage.
Blind obedience has never been the norm of the Army. No one will carry the burden of your misdeeds; you are yourself answerable. And when you have joined this profession that seeks the greater shahadat, then why shy off from the smaller shahadah? The strength of an army lies in its young officers having the pluck to call a spade a spade. Speak up, for no one from the outside can save you. And yes, this ability does deteriorate with rank, as does everything else with age. “Surely, We created man in the best mould; then We reverted him to the lowest of the low, except those who have faith and do righteous deeds.......And counsel each other to hold on to truth and counsel each other to be steadfast” (Quran 95:4-6 and 103:3).