Tuesday, 30 March 2010


One month out of the Navy and already I am using this hackneyed expression. Read on; it may just be different from the old-hat.

After wielding the stick at me for some time, one of my COs suddenly shifted to the carrot approach. “You are lucky”, he thundered, “I have made a list of my COs and believe you me, all of them were b------s of a very high order”. But surprisingly, instead of bemoaning, there was an air of wistfulness about him, as if his COs having been anything other than b------s would have been a letdown! How many times we have heard of these comparisons between the present and the good old days – our days? Is it only a natural instinct for us to somehow relate to those halcyon days of our youth or was there really a big difference?

The other day, a really dear friend came home to share the evening meal. The conversation drifted to the propensity of the senior hierarchy of the Navy to get entangled in trivial matters. I told him that I had seen the signs of this many years back. I recalled that whilst the Book of Reference on Seamanship laid down that a Petty Officer of the Watch would supervise lowering of sea-boats; in effect I have seen the Ship’s Commander personally involving himself in the evolution; and, in case there was to be a Commander who felt that his POOW was good enough, his CO would nudge him, “Number one, just go down and see everything is alright”! I also told him that we had anchored our ships in Bombay harbour as Acting Sub Lieutenants; and whether any CO of today would ever take that risk. My friend disagreed; lately he has taken to disagreements to appear more assertive and I granted him that. Then he went about saying that he knows of at least one Commanding Officer of a large ship who has permitted a Sub Lieutenant to bring the ship alongside.

Now that is something! Despite all his disagreements this friend is a good soul and in this case he had a relevant point – we are often too judgmental of the actions and perceptions of those who joined the Navy after us.

A few years back in the US Naval Institute Proceedings (USNIPs) I read an article titled ‘Fish Rot from the Head’ (Major General J.D. Lynch, Jr., U.S. Marine Corps (Retired) (Feb 1995). The crux of the argument was that whilst lamenting the decline in the professional ethics and morality of the junior officers we should do a little soul-searching and conclude that the senior lot is also responsible for the rot; indeed more than the juniors. Thus General Lynch concludes, “The best way to motivating and leading our young – rather than to merely criticise - is to set a living example of professional standards and moral courage of the highest order.”

The commendable leadership and courage displayed by the young officers during the Kargil conflict, against almost impossible odds, prompted the Commandant of Indian Military Academy to say, “Their bravery and sacrifices can be compared with those of Shahid Bhagat Singh and Shivaji”. Admiral Nadkarni reminded us in a post – conflict article in The Indian Express, of the “indisputable courage of our jawans and the leadership displayed by the officer corps. Hence, if our young officers have it in them to prove their worth in battle, the litmus test, why do we have this bias that they lack the values we had during our days? And yet, we often admit that the intake level of the present era men and women joining armed forces is much inferior than in our days. Isn’t it an admission of the sense of commitment of the present lot who have to climb steeper to reach the same heights or standards as were seen during our days?

Every era is modern in its own time. To compare the values of one with the other without a debate about the circumstances, constraints and opportunities may not be objective. I recall the period of my first CO as an officer. The ceremonial involved in his arrival on board and departure were such that all work, not only on the upper decks of the ship but also in the dockyard in vicinity, used to come to a standstill. A battery of men used to receive and see him off, including men for carrying his briefcase and keeping the car door open. The prestige and powers enjoyed by a Lieutenant Commander at that time were more than those enjoyed by a Commodore of today. A signal made by the Commanding Officer of a ship used to be respected by the shore authorities even when made for shore power supply or shore telephones.

Nowadays, irrespective of periodic and forceful reminders that the tail should not wag the dog, the ships are very nearly on their own, with their staff going from pillar to post to be able to meet deadlines. Authorities ashore find it more convenient to do the policing job, sending a plethora of do’s and don’ts on such wide ranging topics as ’care and maintenance of diesel alternators’ to ‘correct procedures and norms for expenditure through non-public funds’ to ‘parking instructions’. It is not my case that these subjects are not important. But if a great deal of time and energy is to be spent in correcting the perceived mistakes and proclivities of lower formations and personnel, it would leave very little time and inclination to assist in finding solutions to problems that ships and personnel are facing more than during our days.

“We never made such stupid mistakes” may not be the correct argument. It would be akin to a father shouting at his son for poor marks, only to discover that the Report card being shown was his own of his school days!

‘Every officer or sailor above a Seaman’s rank is a leader’; we never get tired of saying. But we conveniently forget that every leader requires some free space around him to be able to demonstrate and exercise his leadership. How many times have we let a Petty Officer to lead on his own or a Commanding Officer or Director to exercise his powers without keeping the headquarters posted (a euphemism for seeking prior approval). Should it be the argument that in the bygone era men could be trusted more because they had proved to be worthy of trust, the older generation would still have to share the blame for not having developed adequate trust in their subordinates.

We are good at issuing instructions on every conceivable subject – a sort of broadcast method of communications (no reply needed or expected). However, confidence, trust and values cannot be promoted by issuing tons of instructions. Let us examine the oft-repeated injunction to the youngsters not to do anything that may sully the good name of the Navy. Here too, a modicum of objective reflection would bring home the point that there are more oldies that have dragged the Navy into media and courts for promotions and appointments than the youngsters. Senior officers who had navy running in their veins only the other day, stridently air the ills of the Navy as soon as they miss their promotion or are posted at a non-choice stations or appointments.

The young officer of today does not look at the Navy with the same awe and optimism as his predecessor used to do. The never ending austerity measures, the ever diminishing free space, the intense and 24/7 security measures, and the perceived loss of dignity and prestige (especially in comparison to his civilian counterparts) are constantly tugging at his consciousness whilst we want to remind him of our times. It is all very well to assume the ostrich pose or to be always suspicious of his intentions, morals, ethics and professionalism or to keep reminding him of our lofty traditions and enviable heritage. But, it would be better to do something to change the reality – his reality, that is – and not the reality during our days where we continue to live even during these days.

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