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December 3, 2002

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T V R Shenoy

Boy, be a soldier

The War of the American Revolution was probably the single most unpopular conflict in modern English history. It was sheer folly, one member of Parliament told the House of Commons, to fight a war in which "every biscuit, every bullet" would have to be transported across 3,000 miles of ocean waste. Another of his colleagues wondered aloud at the sense of proportion that allowed ministers to propose spending 25,000 in order to collect 295 worth of revenue.

Faced with such distaste, the British government prudently refrained from drafting men into the army. But it still needed thousands of soldiers, and so it hit upon the idea of hiring Germans, the infamous Hessians. It proved to be a spectacular own-goal, infuriating the Americans. So much so that when Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, it was one of the charges he hurled against Britain: "transporting large armies of foreign mercenaries to complete the works of death, desolation, and tyranny..."

Given this history it is ironic that the United States would fall back upon mercenaries when it arrived in its own imperialistic era. In Vietnam, for instance, the US hired several thousand South Korean soldiers. And today it is following suit elsewhere in Asia.

A CIA agent, known only as 'Gary', has boasted of distributing US $3 million among various Afghan warlords before the shooting began. The agency as a whole says it spent $70 million to dislodge the Taliban. Now, faced by the failure to capture Osama bin Laden coupled with the need to maintain a credible force against Saddam Hussein, the US is returning to the use of mercenary forces.

On his recent visit to South Asia, US Treasury Secretary Paul O' Neill did not confine himself to economic issues in Islamabad. It is reliably stated the US has given the green signal to disburse funds to bribe local warlords in Pakistan and Afghanistan to join the hunt for bin Laden. That is not all; on the principle you can never have too much of a good thing, Turkey has been promised lavish aid if -- or when -- the war with Iraq breaks out.

I do not wish to comment on the American tactic of using mercenaries to fight its own battles. But it is instructive to note why it is that the most powerful nation on earth clearly lacks the manpower to fight its own battles without hiring mercenaries. Why is it, as the Pentagon itself has warned, that taking on Iraq will mean a considerable diminution of American strength in, say, the Korean peninsula? The answer may be relevant to India as to the US.

Once, the draft system ensured that America's soldiers came from every section of society. In World War II, for instance, president Roosevelt's sons served in the navy. (As did the future presidents Kennedy and the senior George Bush, both of whose fathers were millionaires.)

It was much the same in Britain. Three of prime minister Asquith's sons served in World War I, one of whom would lose a limb and another his life; in World War II, Randolph Churchill, the son of the then prime minister, saw active service with commando units, parachuting into Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia.

But loopholes in the system ensured that a later generation -- notably the current President Bush and his predecessor, Clinton -- escaped service in Vietnam. But, rather than repair the system, the US chose to abandon it altogether after Vietnam.

This has led to a huge chasm between the nation and the men and women in uniform who serve it. Colin Powell wrote in his autobiography he almost choked at the casual manner in which the Clinton administration spoke of sending Americans into battle for vague geopolitical reasons. It is almost as if military personnel were seen as little more than cannon-fodder.

Simultaneously, survey after survey demonstrates how the upper and middle classes are reluctant to send their children into the armed services. (One mother threatened to say her son was a homosexual rather than allow him to sign up!) Having a completely volunteer force is fine in principle, but it means the numbers always fall short in an extremity.

I am forced to ask whether India is all that different. The army alone now has a shortfall of around 10,000 officers. The educated classes are obviously as reluctant as their American counterparts to send their sons into the armed services. Civilian control of the forces is an excellent principle, but shouldn't at least some of that civilian leadership -- politicians and bureaucrats alike -- have some experience of actual soldiering? Even if it is at secondhand through their sons and daughters?

I don't say we should adopt the Israeli system where almost every adult is required to served a stint in the defence forces. But we subsidise higher education; why shouldn't those students repay India with serving for a while? Or why shouldn't bureaucrats be required to spend some months, if only to understand what a soldier's life is like?

The US can get by for a while by hiring mercenaries -- Pakistanis, Kurds, or whoever. India may not be so lucky; if we need a sudden expansion of the armed forces, where shall we turn?

T V R Shenoy

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