In the backdrop of post-9/11 War on Terror, former US President George Bush had made a daring ‘arrested landing’ in a S-3 Viking antisubmarine warfare plane onto an aircraft carrier, USS Abraham Lincoln, screeching his hooked plane in a growling and heart-thumping halt.
The President popped out of ‘NAVY ONE’ with an insignia of a menacingly smiling wolf (‘Blue Wolves’ squadron) on its tail, swaggered on the warship deck with a de rigueur cranial helmet on his hips, Texan grin, Ray Bans and the overall suggestion of the classic wind blowing through sweaty hair with the burnt jet fuel hanging in the air – the Top Gun-look was further reiterated with buddy thumbs-up, high-fives, pat on backs and posing at rakish angles!
How Even US Combatant-Presidents Like Bush Didn’t Appropriate The Uniform
The President could have conveniently helicoptered his journey, but that wouldn’t have been as dramatic, raucous or whoopy an image, especially given the controversial ‘mission accomplished’ moment that was controversially captured for posterity.
But importantly, George Bush was not wearing a Naval Aviation ‘Uniform’ but a regular flight-suit, even though George Bush was a veteran of the Air Force Reserve, having drilled with F-102 fighter planes during service with the Air National Guard.
His deliberate restraint in avoiding wearing the ‘uniform’, especially when the US Constitution (Article II, section 2) specifies the most solemn role, ‘The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several states, when called into the actual Service of the United States’, was in conformity with the traditional reverence of avoiding appropriating the ‘uniform’, by earlier Combatant-Presidents.
Even the legendary war-hero and five-star General ‘Ike’ Eisenhower (Supreme Allied Commander in World War II) – who won two-tenures as the President – avowedly maintained ‘civilian’ sartorial sense without transgressing back into the ‘uniform’, which he had once worn with much aplomb.
‘Ike’ had resigned his legal status as ‘General of the Army’ before entering the White House and reactivated the commissioned rank of a five-star General after demitting the office of POTUS, as the rank never retires.
Wholly ‘civilian’ Presidents like Barack Obama were made to realise the gravity, sensitivity and dignity of the ‘uniform’ when he wore a leather flight jacket with ‘Commander-in-Chief’ emblazoned on it, believing it would gel better with troops in Afghanistan – except that its proximation and suggestion to a ‘uniform’ was seen as an attempt of a wannabe military poseur.
Likening it to Hollywood’s Independence Day moment, he inadvertently blurred the vital distinction of maintaining the looks of a democratically elected and ‘civilian’ Commander-in-Chief who commands the troops, in the name of the democratic sovereign and its citizenry.
‘Earning Your Stripes’ – What It Really Means
Contrary to popular perceptions, even Hitler shied away from wearing the official German Military ‘uniform’, instead he donned creative renditions of his Nazi party uniform with the standard NSDAP armband. The visor cap, boots, belts and buckles were part of the Nazi party uniform, and his secretary from 1942 to the end of the war, Traudl Junge, noted, “He was wearing his usual black trousers, double-breasted field-grey coat, white shirt and black tie. I never saw him in anything else. His jacket was always perfectly plain, with silver buttons, but no braid or decorations. He just wore the golden Party badge on the left side of his chest, the Iron Cross and the black decoration for the wounded.”
However, over the years, the restraint on ‘uniform’ was usually compromised by the more comical, insecure and desperate authoritarian leaders in illiberal regimes, who strutted around in make-believe military attires (with grandiloquent ranks, decorations and colourful medallions), in noticeable dispatch of their duties, more as a means of asserting their unsure muscularity.
Across professional militaries, the ‘uniform’ is freighted with incalculable emotions, sacrifices and sacredness that it bears the popular maxim, ‘earning your stripes’ – each millimetre of the ribbon on the chest is an unsaid story of combat accomplishment, commitment and often, superhuman triumph over unbelievable odds. Other accoutrements like the pins, lanyards, crests, insignias, regimental plumes or other standardised metallurgy/cloth on ‘uniform’ is steeped in traditions that often pre-date modern history and yet resonate amongst the ‘uniformed’ fraternity.
Dhoni’s ‘Uniform’ Controversy – And How He Gracefully Dealt With It
Befittingly, the expression of ‘hanging the uniform’ after retirement, signifies the insistence of demonstrating respect onto the ‘uniform’ (therefore, not ‘putting away’), even after the proverbial, dismounting from the steed and the sheathing of the sabre into the scabbard.
Little surprise that when an illustrious cricketer, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, also a Lt Col in the Territorial Army (Parachute Regiment), wore the venerated ‘Balidan’ (Sacrifice) insignia on his wicketkeeping glove, there was much consternation and disconcertment.
The well-intentioned pride was unfortunately inappropriate as that honour of bearing the ‘Balidan’ is deservedly and exclusively worn by the Para Commandos of the Special Forces within the Parachute Regiment.
Dhoni showed the graciousness, understanding and dignity by recognising the sensitivity involved, and desisted from using the same, thereinafter. Every colour, dash of angle and placement involved in the composition of the ‘uniform’ is part-functionality, part-identity and fully-consecrated.
Restraint In Appropriating The ‘Uniform’ Has A Noble Purpose: Apolitical Anchorage Of Military
It is a common sight to see a ‘enemy’ flag displayed upside-down in an Officer’s Mess, as it symbolises the total victory over and the decimation of the ‘enemy’ – such is metaphorical optical import of the frame, that nothing more needs to be said. Therefore, each regiment, formation and military service has its collective ‘flag’ that is routinely defended by ‘paying the ultimate price’, by its rank and file – like the ‘uniform’, it has protocols of dignity in flying and utilising the same. Within militaries, the ‘flag’ on a car is saluted, and not the invisible individual inside as the primacy and permanency of the institution is believed to outlive the individual in the ‘uniform’ or serving as that temporary ‘flag’ bearer.
Above all, the restraint in appropriating the ‘uniform’ by anyone (even those who have retired) has a noble, constitutional and moral purpose of ensuring the apolitical anchorage of a professional military.
The public perception should never contextualise it to a partisan preference as the steel, heft and ramrod posture of the Armed Forces is only guaranteed by the stoic ‘distance’ maintained by it, for a good reason. But such a publicly revered realm is also susceptible to misplaced and reckless sense of patriotism and political ‘muscularity’, as the institution can be reduced to a prop, photo-op and convenient backdrop under the garb of ‘sticking up for our armed forces’, as claimed by the military-ignoramuses like the previous POTUS, Donald Trump. Each element of the ‘uniform’ is a legacy, continuum with the fallen comrades and it embodies the never-say-die spirit of a professional soldier, that goes beyond vacuous posturing, bluster and theatrical photo-ops.
Importance Of The Fine Line Between ‘Civilian’ & ‘Uniform’ In Public Imagination
Herein, the recent murmurs of disquiet surrounding the adornment of the ‘uniform’ elements by the visiting dignitaries and senior governmental officials assumes significance, warrants introspection and insists of serious questioning beyond the rote debate of partisan one-upmanship.
No individual, howsoever well-meaning, accomplished and senior in his/her individual capacity, should be allowed to take liberties with the institution, its ethos and therefore its ‘uniform’ – that is how great nations have persisted and retained the élan in their defence forces, otherwise they risk reducing it to portents of a political party.
India is a proud and thriving experiment in democracy with the firmly established principle of civilian supremacy over the military – this is both mandated and essential for the institution itself, and by extension, to the nation.
History teaches invaluable lessons in maintaining the fine line between the ‘civilian’ and the ‘uniform’ in public imagination and consciousness, as also of untellable consequences, whenever the twain has unfortunately started to merge, deliberately or inadvertently.
The extrapolative and reciprocal import of ‘Ike’ Eisenhower’s sagacious words that, “When you put on a uniform, there are certain inhibitions that you accept,” have perhaps, never been more relevant or pressing, than today.
(Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is a Former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)