Thursday, May 22, 2014

Acts of Desperation by Soldiers: Humiliation is Invariably the Trigger

By Major General Mrinal Suman

The news of the initiation of disciplinary action against 168 personnel (4 officers including the Commanding Officer, 17 Junior Commissioned Officers and 147 Other Ranks) of 226 Field Regiment was received with a sense of deep anguish by all the well wishers of the Indian army. Increasing incidents of collective indiscipline do not portend well for a military; in fact, they are ominous.

In a written reply on 26 November 2013, Defence Minister A K Antony informed the Parliament that 394 army troops had committed suicide and more than 25,063 personnel had opted for pre-mature retirement in the preceding three years. In addition, over 80 soldiers had reportedly lost their lives due to fratricide during the last decade.

Acts of collective insubordination, suicides, fratricides, court cases and applications for pre-mature release are commonly considered as reflective of the health of a military organisation. What are the disquieting reasons that are compelling Indian soldiers to resort to such desperate acts? Why have they become so edgy? Where have the things gone wrong?

Significantly, a recent study on the high suicide rate in the army by the Defence Institute of Psychological Research held that ‘perceived humiliation and harassment’ at the hands of superiors often served as the final ‘trigger’ for jawans to resort to extreme acts.

Humiliation: a Complex Psychological Trauma

Humiliation is a vicious psychological experience that impacts a man’s self-esteem, hurts his ego and abases his sense of pride. It invariably results in the emotion of shame. Many socio-psychologists consider humiliation to be an extreme form of psychological abuse. It hits at the core of an individual’s sense of worth. It generates the feeling of being put down or made to feel less than one feels oneself to be.
As humiliation is an intricate and multi-dimensional human perception, different humans react differently when subjected to humiliation. Some view their experience rather gravely. They feel emotionally battered, ill-treated, shamed, dishonored and degraded. For them, it becomes an issue of wounded pride and dehumanisation.

Others may take humiliation as a humbling experience. Yet, a small minority may accept humiliation as a corrective chastisement and consider it to be justified to an extent. Thus, impact and severity of humiliation is dependent on the discernment and sensitiveness of the humiliated. Some withdraw into their shells and suffer from apathy and depression. Others seek revenge by inflicting injuries on others and themselves.   

Perilous effects of humiliation can manifest themselves through various symptoms – cognitive (indecisiveness, anxiety, worrying and fearfulness), emotional (moodiness, irritability, edginess, hypersensitivity, short temper and depression), physical (headache, muscle tension, nausea and insomnia) and behavioural (procrastination, excessive use of alcohol, nervousness and overreaction). Both interpersonal and group dynamics are impacted.  

Unlike shame, humiliation is always public, involving the humiliator, the humiliated and the viewers. Humiliation meted out in comparative privacy is generally less upsetting: severity depends on the extent of community exposure. The worst part of humiliation is that it is almost impossible to retract it. It leaves an indelible scar on the psyche of the victim. It bruises his ego and questions his basic worth.

Soldiers and Humiliation

As seen above, humiliation by itself is pathogenic enough to cause irreversible damage to the human psyche. Its toxicity increases multifold when humiliation is inflicted on a person who is already struggling to weather stresses.  It is an accepted fact that humiliation and stress make a lethal combination, resulting in a ‘pressure cooker effect’. In the case of soldiers, it blows the safety valve that unit cohesion and military training provide, thereby threatening emotional and psychological equilibrium of soldiers. 

Stress is a euphemism for describing the consequences of the failure of a human being to respond appropriately to emotional or physical threats to the organism, whether actual or imagined. Failure to cope up with the challenges results in extreme pressures which generate stress. When stress surpasses ability to handle, it becomes a threat to an individual’s well-being and generates a state of alarm and adrenaline production.

Challenges in military life are different than those faced by civilians, both in terms of threat of physical harm and emotional security. In the case of the Indian army, these stresses acquire heightened severity due to prolonged deployment in challenging environment. With an increase in the education level of soldiers’ wives, many are highly qualified and gainfully employed. They prefer to stay at one place for the sake of their career and children’s education. Resultantly, soldiers are deprived of family support in times of emotional disturbances. Resultantly, stress tends to become distress.

In a command oriented and hierarchical organisation like the army, status-consciousness is an essential trait of every soldier’s persona. He takes pride in his rank and appointment.  When his sense of pride and dignity are abused through humiliation, the already over-stressed and distressed soldier loses his balance and resortshttp://cdncache-a.akamaihd.net/items/it/img/arrow-10x10.png to acts of desperation. The resultant ‘fight-or-flight’ response results in acts of extreme violence – a humiliated soldier runs amok, kills innocent comrades and pumps a bullet in his own head to put an end to the perceived agony.

Humiliation can be verbal or physical or circumstantial. In the army, it can be inflicted in a number of ways – demotion (reduction in rank or responsibility), denial of promotion, public punishment/censure and neglect through the silent treatment.

Need for Reforms

Times have changed. Earlier, rural youth with little education and limited demands joined the Indian army. They were hardy and accepted the privations of the environment without questioning them. The army of today is more ubiquitous. It draws manpower from all segments of the society. The current generation of soldiers is much better educated. Having being exposed to the electronic media, their awareness level is of a much higher order. They are quick to spot iniquitous and deviant conduct of their seniors.

Consequently, there has been a phenomenal rise in the expectations and aspirations of soldiers. They have become very conscious of their position and sensitive to any threat, real or perceived, to their self-respect. Like the rest of the society, their value system is also undergoing major changes. They question various policies and practices.   

Worse, regular contact with the families through modern telecom keeps soldiers embroiled in day to day problems faced by the families – children falling sick or not studying or ill-health of parents or troubles caused by unruly neighbours. Earlier joint family system took care of many such exigencies. 

Inability to be with parents and family in times of domestic emergencies makes many soldiers suffer from guilt complex. They feel that they have failed their parents/families. They feel helpless and become fretful. Their threshold of tolerance goes down. In such a state, humiliation acts a trigger. They lose their mental balance and act in an irrational manner. In extreme cases, humiliation generates a feeling of revenge and violent retaliation.

The army can no longer ignore the realities of the changing environment. It must appreciate the fact that a modern soldier is highly conscious of his self-esteem and resents humiliation. Whereas job related stresses cannot be fully eliminated, measures must be initiated to ensure that a soldier’s sensibilities are not unduly offended. For that, both the organisation and the leaders have to undertake reformative steps.

The army as an organisation must review its work culture. Status of soldiers must be improved. They should be made to feel wanted and respected. No soldier should ever be asked to perform jobs which he considers to be ‘unsoldierlike’ and demeaning. To start with, the much discussed institution of sahayaks (orderlies) should be discarded. No sahayaks should be allowed in the stations where families are allowed to stay. Most soldiers abhor sahayak duties and consider them to be degrading. They have to be coerced or threatened. It is a major issue with most troops and a key cause for much disaffection.

Similarly, soldiers resent being detailed to cut grass or sweep roads or maintain golf courses and other facilities. It is a most unbecoming sight for the public to see soldiers employed on such duties. All tasks related to maintenance of cantonment facilities should be outsourced to civilian agencies. This single step will not only spare troops for training but also improve their level of job satisfaction considerably.

As regards the leaders, they have to be sensitive to the psychosomatic make-up of their troops as humiliation is a victim-based phenomenon. Troops from some areas are more sensitive to the treatment meted out to them than the others.  For example, whereas an inadvertent use of the word ‘bloody’ by an officer can be misconstrued by some soldiers to be highly abusive and demeaning, others may view it with nonchalance.

In addition, changed environment demands a change in leadership technique. Leaders have to learn to handle the soldiers with empathy and due concern for their sensitivities. At times, even harmless looking episodes may get misconstrued and feelings of humiliation may arise simply because of misapprehension or the state of mind of the victim. Close and regular interaction helps sort out such perceived misunderstandings and grievances. The leaders should also be trained to read symptoms of stress building up in a soldier and initiate corrective action in time.

Soldiers are very sensitive to the way their wives are treated. There is a need to sensitise the wives of the senior leaders regarding this aspect. Many cases of indiscipline owe their origin to cases of mistreatment (real or perceived) in Army Wives Welfare Association (AWWA) meetings. Soldiers’ wives find AWWA meets to be a humiliating experience and have to be coaxed and cajoled to attend. AWWA is considered by many to be the breeding ground for dissentions in the army and a major contributory factor in generating disaffection in many units.

The system of redressal of grievances must be made more responsive and compassionate. Troops must be convinced that their genuine concerns would be attended to in a just, fair and time-bound manner.


As the above discussion shows, for soldiers, a clearly defined identity based on self-esteem is of paramount importance and a key motivator. Soldiers draw strength from the standing that they enjoy amongst their peers and the immediate group (sub-unit/unit). They continuously strive for recognition as it gives them a sense of accomplishment. Humiliation strikes at the core of their soldierly pride, makes them feel small and debases their sense of own worth. Humiliation of a soldier amounts to denting his military honour, the very source of his sustenance.

Public reprimand and employment on unsoldierlike duties must be avoided. Punishments carried out to ‘make an example’ of a person and present a deterrent to others can prove to be grievous for the psyche of the humiliated soldier. No offence in day to day unit functioning can be serious enough to warrant such a treatment.

In the case of soldiers who are already stressed and are on short fuse, humiliation acts as a trigger to emotional implosion with disastrous consequences. Evelin Lindner, the eminent trans-disciplinary scholar in humanities calls humiliation as the ‘nuclear bomb of the emotions’. Military leaders will do well to keep this term in mind and deal with the soldiers with due compassion and consideration for their sense of pride.

It must be clarified here that compassion does not mean dilution of discipline. On the contrary, a compassionate leader acquires moral authority and psychological ascendency over his command. Troops respect him and trust him. Willing obedience and discipline are the natural corollary.

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