The sceptre of the sea lords

Since when has a baton become colonial?

Who can forget Alec Guinness as Colonel John Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai, going around with a twisted twig in his hand as if it were a cane of command? We see him swinging it with a swagger, using it as a pointer, holding it in his right hand and tapping its other end on his open left palm with a “well, gent’men!”

That was the thespian at his best. That jungle stick turned into a baton of authority in his hand, rendering an officer-like dignity to the miserable character that he was playing—a tortured but proud British colonel in a Japanese PoW camp. I believe, and I know many in the armed forces would agree, that Nicholson and his fellow-PoWs wouldn’t have got that bridge completed but for that twisted twig that he carried as an officer’s cane.

That’s what a stick, a cane, or a baton, does to an officer. As old drill sergeants in the military academy are said to have told young cadets who were being primed to receive their commission, “the cane in your hand is not for knocking off flowers on the walkways, nor for poking at comely maidens; it is to be carried in your hand so that you bear yourselves like gentlemen.”

Illustration: Job P.K. Illustration: Job P.K.

Mao Zedong said, power flows from the barrel of a gun. Maybe so in old ragtag revolutionary armies like China’s. In civilised militaries like India’s, power flows from the end of a commanding officer’s baton.

Sadly, in the name of decolonisation, we are decaning our officers these days. Through an office circular two weeks ago, the Navy ordered that batons be dispensed with, since “the symbolism of power or authority portrayed through the holding of the baton is a colonial legacy.” It may be kept in the office and ceremonially handed over to one’s successor, but not be shown outside or swaggered with!

Pray, my sea lords! Since when has a baton become colonial, and come to be carried as a cross of shame? Well, in that case everything in the services, right from your peaked cap to the spit-shine shoe, is colonial—the medals, the accoutrements, the brass buttons, the battle honours, the shoulder badges, the rank insignia, the cummerbands, the epaulettes, the gorget patches, the leather belts, the lanyards, the double-breasts and ties, and even the rank terms like ‘commodore’ and ‘captain’ are colonial. Scrap them all? Very well, sirs, start with ‘admiral’; the term came into English and other European tongues from the Arabic ‘amir’.

Commanding officers have always carried batons, canes, swagger sticks or riding crops in their hands while visiting the lines, inspecting barracks, giving briefings, pointing to maps, or for calling out backbenchers, “hey, you, lieutenant!” Remember how George Scott swaggered into the troops’ barracks in Patton, and tore down a girlie picture from a trooper’s bedside wall with a swish of his riding crop? The effect wouldn’t have been half as stylish if he were to use his hands, gloved or bare.

Military lore has it that legendary commanders of yore had even used their long tobacco pipes for the same swagger effect. Cut the reels; let’s get real. Korean war accounts say Doug MacArthur poked on the map of Korea with his corn-cob pipe to show his staff officers as to where he would make his surprise landing. That landing at Inchon, made along with an afternoon tide in September 1950, would turn out to be the world’s greatest amphibious landing after Normandy. Try making a masterstroke like that after briefing your officers with your bare hands.

Remember, gentlemen! The Kwai story turned into a tragedy after the proud colonel lost his cane!