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'War takes moral, communal and psychological toll on soldiers, families, community and country'

War takes moral, communal and psychological toll on soldiers, families, community and country

A pacifist, humanitarian and a prolific writer, Mr. Chatterjee is a regular contributor for the Reuters and the Huffington Post. A Princeton University alumnus, he was decorated for gallantry by the President of India during his service in the Indian Special Forces where he rose to the rank of Major.

Wycliffe Muga (WM): There is one place where you have worked, which was neither the UN nor the Indian Army. I note that you went to work for the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. You had a fancy title of Chief Diplomat. How did that come about?

Siddharth Chatterjee (SC): While I was at Princeton, an executive search firm contacted me to check if I would be interested in this position at the Red Cross. I said yes without hesitation and went through a rigorous selection process. I had my final interview in Geneva led by the hiring manager, an absolutely spectacular leader called Ms Goli Ameri, who used to be a former Assistant Secretary of State during President Bush's administration. She was the Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Diplomacy and Strategic partnerships.

The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is the world's largest humanitarian network. The Movement is neutral and impartial, and provides protection and assistance to people affected by disasters and conflicts. The Movement is made up of nearly 100 million members, volunteers and supporters in 190 National Societies.

The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, was led by a humanitarian hero and a champion for the most vulnerable, Mr. Bekele Geleta. It was a privilege to serve with both of them as well as develop a new network of friends and colleagues. The national societies of the Red Cross Red Crescent movement are perhaps the only organization that are primed to go the last mile and can be relied on to deliver humanitarian assistance where no one else can go. These are true volunteers who epitomize the spirit of service, humanity, compassion and trust. It was an honor to be part of this great organization for nearly three years.

The United Nations family in Kenya is very lucky to have a partner like the Kenyan Red Cross, to respond to Kenya's humanitarian needs. They are a versatile and highly respected organization globally.

WM: So can you then trace for me the path by which you moved from the IFRC to your appointment as the UN Resident Coordinator in Kenya?

SC: I first came to Kenya in 2014 as the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) Representative to Kenya.

In 2016, I was invited by the UNDP to apply for this role and I am deeply grateful to Ms. Helen Clark, the former UNDP Administrator, for giving me the opportunity to apply and compete. I am also grateful to my predecessor Ms. Nardos Bekele-Thomas who encouraged me to take on this position.

Siddharth Chatterjee presents his credentials to CS Foreign Affairs Ambassador Amina Mohamed on taking over as the UN Resident Coordinator in Kenya.Siddharth Chatterjee presents his credentials to CS Foreign Affairs Ambassador Amina Mohamed on taking over as the UN Resident Coordinator in Kenya.

As I was working with UNFPA they first had to approve my applying for the role, which they did. I applied for the UN Resident Coordinator (RC) role in Kenya in 2016. Again, I went through a selection process called the Inter-Agency Appointments Panel and was shortlisted. Regardless of the decision being taken, the final decision rests with the Government of the country where an RC is being proposed to.
I was honoured and deeply humbled by the support and confidence of the Government of Kenya to be the UN's Resident Coordinator in Kenya.
WM: One more hypothetical: Let's imagine you were given an opportunity to speak to a group of highly influential political leaders at the UN, what would you say to them?
SC: In his New Year's message on Sunday 31 December 2017, UN Secretary General Mr. Antonio Guterres issued "a red alert for our world." He called for unity and has said that, "We can settle conflicts, overcome hatred and defend shared values. But we can only do that together."
I would remind these political leaders of the words of the very controversial William Tecumseh Sherman, a Union General during the U.S. Civil War, who once said, "It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell."
The damage of war goes far beyond what we once believed; society has now reached an understanding about the kind of moral, communal and psychological toll war can have on the soldiers, their families, community and even country.
Perhaps the question we need to ask is if there is a need to bolster our quest for non-violence as a means to resolve disputes and differences.
However, today we have terms like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), chronic depression, cognitive impairment and traumatic brain injury to help explain the symptoms suffered by active and returning soldiers.
Apart from PTSD, combatants also suffer from issues such as mood disorders, depression, anxiety, night terrors, and may be at increased risk for substance abuse, and be more likely to commit violent offences in civilian life.
For example, suicide-related deaths in the U.S. military surged to a record 349 in 2012 — more than the 295 Americans who died fighting in Afghanistan in 2012. Statistics show that there is one suicide death every 18 hours.
When we see terrifying images from across the world of professional soldiers from developed or developing countries carrying out some of the most egregious violations of human rights, we have to pause for a moment to think of the triggers that cause such reactions. Far away from families and friends, the pressure of combat brings the worst out in many. I have seen this first hand. It unleashes a savage, despite great educational, emotional, and spiritual enlightenment.
And I suppose societies too need to hold up a mirror to themselves. After all these soldiers do not come from Mars. They come from the very communities where they are raised, educated, groomed and nurtured.
The toll that war takes on a soldier is clear, but what sort of toll does it take on a community?
These problems don't just affect the returning soldiers' parents, wives, children, siblings, friends and neighbours. What are the social consequences of millions of psychologically scarred soldiers returning to communities all over the world feeling hopeless and angry?
And then there is the massive financial cost. A 2013 Harvard study notes that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars could end up costing the U.S. between 4 and 6 trillion dollars, including the medical care of veterans, leading to an enormous negative impact on the global economy.
No doubt wars and conflicts are hell — but for reasons far beyond what we traditionally thought. Conflict not only tears apart the people that partake in it, emotionally as well as physically, but also their families, communities, societies and even their countries. It is extremely expensive, not only in money, but also in human capital and lost potential. These costs are simply too great to bear.
My key message to them would be that, if the world cannot find a way out of war, then we may well be defeated as a civilisation.
So I would implore them to get behind the UN Secretary General's call for peace and prevention of conflicts.
WM: And in your view, what is the UN leadership doing about it?
SC: Today, over 65 million people are displaced or have become refugees, the largest displacement of humanity since the second world-war, due to conflicts, natural disasters or sheer poverty.
There are many thorny issues facing the world, and the UN Secretary General Mr Antonio Guterres and his Deputy Ms Amina Mohamed have called on the United Nations staff and member states of the UN to stand up and unite to tackle the challenges of extreme violence, large movement of refugees, underdevelopment and poverty, and civil strife.
They are together driving some of the boldest reforms of the UN system at the country level, which is where the UN makes a real difference. They are leading efforts to ensure that the UN is more effective, efficient, coherent, coordinated and a better performing United Nations country presence with a strengthened role of the UN Resident Coordinator and a common management, programming and monitoring framework.
They must get the support of the member states of the UN as well as the UN system as a whole. All the UN funds, programmes and agencies need to get behind the SG on this.
WM: No doubt you have had many opportunities to address young university students. Looking back on your own journey, and at how you reached where you are now, what would you tell such a group now, by way of offering them encouragement and urging them to have great aspirations?
SC: I would say drive, determination, perseverance and belief. A belief that you can do it. Everyone needs a little bit of luck in addition to their personal drive and willingness to take risks. In my case, there were plenty of times when I had to take that leap of faith, not knowing how I would land.
Self-confidence, regardless of how much people doubt your ability, is crucial. That is what kept me going, because all the odds were stacked against me and there were many points when I could have failed.
You get attacked for your successes and your failures, and, as you rise, there are inevitably people that will be jealous and many who will dislike you. I always keep the wise words of Winston Churchill in mind, "You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life."
So having a thick skin is crucial, find strength in adversity and never giving up.
WM: What would you say to any of them who might then ask you what you now believe – after all these experiences – to be the key to your style of leadership?
SC: I owe my foundations in leadership to the National Defence Academy in India and my unit, the 10th Special Forces battalion where I served. These are two institutions that were central to my all around development, my ability to withstand stress and adapt to rapidly changing situations. Above all it imbibed a sense of loyalty, courage and a "never give up attitude". You learn about the true meaning of Espirit de corps, the sense of camaraderie, how to earn the respect of those you command and how to reward that respect by returning it. You are set some of the most difficult physical, mental and emotional tests and many strong people can't cope. It's not your physical stamina that sustains you over three days in the desert on a navigation exercise with very little food and water, it's your willpower.
The culture is, a leader leads from the front and knowing the right balance when to lead from behind.
Courage and integrity are crucial, whatever the situation. Stand up and stand by your staff, be loyal to them.
My principle is that when something goes wrong, I will take the hit for it and will stand by my staff. When things go well and we are successful, I will ensure the credit is passed on to individuals and the team.
To me real leaders are visionary in their aspirations but practical and flexible in their approach, ambitious for their staff and the organization, while being demanding, they must be sensitive and compassionate towards their teams. And when a leader is having a bad day, try not to show it.
I have always requested a 360-degree performance review. Getting honest and reliable feedback is necessary to test one's own perceptions, recognize previously unseen strengths, and become aware of blind spots in one's self-perceptions.
WM: I saw your article in Forbes where you threw out a challenge to President Obama and President Putin on the matter of the war in Syria. I think the title was Obama And Putin Must Stop The Appalling Slaughter Of Syria's Children. What prompted that?
SC: I wrote that piece in 2013 following heartbreaking research from the Oxford Research Group report, 'Stolen Futures – the Hidden Toll of Child Casualties in Syria". It was damning in that it shows that children were specifically and deliberately targeted. 11,420 children were killed in Syria between March 2011 and August 2013. Among them, 389 were killed by snipers, 764 executed, and 100 tortured. It highlighted the depravity on all sides of Syria's war.
Nelson Mandela once said, "There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children."
Perhaps there's something else that needs to happen in terms of the way we see ourselves as a species and the collective nature of humanity. How can we prevent conflict, resolve it when it happens, and protect the most vulnerable from its impact?
Children continue to suffer in war, as horrifying images from gas attacks in Syria show, and President Donald Trump correctly called an "affront to humanity."
The United Nations Secretary General, Mr. Antonio Guterres, has described Syria as one of the worst conflicts of our time. But every day millions of children around the world are caught up in crises and disasters, many of man's own making.
Consider this. In 2016 alone, one billion children around the world experienced physical, sexual or psychological violence. Globally, one in four children suffer physical abuse, one in five girls are sexually abused at least once in their lifetime, and more than 240 million children live in countries affected by conflict.
A growing number of boys and girls, some as young as eight years, are being abducted and sent to the frontlines as child soldiers, or fall prey to sexual violence in times of war. These experiences sear their psyches with macabre memories and condemn them to a terrifying and hopeless future.
On the issue of children, values must be the guiding principle, not Realpolitik. As President John F. Kennedy once said, "Children are the world's most valuable resource and its best hope for the future". That future should not be jeopardised.
Frankly, it is difficult to find another species that treats its offspring with such cruelty.
(Read the final part about Mr. Chatterjee's advocacy of women's.)



Sree Sen

Sree Sen

Sree Sen is a prolific writer and mentor. She has spent years at Times of India and DNA. She is writing her book and helping transgender communities find voice through video story telling.


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