New Delhi: Successful psychological warfare depends on expert masking of intentions and minimum revelation of capabilities. Those minimum revelations ought to follow the iceberg principle which is known to writers. Ernest Hemingway said in the Death in the Afternoon that “The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.” It was the basis of his theory that omissions of choice in a narrative strengthened it to “make people feel something more than they understood”.

This theory applies equally to military operations and especially special operations in a manner Hemingway, the quintessential literary man of action, would approve. In revealing a special operation immediately after the fact, just enough is shared publicly to make it legendary, leaving scope for further and greater reoccurrences. This delicate protocol may have been breached in sharing details of the surgical strike in Burma with the media. The accompanying jingoism is also damaging. Serious powers do not resound like empty vessels.

One of the most audacious special operations of World War II was the rescue of the overthrown Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini. Mussolini and Italy were the exact sort of allies of Nazi Germany that the anti-Axis powers cherished. From the beginning, Mussolini was an encumbrance to Adolf Hitler, but Hitler displayed inexplicable loyalty to him and insisted on his rescue post the deposition. The man detailed to fly Mussolini to safety was Otto Skorzeny who managed it after several failed attempts. It couldn’t alter the course of the conflict but added to the high military legend about Nazi fighters, a reputation that aided Skorzeny when he was spirited away by the Americans after the war.

War provides a natural setting for these things. Daredevilry comes in all forms and shapes. Both Hitler and the philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, fought in the same war, on the same side, and with like courage and fortitude. Peace changes the complexion. The field of military exploits becomes solely the prerogative of career professionals who are firmly under civilian authority, elected or otherwise.

Scope for military operations in the circumstances of peace is severely limited and failure is not an option. Conceivably the only permissible operations in this dynamic are special operations and to their success is tied the nation’s standing and prestige more saliently than perhaps in war. The Indian Peace-Keeping Force’s failure in its objectives in Sri Lanka (it was given none of any respectability by its dispatchers) regressed India’s power projection intent and capability for decades.

On the other hand, the successful elimination of Osama Bin Laden by US naval commandoes sealed the fate of the Al-Qaeda and added to America’s prestige worldwide. It warned America’s enemies everywhere that retribution could come anytime, anyplace. The brilliance of the operation apart from its success lay in the fact that there is no unanimity about its principal features. Did the Pakistan military know beforehand about the raid? Was the ISI bought over or penetrated or tricked? Did anti-Al-Qaeda terrorist groups aid in Bin Laden’s execution? These are only a few of the many questions floating around without convincing answers.

This is the essence of psychological warfare. Intensions must be always masked and capabilities subject to the iceberg principle. This writer does not watch television news and follows the headlines as much as is necessary to keep minimally abreast of the world. Yet, from that relative isolation, the coverage given to the special operations in Burma seemed over the top, and driven by government agenda to score points. Governments always have agendas. The question to ask is if they are always well-served by steroidal publicity. They are not.

This is not India’s first special operation and it will not be the last. In other territories which need not be named, the operations will be closer to suicidal, and success will not be assisted by boasts of oversized chests. It is silly to be informed moreover that the National Security Advisor was in the rough region of the special operations to plan it to success. Some secret movements of others have been outed. What’s the point of such juvenility? Why can’t we grow up as a nation? What is the compulsion to talk? Do US, British, Russian, Chinese or German national security officials leak as we do, unable to zip our lips?

Earlier in his prime ministry, Narendra Modi had put a freeze on government information-sharing. That must be revived specific to the national security sphere. Over one century ago, Theodore Roosevelt said, “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.” Deng Xiaoping refined it with the words, “Don’t stick your head out” (bu chu tou) and “keep a low profile and bide one’s time” (tao guang yang hui). It would be eminently sensible to heed these world-beaters.