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The Long View

Tug of warriors

Every debate within the government serves to underscore the reality that there are two contending attitudes toward power in the Armed Forces and its top brass who have retired and taken on civilian functions. In a sense, these points of view are as old as the military itself.

On one hand, there is the contempt some soldiers feel for civilians, which makes them wonder if they shouldn’t just take on the responsibilities of governing themselves. On the other hand, there is the traditional notion that civilian affairs aren’t the military’s business, and that the military should conserve its energies and direct its efforts to doing its job, which is defense.

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It is only in times of weak leadership when the balance between the two points of view, which keeps military adventurism in check, ends up upset, tempting adventurists to become bold, and, on the other hand, turning military traditionalists into opportunists who succumb to an altogether different temptation: to demand, as payback for their continuing support, wider latitude than they would otherwise enjoy in their sphere of operations.

Through sheer bravura and native cunning, the President has been able to put forward leadership of increasingly unlimited power. But this is a disguise for leadership that is actually rather frail. Of course, he is content to ride on the effects of observers increasingly confusing the weakness of his critics with his possessing great power. He knows this is not true. A case in point is the Armed Forces.

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At the start, he kept the Armed Forces at bay even when he threw away decades of hard work by handing over some of the most strategic agencies of the government to communists. Officers were said to be quietly gnashing their teeth over this, content with saying, off the record, that the heretofore diminishing ranks of the NPA were expanding again.

While I do believe there has been a remarkable — but not well-studied — change in attitudes at least among civilian officers over the last decade, making them far more supportive of democracy, more open to recognizing human rights, and committed to the principle of civilian supremacy, and that this change had an effect on the military’s institutional reluctance to embrace martial law, this is only part of the story. So long as communists were part of the government, it would have been asking too much for the military to consider replacing the current system with either a revolutionary government or one embarking on an ambitious, though vague, experiment in constitutional change.

When the President finally abandoned his political affair with the communists, he did not change military attitudes overnight. They had resisted his active courtship of their ranks before it, and they would adopt a wait-and-see attitude after his break with the Reds. After all, from their point of view, the damage had already been done. It has taken months after the initial expulsion of most of the well-known communists from Cabinet posts, for example, to purge the departments they formerly headed of the communists they’d gotten appointed to subordinate positions.

If Gloria Macapagal Arroyo had to mount a kind of political insurrection, in partnership with the President’s own daughter, to restore a minimum of adult behavior in the bloated ruling coalition, the Armed Forces has had to play a similarly adept and high-tension game. It supports the continuation of martial law in Mindanao, while pointedly dismissing the need to expand it nationwide. It does not dismiss the institution of a “Duterte Death Squad” aimed at the so-called Sparrow Unit of the NPA, while smothering its support in bureaucratic language: We could have it, but it should be led by intelligence operatives, responding to communist operations, with accountability as defined by military practice — in other words, we will simply call the operations we have always conducted by the AFP as DDS if it makes the Commander in Chief happy. But that is not, by any stretch of the imagination, what such death squads are, or how they conduct themselves, if you were to ask the President himself.

In the same manner, the Armed Forces had earlier responded to the President’s expressed desire to draft the military into the so-called war on drugs with a snappy salute and a polite request for orders in writing — which the President in his native cunning knew he could not do. The holocaust denier in chief David Irving glories in demanding written proof from his critics, of Hitler signing an order to conduct the extermination of the Jews; which wasn’t a protection for the former SS (the “Nuremberg defense” did not prosper in the first war crimes trials), but enough to give apologists like Irving the satisfaction of holding their Fuhrer blameless. Were he to sign an order, the President would be even more assured of eventual conviction in the International Criminal Court than he already is.

Just because the military has evolved away from its brutal Marcos-era incarnation does not mean old thinking or behavior isn’t a promotion away from returning. Nor does it mean the genuine service the Armed Forces has rendered — in stalling the momentum of a revolutionary government being proclaimed since Charter change has stalled — has been due to exemplary democratic zeal. But it does suggest that the President played so fast and free with national security that he still does not enjoy the instinctive trust and obedience of his officers.

mlquezon3@gmail.com

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TAGS: AFP, Manuel L. Quezon III, military attitudes, Rodrigo Duterte, The Long View
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