Duterte, Lorenzana and the men in barracks (1)

In “The Soldier and the State” (1957), among the greatest political treatises of the 20th century, the eminent Harvard professor Samuel Huntington emphasized the centrality of a professional military to a healthy, functioning democracy. To him, a modern armed forces acts as “a force for caution, sanity, and realism,” thus the “stronger the military voice, the less the likelihood of conflict.”

Unlike demagogues, especially the chest-thumping zealots who tend to take their nations down the path of mindless war, the modern military is instead anchored by a “conservative outlook,” which is “divorced from universalistic pretensions, and [is] simply content to preserve and secure what it has.”


The conservative, sober and bureaucratically oriented military, Huntington argues, checks the worst impulses of a feckless politician, who could have managed to garner power without any direct experience of conflict.

After all, soldiers best know the raw, gruesome and soul-wrenching consequences of war. It goes without saying that one need not watch Stanley Kubrick’s classic “Dr. Strangelove” to be wary of overzealous, if not fully deranged, generals, too.


But on average, Huntington argues, the military imbues an institutional culture that reinforces responsible sobriety and clear-eyed realism.

In contrast, modern democratic politics tend to reward, especially in our age of brazen populism, the most outlandish and flamboyant types of leaders, who rarely shun apocalyptic rhetoric or fantastical promises of heaven on earth to win votes.

As Bob Woodward writes in “Fear,” his magisterial account of the Trump administration, it was ex-generals like former US defense secretary James “Mad Dog” Mattis who, paradoxically, acted as the most principled break on Trump’s trigger-happy foreign policy. They resisted Trump so fiercely that the irritated president had to eventually fire them all, including his former national security adviser H. R. McMaster and chief of staff John Kelly.

What’s even more important than the institutional culture of the military is the mechanism by which civilian leaders interact with the men and women in barracks. For Huntington, an essential element of a democratic system is the establishment of “objective control” over the armed forces by a civilian government, where elaborate constitutional principles and carefully crafted laws ensure smooth, accountable and predictable civil-military relations.

In a democracy, the military is embedded into the very fabric of the polity, acting as the defender of the realm—rather than representing a coterie of self-seeking thugs with autonomous political ambitions.

A full-fledged dictatorship, meanwhile, is only possible when a political leader establishes “subjective control” over the armed forces, namely turning the military into his private army. This is exactly what Ferdinand Marcos achieved after a yearslong campaign of courting and packing the top military brass. As former president Fidel Ramos told me earlier this year, “Marcos took our loyalty for granted,” effectively treating them as his private army.

Once Marcos secured a personalized grip on the military, he was ready to impose martial law and perpetuate himself and his family under a neo-patrimonial regime.


Naturally, the most consequential question now is: What about President Duterte, who has progressively raised the income and expanded the benefits of military personnel, and visited military camps month after month? Isn’t Mr. Duterte following in the footsteps of the former strongman?

Mr. Duterte’s Cabinet is also arguably the most “militarized” among democratically elected governments on earth. It features close to a dozen former generals now in charge of not only national defense and interior security, but also social welfare and environment.

In other Asian democracies such as India, even the post of defense ministry tends to be vouchsafed for civilians rather than former generals. This is based on the Nehruvian-era fear of military intrusion into democratic politics, as in the case of neighboring Pakistan, which turned into a de facto garrison state under a largely mono-ethnic (Punjabi) military elite.

A careful observation of the former generals in Mr. Duterte’s core Cabinet, however, evinces a highly encouraging dynamic. Starting with Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, both former and current top military brass has acted, just as Huntington described, as “a force for caution, sanity, and realism.”

Our democracy is still alive and kicking, largely thanks to our professional armed forces.

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TAGS: Delfin Lorenzana, democracy, Horizons, military institutional culture, Richard Heydarian, Rodrigo Duterte
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