Adults in the room: Lorenzana and the AFP
In his classic work “The Professional Soldier” (1966), American sociologist Morris Janowitz envisioned the future of the military establishment as a “constabulary force,” which is “continuously prepared to act, committed to the minimum use of force, and seeks viable international relations.” Among democracies, Janowitz foresaw a “pragmatic” military—a formidable yet sober, professionalized institution.
A decade earlier, political scientist Samuel Huntington made similar reflections in “The Soldier and the State” (1957), where he argued, “Professionalism distinguishes the military officer of today from the warriors of previous ages.” Huntington foresaw the armed forces turning into “a force for caution, sanity, and realism,” whereby the “stronger the military voice, the less the likelihood of conflict.” Even more crucially, he emphasized the importance of an optimal state of civil-military relations, where the civilian leadership has “objective control” through democratic institutions rather than a personalized “subjective control” over the armed forces.
In democracies, the military is not the private army of a political leader, but instead the defender of the state institutions and the guardian of national interest. In this sense, the armed forces of a democratic nation are not necessarily “neutral” but rather “professional,” namely committed to the cause of a nation-state rather than the political agenda of a specific faction or civilian leader.
In many ways, this is how we should understand the patriotic stance of Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and the Armed Forces of the Philippines against the intrusion of Chinese militia forces across the West Philippine Sea. In many countries, this seems like a standard response, but lest we forget, President Duterte has repeatedly downplayed the Chinese threat across our national waters and, at one point, unabashedly called for a “meek” foreign policy in exchange for China’s “mercy.”
Of course, we shouldn’t romanticize civil-military relations in our country. History shows that the military is not immune to politicization, with activists and legislators accusing some members of our defense establishment of engaging in “red-tagging.”
In “The Man on Horseback” (1962), historian Samuel Finer warned of various “modes of military intervention,” which are “as often latent or indirect as they are overt or direct…” He observed that military interference in political affairs is a phenomenon that appears “in its true light” as “distinctive, persistent and widespread” across newly independent nations.
Case in point: the Ferdinand Marcos regime, which heavily relied on a systematically politicized and de-professionalized armed forces to maintain its grip on Philippine society.
Against this backdrop, our democratic struggle over the past four decades was not only the institution of competitive elections and free media, but also the re-establishment of “professional” armed forces as the guardians of the “sovereignty of the State and the integrity of the national territory.”
Thanks to Security Sector Reform initiatives, especially under the Fidel Ramos and Benigno Aquino III administrations, the AFP became a more professionalized institution. In particular, former AFP chief Emmanuel Trinidad Bautista oversaw the “Bayanihan” Internal Peace and Security Plan to ensure that our soldiers are the defenders of our republic rather than servants of politicians.
In recent years, however, authoritarian populists have tried to establish “subjective control” over their nations’ armed forces. Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro recently triggered the mass resignation of top generals after trying to place cronies in charge of the defense establishment.
In the case of our own populist in Malacañang, he made his intentions clear by visiting as many as 14 military camps in his first few months in office, and, over the succeeding years, dramatically increasing the salaries and benefits of the men in barracks.
And yet, the AFP, cognizant of the disastrous Marcos-era legacy of politicization of the military, has played a crucial role in preventing a full authoritarian co-optation of our besieged democracy. The Philippine defense establishment not only refused to take part in Mr. Duterte’s controversial “war on drugs,” but it has also successfully opposed any declaration of nationwide martial law or a “revolutionary government” in recent years.
As for the West Philippine Sea, the armed forces have acted as the adults in the room, often checking populist geopolitical naivete vis-à-vis China. As Lorenzana has made clear: “We are ready to defend our national sovereignty and protect the marine resources of the Philippines.”
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