Cannon fodder | Inquirer Opinion

Cannon fodder

/ 11:23 PM October 26, 2011

In keeping with the way of war, more soldiers have been sent to Zamboanga City preparatory to their deployment to Basilan, where as many as 19 soldiers in one blow were killed by forces of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the municipality of Albarka on Oct. 18. Some will be deployed to Zamboanga Sibugay, where seven more soldiers and policemen met their death at the hands of Moro rebels only two days after the Albarka ambush.

The fresh troops—numbering 91, from the Inquirer report, and with 19- and 20-year-olds among them—are all members of the Army’s elite Special Forces, but Basilan Bishop Martin Jumoad was correct to lament their planned deployment to the province. He pitied them, he said, pitied them for not knowing that they would be entering a world wholly different from what they knew. Indeed, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when they arrived in Zamboanga, the young soldiers appeared excited to see action but were avowedly clueless about what was going on beyond the general “fighting,” clueless even about the nature of the enemy they would soon face.

It would, of course, be foolish to sentimentalize the way of war. Callow they may be, but these young men were trained in combat and are hardly hothouse flowers plucked to perish in the poisonous air. It’s safe to say that no one put a gun to their head to enlist in the Armed Forces and defend the motherland and duly constituted authority against threats from within and without (unless they were under the gun of poverty and the military offered their only hope for education and employment—in which case, however, they are called upon, as employees, to perform the job).


What Jumoad was pained to see was that the fresh troops were being sent to fight without benefit of an education on the physical and political terrain. He raised the importance of first orienting the soldiers on the people, culture and even the language of Basilan—actually an imperative step preparatory to the deployment of troops anywhere in the archipelago where conflicts over land and other natural resources, and over beliefs and ideologies, have resulted in untold devastation and loss of lives.


Jamju Rivera, the governor for Western Mindanao of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry, employed varied metaphors but went direct to the point: The young soldiers and self-described “first-timers” will serve as “cannon fodder,” to be “fed to the sharks on a silver platter.”

As it turned out, 20 of the 41 soldiers sent to Albarka last week to hunt down a rebel leader were likewise pambala ng kanyon—first-timers to the area who, pulled from scuba-diving training by their superiors, supplied the “warm bodies” for the operation. That they were members of the Special Forces went for naught in the unfamiliar terrain where they were fired upon immediately on arrival—moving targets effectively unnerved by the element of surprise, who had to parry expert shots from all directions, and whose calls for reinforcements bore fruit only after three hours.

In rejecting, as he should, strident demands for all-out war against the MILF, President Aquino has taken pains to say that “all-out justice” was and would be paramount for those killed in Albarka. It is fervently wished that the bereaved families would not have to wait too long for this small comfort. But a faint glimmer of hope was provided by Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa who, in addressing the cadets at the Philippine Military Academy’s 113th Foundation Day on Oct. 22, said that the Aquino administration had made the proper arming of soldiers a priority (hopefully not only materially), and that it intended to prepare them and the cadets for a form of combat that required “a world view that allows them to comprehend the nuances of the law, statecraft, diplomacy, and most of all, intelligence.”

The words are promising and clear but implementation is, as always, key. Education and intelligence could have conceivably prevented the slaughter of the young soldiers in Albarka, including the likes of 2nd Lt. Jose Delfin Khe and other valiant junior officers who stayed behind so their comrades could make good their retreat.

Let not those responsible for this tragedy, including their commanding officers, be allowed to get away. And let not the glaring lessons continue to be left unlearned.

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TAGS: Basilan, Moro rebels, Zamboanga City, Zamboanga Sibugay

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