Demoralization hits army units | Inquirer Opinion

Demoralization hits army units

We join the Armed Forces of the Philippines in mourning the deaths of army troopers who perished on the battlefields of Basilan last week. They paid the supreme sacrifice in the service of the nation.

When tragedy strikes, as it did in Basilan, there are no airmen, no sailors or Marines, no Special Forces or Scout Rangers. We are all soldiers of the Philippine Republic. When any of us suffer, we all suffer; when anyone dies, all of us lose a part of ourselves.


When Mother Nature strikes, the entire nation responds with an outpouring of assistance and support for the affected communities.

When our soldiers die, we only ask that you remember them in moments of prayer.


They fight our wars. Not their wars but our wars. At times, they make mistakes; but always, their lives are on the line for people and for country.

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What is happening in Basilan?

Last October at Al-Barka, we lost 19 Army troopers to criminal elements aided by MILF forces. Some of the men had their heads cut off, their bodies mutilated.

Last week, at Sumisip, also in Basilan, Abu Sayyaf “bandits” killed 17 Army Scout Rangers, wounding 17 others. (There is some confusion as to the casualty numbers. Earlier, seven Scout Rangers were reported killed. This was followed by another report that 10 died in continuing battles with the bandits. No clarification was issued by Army or Western Mindanao Command headquarters.)

The Al-Barka incident and the court martial of senior Army officers for lapses in the deployment of forces have affected the mindset of unit commanders in Basilan. They have become gun-shy, preferring not to mount any kind of operation that may be interpreted as running counter to the wishes of the national leadership, including actions that may affect the ongoing peace talks.

In this environment, commanders would rather play safe and await orders from higher headquarters rather than undertake initiatives and risk reprimand or court martial. This has dulled their fighting instincts even as drive and dynamism are reduced to the bare minimum.


The gung-ho spirit that is the mark of elite fighting units is down and when clashes occur, it is often a struggle for survival and not for victory. The Special Forces and Scout Rangers represent the cream of AFP combat elements. Instead of being proactive, they have taken up a defensive posture, thus ceding initiative and momentum to the enemy. That is why so-called bandits have been able to inflict disproportionate casualties on our troops.

In one of my earlier columns, I suggested that the lack of action from Camp Aguinaldo on the Al-Barka massacre is cause for doubt and demoralization among our troops. When they see that nothing is being done to bring to justice those that have committed atrocities on their fellow soldiers, they begin to raise questions about the leadership.

This issue should be addressed immediately and forcefully. We can start with a swift resolution of court martial proceedings against our officers and concentrate our energies and resources on the capture of Asnawi and company. As Gen. Renato de Villa pointed out recently, Al-Barka has become a symbol of MILF strength and determination to defend what it considers its territory. The other side of the same coin is that Al-Barka now stands out as a symbol of our weakness and lack of resolve. It is important that we reassert government authority with clear and continuing control over a place that has been drenched with the blood of our soldiers.

A few days ago, a friend asked me if defense or senior AFP officials would be able to visit Al-Barka. My reply was that perhaps our peace panel would first have to seek permission from the MILF and even with permission granted, it would be prudent to bring along a decisive force for any eventuality.

The present situation cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely.

If you ask senior officers at AFP or Army headquarters, most will probably deny that there is a problem of demoralization in Basilan. They would highlight the fact that this administration has made available for the troops more funding in terms of equipment and support than at any time during the 15-year life of the AFP Modernization Law. And that is correct.

But just as important as arms and equipment is the quality of leadership particularly at the highest levels. We need leaders who will inspire and rally the troops just as Ramon Magsaysay did in leading a listless, apathetic AFP organization to victory over an enemy that at one time was already knocking at the gates of Manila. His energy, vitality, sense of justice and executive qualities made the soldiers feel that he was with them all the way. He could be harsh on incompetents but he also knew how to praise and reward those who performed well.

There is nothing wrong with our soldiers. The answer lies with the leadership.

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A related issue dealing with troop morale has to do with the role of the soldier in our society. We want him not just to fight our battles, we also expect him to go after illegal loggers and smugglers, protect ballot boxes, participate in disaster relief operations, and other similar civic action undertakings.

Because of his numerous responsibilities, he becomes a pawn often manipulated by politicians who see him as one who could support their ambitions. The soldier is dragged into politics and at times, he begins to see himself as the dispenser of favors rather than as the defender of people.

In his farewell address to the corps of cadets of the US Military Academy at Westpoint, Gen. Douglas MacArthur outlined what he believed was the role of the soldier. The following are excerpts: “You now face a new world, a world of change… through all these welter of change and development, your mission remains fixed, determined, inviolable. It is to win our wars. Everything else in your professional career is but corollary to this vital dedication. All other public purposes, all other public projects, all other public needs, great or small, will find others for their accomplishments; but you are the ones who are trained to fight.

“Yours is the profession of arms, the will to win, the sure knowledge that in war there is no substitute for victory, that if you lose, the nation will be destroyed…”

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Erratum: In my last column that dwelt on the “Decision Points” agreed upon by government negotiators and the MILF, one of the acronyms mentioned, CCCH, stands for Coordinating Committees on the Cessation of Hostilities.

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TAGS: AFP, Basilan, insurgency, MILF, Military, Mindanao
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