Sen. Grace Poe’s conversation with CNN Philippines’ Pia Hontiveros on March 19 provided a more nuanced assessment of Mamasapano than the print media coverage of the Senate Report. It also offered insights into her view of the presidency and her reluctance to contest the post in 2016.
Every president stands on the shoulders of those who came before—not necessarily beneficial to an incumbent whose immediate predecessors had dug themselves deeply into a hole. Senator Poe is keenly aware of the complex, contentious problems confronting the country. She wonders why anyone would want to be president.
Vice President Jejomar Binay’s long campaign for the presidency is a different case. Election would ensure at least a six-year immunity from possible prosecution arising from the investigation of multiple crimes of corruption he allegedly committed during his term as Makati mayor and beyond. Delaying the judicial process until the hoped-for installation as president appears to be his current legal strategy.
Poe believes that only the desire to serve the country should drive the quest for the presidency because the post is both boon and bane. The president basks in the bounty, but also bears the burden of everything that happens during the term of office. Poe expressed sympathy for P-Noy, whose good intentions she recognized. She clarified that P-Noy’s accountability discussed in the Report was neither criminal nor, perhaps, even legal, but political. The buck could not go beyond P-Noy’s level.
Poe takes the chain-of-command concept, now threatening to tie up the public in legal knots, as it must operate in any large organization with some level of hierarchy. Any CEO takes ultimate responsibility for overall organizational results but cannot assume direct control and responsibility for operational field decisions delegated to subordinates.
Perhaps, command responsibility weighs more heavily in the Philippines where the president is head of state and government as well as commander in chief, and figures as “Ama” or “Ina ng Bayan.” P-Noy’s first report on Mamasapano used this parental metaphor, acknowledging his failure as “Father of the Nation.” Beyond the issue of presidential performance, his accounting included its deep personal cost; he confessed that he would carry Mamasapano’s consequences to the end of his days.
This heartfelt and humbling admission of guilt proved inadequate. Later evidence of the criminal execution of Special Action Force personnel provoked a fresh wave of public anger and awakened historically-embedded hostility toward the Moros. Predictably, the motley collection of Marcos partisans, Arroyo allies, disgruntled clerics, “leftist” ideologues, and “trapos” gearing up for the 2016 elections fueled the outrage, striving to channel it toward a demand for P-Noy’s resignation.
This call for resignation would benefit from a confession that P-Noy: 1) planned Oplan Exodus with US operatives; 2) assumed control of the strategic and operational chain of command for the “real-time” monitoring and direction of its execution; and 3) made the decisions to decline various options for military assistance to beleaguered SAF troopers.
Such a confession would be necessary to give plausibility to the desired conclusion that the blood of the SAF 44 stain P-Noy’s hands. Official reports have already rendered dubious, if not refuted, these charges. But, as Sen. Antonio Trillanes noted, even an “apology” by the President at this late point, apart from the issue of whether it will do any good, may simply refresh these allegations.
Command decisions have led and can lead to casualties. How many died from the secessionist movement that resulted from Ferdinand Marcos’ Jabidah Massacre? Or when Joseph Estrada decided on all-out war?
Sometimes, the casualties from the decisions were anticipated, sometimes unexpected. Getulio Napeñas thought Exodus would cost only 10 casualties; he did not expect to lose 44. Would a higher estimate have caused Napeñas to modify his plan? How many SAF lives would have been saved, how many SAF and other people lost if artillery had been fired? Who can really answer this question at this point?
During World War II, British government agents developed Enigma, a code-breaking machine that enabled them to intercept Nazi military plans. Nevertheless, they intervened sparingly, allowing the deaths resulting from their implementation. The command decision was to hold Enigma in reserve for strategic, decisive gains in the war. Winston Churchill knew about Enigma. What was his accountability for the deaths permitted to happen because the machine was not used?
Command decisions, sadly, have led and can lead to casualties. But the casualty count is only one consideration. The larger context and the bigger issue would be the motivation driving the decisions that will predictably result in casualties. We can sympathize with Senator Poe’s reluctance to risk bearing the presidential burden.
She stressed that the Senate hearings over which she presided were not the venue for addressing the issue of the Bangsamoro Basic Law, which media coverage had focused on. Untangling the connections between the BBL and Mamasapano will now again call for prudence and wisdom on a life-and-death issue.
Edilberto C. de Jesus ([email protected]) is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.