SAF 44: Duty and death
Historical necessity molded the career of arms. In a trooper’s professional commitment, there are no half-measures and no subjunctives, only totalities and imperatives. At the moment of his vow he transcends all other men because he commits his very life to the fulfillment of his vow.
In this the trooper is unique, for by an act of volition he cuts away his personal family and friends, home and religion, in order to become the warrior-son of all his people. Only the courageous can take the vow for membership in the Philippine National Police Special Action Force.
This vow took its toll before dawn last Jan. 25. SAF commandos entered Mamasapano, a rebel enclave in Maguindanao, and killed Malaysian terrorist Marwan who had a $6-million reward on his head. But the 12-hour gun battle with guerrillas of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which signed a peace agreement with Manila on March 17, 2014, and of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters cost the lives of 44 SAF commandos, 17 Moro rebels and three civilians.
After the firefight, SAF troopers half-alive were slaughtered and their corpses stripped of weaponry, equipment, and personal belongings, which were then sold for a price.
The wise all-seeing sun that watched the carnage did not pause even for a moment. It had seen this countless times before, as in Danang, Paticul, Jolo, on Oct. 10, 1977, and it knew it would see all this again.
If we recall this now, it is because we had comrades and buddies there. Their eyes look at us still; we still see their faces and hear their voices. And we remember the healing warmth of their camaraderie. In time, of course, memory, like all good wounds, will close and heal and the pain will be no more.
The enemy upon whom casualties were also inflicted escaped to the grassland, to include local terrorist Basit Usman, for whose capture the United States is offering $3 million. The SAF troopers remained where they stood and gave final proof of their manhood, their duty and their lives.
In a soldier’s life, duty and death are interlinked. Death by itself is not a tragedy for a trooper. It is the final seal of his vow, and the wellspring of his heroism.
The orphaned children, kin and friends of the “Warriors 44” will never know them as living fathers and feel a deep personal pain that only time may someday ease. But again, they are a soldier’s family, and they know that every farewell may be the last. They have selected as their destiny that their lives were pledged for others. It is only in squarely facing death—whose embrace no mortal can escape—that they know if they have pledged as men. Duty must temper pain.
We mourn the death of the SAF 44 but are reminded as well that a nation’s strength also derives from the blood of their young heroes. They represented a nation’s dreams and a nation’s faith that its young people are truly its hope and its strength, and who may be counted upon to undertake with honor the final mission.
Far too many have perished in this bitter and senseless struggle, and many more will suffer and die before peace is won. But there can be no slackening of determination, for in that way lies true death for all.
The tragedy here was that death came, not from invaders, but from brother Filipinos. The tragedy here is that the fight should never have been, in the sense that brothers should never have to fight in mortal combat. The tragedy here is that a few Moro rebels, mesmerized by religious faith, should seek by force to overcome every value we cherish and live by.
This sad state of affairs may cause us to feel “wild with all regret,” but the challenge is there, and the danger offered is all too real. We have no choice but to guard and defend our way of life even at the price of personal life itself.
SAF troops and all our soldiers were and are in the combat zone of this struggle. It must be won. Even as we work to build our nation’s infrastructure in physical, social and economic terms, our soldiers must defend the ramparts to ensure that our work of renewal may prosper.
Thus, even as those who have gone astray destroy what has been built, we build even faster than they destroy. Difficult as it may be to perceive in the smoke of battle, it is civilization we are building, and its sheer scope will drive the unregenerate to the very edge of their jungle. Their immediate brethren will disown them for then it will be clear that law, order and prosperity are far better than anarchy, chaos and misery.
We are one land and one people. Mindanao is our land. The people there are our people. The villages we must sometimes enter are ours. The rebels we must kill are our people. We are loath to barrage a village because our people are there. We would rather build them instead a town, roads from that town to another town, and marketplaces full of life, not death.
Admittedly, one must agonize in being at once peacemaker and warrior. In their natures, these are opposing states of being. The opposition creates anguish. Indecision must creep in, and it is painful. But it must be so.
The fruits of total war are a devastated land and a decimated people. We would thereby lose what is our own. In this sense, victory would be a defeat. It is a prosperous and just peace that we want and must have. The paramount issue is the integrity of our land and the solidarity of our people.
Our war must therefore be victorious but thoroughly selective. Active hostiles are our only target. There may be many dead at the end. This is natural in war. But the dead must have become so only because they actively tried to destroy our people. Thus they justly died.
Somehow, the fairness in this will be felt by the parents, brethren and friends they will leave behind. There will be sorrow, but not hate. For to win the war but to justify hate in the village of the defeated would be our greatest defeat. The alienation engendered by hate is the ultimate gulf among a people.
We are the guardians of the state, and responsible to our people’s deepest hopes. Loyalty to them, in every way, is our honor and our final justification for our value in this world.
The dead of Mamasapano knew all this. Yes, they were brutally killed. Until their killers are tried and punished, and their weaponry, equipment and personal belongings lawfully returned, a Bangsamoro Basic Law is pointless and absurd.
Civilization exists on trust, and trust must be mutual. Where trust has ceased, it must be restored. This is a basic condition for trust to be valued and to live. The MILF must begin the current of trust if it is even to start again.
But only the perpetrators of the carnage must be punished. Or else a wild panic will ensue and destroy the trust that both sides must regenerate.
For now grief is still too acute. Only the mind can measure the SAF’s actions and find them commendable and necessary in the building of the trust for our civilization to endure.
Until the guilt of the parties is proven, prudence must temper all our next encounters.
Only a strong and discerning Commander in Chief can weigh the utmost balance. A tribute to the dead comes best from learning the lessons they taught us. In time—and soon, we hope—our hearts will know this, too.
Reynaldo V. Silvestre is a retired Army colonel, multi-awarded writer, bemedaled officer, and member of the Philippine government-Moro National Liberation Front technical working group on the cessation of hostilities in 1994.
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