Why our soldiers have become politicized

In a constitutional order led by civilians, the military is expected to stay out of politics.  Soldiers can vote and have opinions on public issues, but they cannot join political parties or act on their political convictions.  This is the price they pay for being entrusted with the state’s coercive apparatus.  The government has to make sure they don’t train their guns at politicians whose habits they detest, or, worse, use their weapons to grab political power for themselves.

Their role is to defend and protect the nation against foreign invaders. Ideally, they should not even be involved in internal peacekeeping, a civilian function reserved to the police.  Under this concept, the fight against the internal enemies of the state is a purely police responsibility.  Yet in the Philippines, we have taken for granted that this, in fact, is the chief function of the military.

The notion that local insurgencies are foreign-instigated justified this blurring of lines between police and military functions.  The theory then, as now, is that local insurgencies are foreign invasions launched from within by treasonous local elements bent on subverting and overthrowing the state.  That insurgencies can be autonomous and indeed draw their strength from the grievances of the oppressed and exploited in society is something the ruling elites do not accept.  To deny them legitimacy, rebels must always be seen as pawns.

It was Marcos who first brought the military into the sphere of our nation’s political life.  During Martial Law, regional commanders exercised greater political power than governors.  Marcos cultivated the personal loyalty of generals, making sure that no one in the military would dare plot against his regime.  He gathered information on his generals, and showered those who blindly obeyed his orders with enormous benefits.  Civilian authority, in the person of Marcos, no doubt remained supreme during those years, but it destroyed the military’s professional ethos.  In the years preceding Edsa I, young officers began questioning the system they were being asked to protect.  Their failed coup in 1986 became the spark for the people power uprising that eventually toppled the dictatorship.

From that point on, it has become nearly impossible for highly conscious military officers not to think for themselves, or to follow orders uncritically.  In January 2001, after the impeachment trial of Joseph Estrada ended inconclusively, our soldiers once again waded into political waters by announcing before the massed crowd at Edsa Shrine that they were withdrawing their loyalty from the incumbent president and would henceforth not take orders from him.  This was a clear act of mutiny, politically shrewd but constitutionally indefensible.

One of the questions President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo wants the Feliciano Commission to answer is whether our young officers are miseducated.  The quick answer to that is they are not.  If anything, they are well read and seem in fact to take their role as soldiers of the people too seriously.  They have seen what civilian leaders have done to the country after each political upheaval. They feel betrayed by the opportunism of those who took over. Persons in authority no longer awe them.  Where institutions are damaged, political authority commands little respect. What matters more in such situations is political legitimacy earned by resolute commitment to the goals of the constitution.

People wonder why corruption should be such a big deal to the young officers at Oakwood as to provoke a military coup.  The answer maybe is that unlike the rest of us who grumble but have learned to live with it, they believe corruption is a cancer that must be removed by radical surgery.  When you are young, you tend to think like that. Young rebels who think like that bring about most revolutions.

I had just flown into the United States from Cuba when the standoff at Oakwood began.  My mind was still filled with images of the bungling young Cuban revolutionaries who attacked the Moncada barracks of the dictator Fulgencio Batista’s army on July 26, 1953.  It was a failed rebellion.  Fidel Castro and his brother Raul were captured and sent to prison.  Many of their comrades were killed.  Less than two years later, Batista released them because of public clamor, and exiled them to Mexico.  In Mexico, Fidel met up with Che Guevara, an Argentinean he originally recruited to serve as a doctor to his ragtag army.  When they returned to Cuba in 1956, the country had changed.  The people were up in arms against the corruption of the dictatorship.  In three years time, the ragtag army became a movement of the people, inspiring visions of change throughout the island.  Batista fled on Dec. 31, 1958.

One never really knows what failure means in the context of a long process of social change.  Navy Lt. Antonio Trillanes IV sounded disheartened when his group decided to give up and return to barracks.  I think he was hoping their action would catalyze a movement of sorts.  No such movement happened, but I believe it is too early to tell if the siege at Oakwood had indeed meant nothing to our people.

I personally do not believe that the answer to our recurring problems as a society is surgery by means of a military coup.  The experiences of many countries show that graver problems are created when soldiers capture the state.  Yet I also know that our civilian leaders have generally failed our people. Our young people, above all, clamor for a new change-oriented leadership. Trillanes and his group have made this quest more urgent than before.


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