The military in a corrupt society

“More than any other comparable Filipino elite, the officer corps had been created and defined by the nation.  No other group had its social role, ideology, and personal values so directly, so fundamentally shaped by the state.”  So writes the historian Alfred W. McCoy in his fascinating book, “Closer Than Brothers” (Anvil Publishing), a comparative study of two batches in the Philippine Military Academy – the classes of 1940 and 1971.

Only 30 years separate these two PMA classes from one another, notes McCoy, and yet the difference in mindset is so sharp that one would have thought they were bred by two distinct institutions. “Class ’40 is a study of successful military socialization….Graduating on the eve of war, Class ’40 won honors for fighting enemy invaders, were ennobled by privation in Japanese prisoner war camps, and emerged with their bonds and values stiffened….As soldiers in a society permeated by patronage politics, Class ’40 faced incessant pressures to compromise.  Their careers required, on a daily basis, mediation of the paradoxical, even contradictory role of the military in a democratic society – subordinated to politicians yet apolitical; armed yet nonviolent, all-powerful yet powerless.”

At the other end is Class ’71, “a study in the breakdown of military socialization,” says McCoy.  “Instead of fighting enemy invasion, the young lieutenants of Class ’71 were brutalized by combat against Muslims in Mindanao and interrogation of suspected subversives in Manila….They emerged from a decade in the safe houses of the Marcos regime with a superman sense of themselves as creator/destroyers who could seize the state and transform society.”

It was to Class ‘40 that men of honor like Gen. Victor Osias and Commodore Ramon Alcaraz, who both refused to compromise with Marcos, belonged.  Addressing the members of the PMA class of 1990, who had joined the 1987 coup as cadets, Alcaraz sharply reminded his young audience of what it meant to be a soldier: “Go forth out there and be a strong moral force in transforming the military into a profession of honor which it used to be.”

To Class ‘71, on the other hand, belong the officers who plotted the 1986 coup that led to Edsa I, and controversial figures like colonel and former senator Gregorio Honasan who mounted coups against the Aquino government, and police general and now senator Panfilo Lacson whose record McCoy associates with torture and summary execution of criminal suspects.  McCoy’s unkindest depiction of them is as political egomaniacs who played god. Nowhere in the book is there a mention of Major Gen. Carlos Garcia, another member of this class. The information that the US government has shared about the amount of money that Gen. Garcia and his family have brought into the US over the past ten years demonstrates the magnitude of corruption in the military. An updated version of the book would no doubt include a whole chapter on Gen. Garcia — one more proof of the decline of honor among the officers who were initiated into the cynical ways of power under Marcos.

It would be unfair to single out one PMA batch and ascribe to it all the failings of military leadership.  But indeed no PMA class has figured in more controversies as the Class of ’71.  This class clearly counted in its ranks many strong individuals with great leadership potential. McCoy’s point is that these soldiers used these qualities to ruin the nation in whose image they were cast, because somewhere along the way they lost their basic military values and began to imagine themselves as worthy players in a society ruled by corrupt politicians.

McCoy explains this as a failure of military socialization.  This view places the onus of responsibility for the failings of the officer corps on the Philippine Military Academy and its curriculum.  We may need to dig deeper than that to understand the problem.

It is a fact that the modern values that are instilled in the minds of PMA cadets bear little resemblance to the distorted values of our society.  But this is nothing unusual.  The education of a student in any of our better universities features the same discrepancy.  There is nothing wrong with the socialization of our young people.  But the ideals they learn at school are easily negated by the practical realities of the world into which they are subsequently thrown.  Members of

the Class of 1940 remained men of honor because they did not have to contend with political leaders as vicious as those we have today. Like the rest of their generation, they were animated by the spirit of nation-building.  Today’s politicians are seldom gripped by such ideals.  You cannot have professional soldiers in a nation governed by corrupt and incompetent leaders. They will either try to seize power or become part of the rotten system.

Ex-Captain Rene Jarque says as much in a poignant letter he recently wrote to his fellow Filipino West Pointers: “We have known the rottenness of the system all along and how the culture in the AFP was not and is not conducive to professional growth and honest conduct. It was never reflective of the Academy’s motto, Duty, Honor, Country. Some of us gave it a chance, found it unwieldy and incorrigible, and left. Some stuck with the system and played it out only to be sucked into the vortex of corruption and unprofessional conduct. I was trying my best to be as professional and as patriotic but I could never be honest given the extent of the graft and corruption in the AFP. And that was, I believed, unacceptable to my sense of honor and integrity. Hence, I left.”


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