The thinking soldier

On January 19, 2001, the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, Gen. Angelo T. Reyes went up the Edsa Shrine with the service commanders of the AFP to announce their withdrawal of support for their commander-in-chief, President Joseph “Erap” Estrada.  That act tilted the balance against the incumbent president and precipitated his ouster from Malacanang.

Gen. Reyes says he regarded Erap as a personal friend, and that it pained him to turn his back on his friend at a most crucial point in his political life.  He did not want the public to see him as someone who thinks nothing of betraying a friend.  And so he felt compelled to write a personal account of what happened.  The Inquirer published this in four installments in March 2001, under the title “The 11th Hour Decision.”

This reflective narration discusses in detail how Reyes, who had retired by then and become the new Secretary of Defense, arrived at his decision. At the time of Edsa II, I took his account at face value and glossed over the many questions that a critical reading would have raised.  Reading this document five years later against the background of recent events, I now realize how, indeed, past events acquire new meanings in the light of the present.

Gen. Reyes explains how he makes critical decisions.  He takes off from Descartes’ famous “Cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am). “In my case, it might be said in a slightly facetious vein: I think – that’s been my problem.”  The way the general says it, it’s almost as if thinking were an affliction for a soldier.  “Life would have been much simpler for me perhaps if I thought less and, like the stereotype of the soldier, just contented myself with following orders or reacting to events as they unfold.  That way, I would not run the risk of wading into political waters, which conventional wisdom deems taboo for men in uniform.”

“We made the decision because it was the only constitutional option left to avert a colossal disaster for the nation.”  The constitutionality of a military withdrawal of allegiance from a duly-elected President is far from self-evident.  What could possibly justify it?  Let’s examine some of the events in the general’s narration.

Gen. Reyes says he “did not plot against the Estrada government.”  I think we may grant him that.  But was he aware that other elements in the military were actively plotting to unseat Erap?  What did he do about it? “My decision was not directed against the government.  It was to protect the government against forces ready to take advantage of the situation for their own ends.”  Who were these forces?  The usual suspects — the NPA?  Or AFP officers working hand in hand with politicians?  Gen. Reyes does not give explicit answers, but he does provide enough details to allow us to fill in the blanks.

First there was the surprise visit from “Alan Ortiz, a close adviser of then Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo on economic and security matters.”  The purpose of the visit was “to invite me to touch base with the Vice President to reach a common level of understanding should the political situation turn from bad to worse.” Reyes says he turned down the invitation as improper.  “I explained to Mr. Ortiz that if I can do that behind the President’s back, then the same thing could happen to Vice President Arroyo should she become chief executive herself one day.”  Gen. Reyes says that his guest went away convinced that he was right.

Second, Col. Victor Corpus and Col. Gerry Cunanan had told him about restiveness in the military.  “Specifically, they informed me about the earlier reported covert attempts of Marine Lt. Gen. Edgardo Espinosa, prodded by elements within the United Opposition, at organizing troops to move against the Estrada government, as well as reports that the RAM and some retired generals were mobilizing their contacts within the AFP and the PNP.”  In response, Gen. Reyes says he reiterated the need to keep the chain of command intact. One wonders, however, if he ordered the investigation of Gen. Espinosa, an officer known to be very close to Ms Arroyo.

Third, following the prosecutors’ walkout at the impeachment trial, Gen. Reyes recounts that he received intelligence reports “that New People’s Army (NPA) operatives were coming in from the North and that extreme rightist elements were plotting to set up a military junta.” In response to these reports, he says he ordered the drafting of a contingency plan.  But he also contacted “retired General Renato de Villa, one of the closest aides of Vice President Macapagal, to get a picture of the situation from the United Opposition’s point of view.”

Gen. Reyes was aware that he could “have decided not to do anything and still be probably right.”  If the military had not intervened, I think chances are Erap would still have resigned and stepped down from the presidency in the face of public pressure.  Of course, like Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo five years later, he could also have declared a state of emergency and ordered the military to disperse the crowd at Edsa.  Gen. Reyes did not want to wait for that moment. He pre-empted it by switching sides.  In the process he compromised the political neutrality of the military.  As an Edsa II participant, I was jolted by the appearance of the military at the Edsa Shrine. I think it set a dangerous precedent.


It is good to have thinking soldiers.  But somehow I’m reminded of what Nietzsche once said: “Watch out! He reflects – in a moment he will be ready with a lie.”  I’m not saying that the general lies in his account, but he simplifies too much.


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