A military officer who is a graduate of the Philippine Military Academy (PMA), whose name and rank I shall not disclose, has sought my advice on how the PMA officers in the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) can possibly find escape from the onslaught of public outrage. A messy trail of scandals, topped by media disclosures on Maj. Gen. Carlos Garcia’s unbelievable story of greed and abuse has fueled a public anger so intense not even the ongoing case filed against him with the Ombudsman shows promise of patching the cracks.
This PMA officer who sought my advice is no stranger. We had exchanged views in the many times the image of the military institution had been under siege. He did not always like what I had to say but he could appreciate views that come from the intellectual integrity of one who speaks sincerely from the mind and heart.
His most recent approach focused on the following:
1. He was concerned over what he calls the demolition job waged in media against the AFP and the PMA and wanted to know who I thought were behind these.
2. He was in touch with fellow-PMAers and officers and they feel they have to do something to save the image of the AFP officer’s corps and the PMA.
3. He wanted his fellow PMAers to be more proactive with media but they do not know how.
In attempting to supply the direction that he needed, I advised him:
1. To focus less on image building and more on effecting real reform.
2. That the people’s disillusionment is so deep no amount of Public Relations massage will ever detoxify the rot that taints public perception.
3. Only a concerted and sincere drive to cast the demons out of the AFP establishment will provide credible basis to restore people’s respect. Martial Law had created a monster out of the military figure – it will take more than token public relations spins to undo public disgust for military abuse that had mutated in its many warped forms in the last three decades.
The prescription is as logical as the reason why one will not put his hand in fiery coals. But by choosing to rally behind a culture that mouths a mantra of “Right or wrong – right”, PMAers had defied moral logic by choosing to rally behind the twisted precept that reflects blind loyalty to their ‘Mistah’ Brotherhood and the military chain-of-command.
PMAer’s “Right or wrong – right” culture
Soldiers are trained or perhaps in some cases, are compelled by circumstances to develop extraordinary fellowship as a matter of life and death. In the foxholes, soldiers only have each other and God to help them.
The PMAer’s culture of “Right or wrong – right” was meant to strengthen and reinforce brotherhood and teamwork so essential in fighting battles and winning wars. In the right context, the PMA officer’s take on the concept of “Right or wrong – right” is supposed to serve as an unequivocal reaction against tactical obstacles and challenges that stand in the way of the strategic objective. If a PMAer makes a miscalculation and ends up straying in enemy territory ready to be butchered, the others must stay by him, even it means certain death. After all, it is this sense of uncompromising selflessness and sacrifice that makes our soldiers the true heroes of our time.
But just as Lucifer had once been an angel turned bad, the PMA brotherhood can metamorphose into a dangerous secret society where members will still die for their ‘Mistah’ even under conditions and circumstances no longer relevant to the original PMA commitment to foster nobility and gallantry for country. When this happens, the PMA becomes no different from the underworld Cosa Nostra where the members are bound by the code of Omerta to keep their silence – even if this involves the worst crimes against the people and the country the PMAers have vowed to serve.
Loyalty to the chain-of-command
Unlike civilian public servants as shown by recent activism in the SSS and GSIS, officers and soldiers of the AFP are unable to vent their grievances and frustration over venalities in the military organization. In the few times our soldiers did try to complain and expose irregularities, they were slapped with sedition charges and other such ‘high crimes’.
This is what happened to ‘Kawal’ last January when they exposed the politicization and corruption in the AFP. Thus the recent pronouncement of the new AFP chief – to expose in media any irregularities in the AFP – rings hollow because those in ‘Kawal’ who did exactly that are languishing in the military stockade.
Most soldiers do not fully understand the limitations of their duty to be loyal to the chain-of-command. They often mistake this to be a carte blanche for their higher ups to do anything, even get away with murder and plunder. Loyalty to the chain-of-command applies only to the normal functions of soldiering and not to graft and corruption or worse – acts of usurpation of civilian authority as in the case of attempted coups.
In the coup attempts of the 1980s, the soldiers who participated offered the lame excuse that they were merely obeying the orders of their commanders. They conveniently forgot that soldiers also have the obligation to disobey illegal orders. A daring and brilliant World War II Allied Forces commander said that officers rise faster with the orders that they disobey. In fact, the Trials at Nuremberg after World War II established accountability and meted penalties for obeying illegal orders.
The soldier’s torment at this time
I can only commiserate with my PMAer friend. If you are an officer and a gentleman who kept your hands clean from jueteng money, if you served your country in the noble tradition of the profession that you chose – it is only fitting that you earn the respect and gratitude of the nation for your heroism and nobility. You and others of your kind do not deserve to be vilified along with the strays because that would be the unkindest cut of all, to borrow Shakespeare’s words.
But public resentment is certainly not without justification. Poverty and hunger have driven families to do the unthinkable. Risking death to survive, some had to rummage food from restaurant garbage bins, never mind if two members of a family had died of food poisoning from eating someone’s left-over meal. Risking death, just so their families could survive, many Filipinos continue to seek jobs in war-torn Iraq, some of them surreptitiously and undocumented. Amid all this, we have the reality of Maj. Gen. Carlos Garcia’s reported P500 million hoard and still counting.
Nobody believes that Maj. Gen Garcia acted alone. Neither does anyone believe he is the only crook in the military. An AFP comptroller’s job is mainly to check if a signed contract reflects the proper computations and contains all the necessary supporting documents. If Maj. Gen. Garcia can accumulate all that wealth by simply being a comptroller, then it is natural for people to deduce that more of the same went to line the pockets of those who had a hand in the buying decision.
In Metro Manila, who is not aware of the plush lifestyles of AFP officers during the time of Marcos? In the provinces, who is not aware that jueteng money is what draws AFP officers to scramble for posting as provincial commanders? These issues focus only on graft and corruption. What about the issue of human rights abuses?
It does not help any having President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo as their Commander-in-Chief. Per the SWS survey, 55% doubts she won the elections. For her performance on the state of the economy, she gets a negative 6% in a later SWS survey. Her administration is hounded by graft and corruption – so doesn’t it look like ‘as above, so below?’
My friend Rene Jarque was a West Pointer (not a PMAer) and had a brilliant military career to look forward to. But Rene only went as far as the rank of captain because he could not stomach what he was seeing and opted to leave the service early. Asked if the military is the preferred authoritarian option to replace the rotten system, Rene is the first to say that the military is the least qualified to take over the country. Maj. Gen. Carlos Garcia convinced whoever did not agree with Rene Jarque on that point.
Our AFP and PNP will have to do a lot of soul-searching. But even harder than that, our AFP and PNP will need to impose a lot of reforming on themselves. With the tempest intensifying, they will have to ask themselves who do they really serve – their commanders or the people? Will they side with the predators of the national coffers or will they protect the people from these predators, even if the predators happen to form part of their chain-of-command?
These are trying times for a Filipino soldier. For that matter, these are trying times for all Filipinos.