Your war, our fatal assumptions

Glenda M. Gloria

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Should the Philippine government call for an all-out war against the MILF?

MANILA, Philippines — You gather poor intelligence, act on your own, deploy your trainees to a treacherous terrain infamous for eating troops alive, make a bad call, and in the end get fatal results. The mob cries for blood. They choose to blame policy and context, rather than confront the real issues that led to this mayhem.

If this happened in the past, under presidents who pandered to you either to arm their egos or protect their turfs, you know very well how this would have played out. They would have glossed over the damning details. They would have refused to ask you the hard questions. They would have simply nodded and shared your grief as you explained your incompetence away. And they would have issued you outright cash to run after these bastards.

You’re used to this. We’d gotten you used to this. With or without peace talks, you’d brought your troops, like sheep, to the slaughter. Or have the people forgotten? Name the place–Basilan, Sulu, Cotabato, Maguindanao–you’d committed a number of fatal errors in the last two decades that would have wiped out your chain of command, if only the system allowed a no-nonsense investigation into any of these.

But grief is a great deodorizer. And as it turns out, it is also a painful nurturer of the status quo.

Remember when Basilan used to be a battlefield, not between your troops and bandits but between your own? Remember when the impoverished island had to put up with the squabbles between your Rangers and your Marines and the terror imposed by the Abu Sayyaf? Remember that fatal, day-long gunfight with kidnappers nearly a decade ago, that cost the lives of young officers and men because your commanders from Manila micromanaged the situation?

Of course, an ousted macho president keeps his own bank of memories. He boasts that it was his all-out war policy that wiped out the MILF from Camp Abubakar. Well, yes. It used to be that you knew exactly where they were; now they’re scattered all over the place.

What happened to all these hard lessons, if indeed you took them as such? Nothing.

Nothing, because the society and the leaders that you serve choose the easy way out when things like this happen. They choose to blame the big, bad, duplicitous Muslim rebels. And they choose to blame a process that has been set up precisely because you could not singlehandedly win this war–or any war for that matter.

Let’s look at the basic published facts here. Your troops were on a test mission, “seize and withdraw,” as a spokesman explained it. They were on advanced training as members of an elite unit. Most of them had not been to Basilan before. Their mission? To “locate/arrest/neutralize” a rebel commander charged with kidnapping. They had options before going for the kill: get the police to lead the way (after all, you could not arrest without a warrant), inform the joint ceasefire committee that they were about to do this, and coordinate with (or at the very least inform) Army ground commanders and staff officers in Basilan and Zamboanga, the main headquarters, in case things didn’t turn out as planned. Did they do any of these? Apparently not, and your Inspector General is now trying dig deeper.

On Friday, your commander-in-chief sat down with you with a grim face. And to your shock and disappointment, he expressed disappointment instead of sympathy. And to my shock — having seen you master this power game with your civilian bosses for the longest time — he told you what you didn’t want to hear: you need to step up, you need to tweak how you do things, and you need to be put in your place, that you’re here to heed policy, not craft it.

I’m not exactly a fan, but I must say that took some guts. Could be genetic; his mother always kept a healthy distance from her troops. Could be because of his KKKs (Kaibigan…you know the rest), some of whom had seen you wield power without civilian oversight. Or it could simply be because he’s pissed. After all, it wasn’t too long ago when communist guerrillas attacked a huge mining site right at your doorstep. (What’s with your training program, anyway? In Surigao del Norte, the battalion assigned to secure the area was training somewhere else when the NPAs attacked a nickel mining company there. In Basilan, the troops were on training when they attacked a camp. Whew.)

Or it could also be because he was simply trying to save face. After all, it wasn’t too long ago when he shook hands with the rebels’ boss in Tokyo even before a peace agreement could be signed with them.

Whatever his reasons, he made the right call on this one.

Nothing could be more fatal for an organization than to be sidetracked from its urgent needs: an honest-to-goodness review of how it draws up its tactics and plans and deploys its people; a strict monitoring of how it spends people’s money and uses its resources; and a much-delayed admission of how poorly trained its men are, how paralyzed headquarters thinking is, and how politicized and unprofessional decision-making had become within the chain.

That’s the undefeated enemy.

And nothing could be more fatal for a nation than to call for war as if it could still be won in the battlefield.

(The author, together with Aries Rufo and Gemma Bagayaua-Mendoza, recently launched the book The Enemy Within: An Inside Story on Military Corruption. It’s now available in all Fully Booked branches, Popular Bookstore and La Solidaridad. For orders and inquiries, email us at

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Glenda M. Gloria

Glenda Gloria co-founded Rappler in July 2011 and is currently its executive editor.