The military that ousted a dictator buried him a hero

Glenda M. Gloria
The Filipino soldier’s strength lies in his ability to obey orders. His character lies in the many times he has also disobeyed them.

I got on the phone with a retired general on Friday, November 18, hours after the hero’s burial of the late dictator. He was at the gates of the Libingan ng mga Bayani, wanting to go in to pay his last respects to Ferdinand Marcos.

At first I thought I’d misheard it. How could this man be there? He stood valiantly at Camp Crame with his troops in February 1986, fearless and proud to break away from his commander in chief.

So I said in a rather shrill voice that betrayed my disbelief: “What are you doing there, sir?” He sounded shocked that I asked. 

“Why, I’m here to visit my former president.”

“But were you not at EDSA?” 

“Yes, I was.”

“So why are you there?”

“I was also a loyal soldier.”

Before things could get complicated, I wished him well and left it at that.

It was the perfect punctuation to a Friday morning that left us all in a daze. 

Marcos and his military

BURIAL. Former president Ferdinand Marcos is buried at the Heroes' Cemetery on November 18, 2016.

I spent the following hours wondering how many more among the soldiers who had revolted against the dictator also paid their respects last Friday, or are planning to do so in the coming days, weeks, months.

In his heyday, Marcos turned to the military to provide firepower to his ambitions.

In his burial at the heroes’ cemetery last Friday, Marcos turned to the military to shield him from Filipinos who would not forget. (READ: Behind the scenes: 12 hours to prepare for Marcos burial)

To illustrate how times have changed, the Air Force commandeered not its vintage Hueys – flying coffins, as they were often called – but its newly bought Bell choppers to bring the remains of the dead dictator from Batac to the Libingan.

To show you how things have become, some of the officers who were made to attend the burial had known Marcos as a commander-in-chief when they were only cadets of the Philippine Military Academy (PMA). By the time they joined the battlefield, they were under the command of the country’s first female commander-in-chief and Marcos had been disgraced and forced to live in exile in Honolulu. 

To push the irony further, the current chief of staff, Armed Forces General Ricardo Visaya, is a true-blooded Ilocano from the town of Bacarra, Ilocos Norte, who chose not be at the burial of the Ilocanos’ most revered son.

Contradiction?

The military is a strange animal in a system where the president is also the commander-in-chief. It is in its DNA to be compliant to its civilian master. It is in its mandate, spelled out so clearly in the Constitution, to respect civilian supremacy over the military. It is in its operating system to obey orders, not to question them.

This is where it gets its strength and character. But this is also where its strength and character are tested.

Marcos knew this very well and exploited it to the hilt. When he declared martial law in 1972, he did not need public acquiescence for it. He had the military. The troops not only jailed his opponents, they also picked up the garbage, manned the traffic, scrubbed the streets, guarded schools and hospitals, drove public transport – in short, acted as government. 

In exchange, the soldiers wore the badge of power, were allowed to dip their hands into an endless well of cash, and were given a free hand to flout the law.

Yet some of the young lieutenants who were deployed to the Martial Law machinery – 1971 graduates of the PMA – were the same officers who, two decades later, would plot the first military coup in Philippine history that would have failed – if not for the millions of Filipinos who decided to support it.

The EDSA revolt, and the subsequent botched mutinies that followed, exposed the deep-seated problems of the armed forces: corruption, nepotism, abuse, factionalism.

It has been a rough ride to reform from 1986. (READ: ‘Welcome home, my soldiers’: The AFP 30 years after EDSA)

Yet here we are – watching the military bury the commander-in-chief it had ousted.

One of those who stood up to the dictator was the retired general I spoke with on the phone last Friday. He revolted, yes. But he was also a loyalist, he said.

I do not see this as a contradiction. Neither do I see anything wrong with a military implementing orders without question – and doing it as precisely and as secretly as it had been trained to do.

The Filipino soldier’s strength lies in his snappy ability to obey orders. His character lies in the many times he has also disobeyed them.

And woe to the president and commander-in-chief who will not know – or anticipate – the difference. – Rappler.com 

Glenda M. Gloria

Glenda Gloria is the managing editor of Rappler and one of its co-founders. A journalist for three decades now, Glenda has been a reporter for newspapers, magazines, and wire agencies, and has run print, online, and TV newsrooms. She is a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, Class 2018 .