Philippine military

[OPINION] Where have all the decent PMA graduates gone?

Dennis Acop

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[OPINION] Where have all the decent PMA graduates gone?

Graphic by Raffy de Guzman

'Why aren’t their voices heard? I say to this: they are still very much around.'

Some well-meaning people ask: “Where have all the brilliant and decent officers gone?”

During the Marcos era, there was a perception that the domination of senior positions in the Armed Forces of the Philippines by non-graduates of the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) was intentional on the part of the commander-in-chief during that period, the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. It was believed that Marcos feared the integrity of the “Peemayers,” a hindrance to his unconstitutional one-man rule.

Marcos valued blind loyalty over integrity and competence. As the corps commander of our Citizens Army Training in 1977, I recall that the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief of staff and all major service commanders were non-PMA graduates whose terms were constantly extended, preventing younger “Peemayers” from assuming top posts. They were AFP chief Romeo Espino, Army chief Josephus Ramas, Navy chief Simeon Alejandro, Air Force chief Vicente Piccio, and Constabulary chief Fidel Ramos (a West Point graduate).

By the time I graduated from West Point in 1983, the top leaders of the AFP were still these same officers – with the exception of Fabian Ver who had succeeded Espino by then. It was only after the ouster of Marcos by the EDSA Revolution of 1986 that PMA alumni were able to assume the top command posts in the AFP. And it only seemed apt, as the competent leaders of character from the PMA were seen as more loyal to the people they served than the commander-in-chief they followed. 

Much has happened since. 

Mission: War on communists

We recall that not too long after Corazon Aquino assumed power in February 1986, segments of the military once more turned against their commander-in-chief. The rebellions during the Cory years were so unlike the EDSA uprising. If the 1986 revolution emancipated an entire nation from the clutches of a deluded dictator, the succeeding rebellions cared not about popular mandates more but about installing their preferred political leader. 

This may seem a bit unlike the military’s traditional values. However, on closer look, the coup attempts launched by the military under Ms Aquino appealed to the primordial soldier psyche – and that is the accomplishment of his mission.

In the midst of a protracted counterinsurgency war, traditional military thinking favored political leaders who respected the military mindset of sustaining its hard-earned gains against state enemies. Corazon Aquino was not seen by many in the military as an ally. The military had trouble aligning itself with a leader who was perceived to be friendly with the communists, her being elected notwithstanding. It was only the new AFP chief of staff at the time, Ramos, who managed to pacify the mainstream AFP from not joining the rebellion.

Had Ramos not succeeded in maintaining this balance of power within the armed institution, the Philippines would have turned into a Myanmar!

Marcos turns into an enemy

It must be recalled that although the military turned against Marcos in the end, it supported him early on. Marcos’ focus on the local communists as the enemy resonated well with the military, which clearly saw safeguarding the people from communism as a most worthwhile reason for being. 

How can it not be, when communism is anti-Christianity and anti-democracy, the very cultural and political values of Filipinos. Communism was clearly anti-Filipino, as far as the military was concerned. But when Marcos perpetuated himself in office and abused his power, becoming the number one recruiter to communism, the military turned against its master. Because Marcos had become the enemy more than the communists. 

The AFP however had hoped for a new leader who possessed the same zeal as Marcos when it came to accomplishing its mission. When Cory turned out to not be that person, the military turned against her too. 

Then EDSA II happened in early 2001. As in 1986, the military turned against its leader because Joseph Estrada had become the nation’s enemy by his dysfunctional behavior as a national leader. And the military intervened because the rule of law was not working. Estrada had been impeached, but that process was hijacked by his allies – preventing the rule of law and prompting the military to intervene and help bring back stability and peace to the balance of power. Under Angelo Reyes then, the military reasserted its mission as the protector of the people and the state. Again, the mission was primordial in the mindset of the AFP led by its officer corps. 

Outlawing adventurism

The so-called “military adventurism” was outlawed. But this is such a paradox and somewhat ironic.

Each time the military did something for good governance and its mission to protect the people and the state, its positive participation was “outlawed.” The same thing happened shortly after EDSA ‘86. The now-defunct Philippine Constabulary, which had contributed so well to positive regime change away from dictatorship towards democracy, was constitutionally dissolved. 

Yet it could be argued that EDSA I and II would not have happened without military adventurism. Call it what you want – but if you ask a former military rebel like me, military rebellions have worked for this nation against abusive national leaders. In fact, EDSA I and II were so successful that the erring Gloria Macapagal Arroyo pampered the military so she would not be forcibly removed by it. 

The law penalizing military rebellion makes sense only if the rule of law truly works, especially in the exercise of impeachment and the conduct of fair elections. 

What has been the effect of outlawing military rebellion in a culture of corruption, bureaucratic mediocrity and ambiguity, dualism, and political patronage? There is no balance of power in a soft state like the Philippines, allowing the consolidation of power by the commander-in-chief.

In a perfect world, this would work. But the world, especially the Philippines, is very far from perfect. The military mindset, which is to accomplish its mission dictated by a commander-in-chief, is the only reason for being for an autocratic organization that is the military. Rightly or wrongly. 

Let me explain. 

‘Moral code’

In the early days of humanity, the fathers led their families and clans in actual defensive combat against enemies who threatened their survival.

When populations grew, entire clans and neighboring tribes of like interests bonded together against enemies still led by local leaders among them. Tribes became nations. Nations were kingdoms as they were literally led by kings leading them in battle. Nations became countries as territories became permanent.

When peace became longer than the periods of war, standing armies were maintained – smaller in number but the members did soldiering as a way of life. These became the professional soldiers or regular army. The rest went home to build entire societies protected by the small standing army which also safeguarded their territory. The sustainment of the common good or interest, common to both people and army, was the recurrent mission, especially by the latter. 

Men of the profession of arms live by a moral code that is superior to all other men. Because they are authorized by law to kill other human beings under the right circumstances like just, defensive wars. World Wars I and II are classic examples. To maintain such order in the ranks, men under arms live by a chivalric code of honor which works for them well in battle but also translates through other areas of their lives.

For instance, honorable men in arms do not kill innocent lives especially those of helpless men, women, and children. They serve honorably, not dishonorably, especially avoiding the corruption that dishonors the uniform and compromises successful accomplishment of the mission. They prefer to die with honor, respect, and dignity than die along the road to perdition.

Disconnect with civilian leader

This sense of honor written in sacrificial blood as that of the Lamb is what keeps the honorable soldier above his civilian commander-in-chief who has never led him in actual combat.

That this disconnect between the overall leader and the officer corps continues to happen nevertheless does not mean that this disconnect is not there. Because it is definitely there as sure as day. 

Today, it is vastly different, although the basic principles of command and structure continue albeit in another form. For the commander-in-chief may no longer be one of the members of the regular standing army. But this leader, given power and jurisdiction over the army, commands the members who are obliged to obey. Today, that power is given by virtue of popular elections conducted in democracies where majority choice wins. 

Thus, Carl von Clausewitz came to define war as politics by other means. To once professional soldiers like me, there really is a dysfunction to this. For the values of the lethal modern army are far from that of the politicians’ – who are unlike them and who represent people who know nothing about warfare.

The point I am trying to make is that there is such a serious disconnect between civilian leaders and military professionals that the relationship between them is bound to result in utter failure. 

If you do not believe me, look around you and review this history I refer to. Soldier-leaders have made benevolent political leaders because they have gone through the horrors of war. But not civilians who have never served. Because the missions are different in the eyes of these role players. But the civilian leader always gets the upper hand at the cost of lives better left in the hands of men who know about dying.

What drives the officer corps? Where are all the decent and competent officers? Mission drives the officer corps. 

Communist China

A worthwhile mission that convinces even them who are bound to execute them. If the AFP today is still going after the local communists, it is because that is a mission that it has always had. Even I spent an entire career in the military fighting the local communists. The war is a protracted one so it is still ongoing because the enemy has not surrendered.

Why is China no longer an enemy even if it too is communist and a larger threat? The pivot to China away from longtime ally the US was a political decision by the commander-in-chief, which is apparently tolerated by the domestic balance of power. 

Some may say that there is a disconnect between what was and is now relative to the pivot. This is answered by my earlier statements pointing to how power is entrusted to an elected leader and the policy choices he makes thereafter in the exercise of his mandate.

As far as the military is concerned, it has been check-mated by law in terms of and due in part to the political participation it had manifested in the past. And if there is misalignment between political leader values and the mission type preferences of the military officer corps, this too has been neutralized by constitutional provisions subordinating the professional standing army to whoever is commander-in-chief. 

Muted voices?

Whatever happened to the competent and decent officers? Why aren’t their voices heard? There was a time especially in the ‘80s and the ‘90s when people saw brilliant officers who refused to follow illegal orders even from the commander-in-chief or powerful oligarchs. Where are they now? 

Well, I say to this: they are still very much around, but the prevailing law and order prevent them from becoming visible in their roles and duties.

Every subordinate in position of power, however brilliant, is only as good as his ultimate superior. Subordinates reflect their superiors and are not at liberty to act independently of their superiors. It is the mission that moves the officer corps.

I would like to believe that such mission continues to be the main underlying factor behind every commissioned officer’s waking hour. And that the mission remains the same: to protect the people and the state from enemies.  

Unlike the Marcos regime, the Duterte administration is full of graduates of the PMA, not only in the armed forces and police force but also in the entire government. Active-duty or retired, PMA alumni whose alma mater values are courage, integrity, and loyalty to country, lead the Duterte government.

It is worth reminding them of their inviolate mission: protect the people, protect the state – from all threats, foreign or domestic. Now more than ever. – 

A public servant and patriot, retired Colonel Dencio Acop graduated from West Point in 1983. After serving in the Philippine Constabulary and Philippine Army, he worked in the corporate sector and now writes freelance.

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