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Reforming the armed forces, 25 years after EDSA

February 21, 2011 6:43pm
There was an air of formality and, at least for some, uneasiness in the room when the generals met for a conference with their commander-in-chief.

It had been more than a week after a retired senior took his own life in the midst of a national political drama. There were matters on the current crisis that could have been brought up, but if they were left unspoken, they might have decided to leave it for another time. They wanted to move on.

They buckled down to the business of the day: updates on logistics reforms, follow-ups on the budget, modernization and other plans. When they would inadvertently stray to the subject of the tragedy, their words were measured, as officers are wont to do in such a setting.

At such a meeting, what could they say about the suicide of retired Gen. Angelo Reyes and the damning circumstances that led to it? What does it mean to the Armed Forces, seeing that the actions of one or a few in the past could again possibly weaken the institution?

If there is a time to shed their apprehensions, the military must take the opportunity now. Rather than setting issues aside like cobwebs in their conscience, now is the time for a cleansing, to face the fallout of what Reyes and the other seniors had allegedly done when they were leaders of the Armed Forces.

Reyes had lost sight of the image he had cultivated: a man of sharp intellect who proved to his academy classmates that he too could be a warrior like them in the last years of their military service, only to see himself in the end subjected to a public trial on corruption, a four-star general among alleged crooks. At this point, says a classmate, he had felt increasingly abandoned in a world narrowing in on him.

Officers know what it means to play a persona; this is part of their culture. To their superiors, their peers, their men, there is a role to play and they must play it well.

Reyes was not entirely loved, and if at all his death were to give sense to the most recent corruption scandal among men in uniform, it may be that new heroes must rise out of this tragedy, setting true examples of leadership. The former chief of staff, like others before him and perhaps those who followed, had already lost their way.

There could be no better reminder of what role the Armed Forces has taken, in a milestone of the post-dictatorship years, than the uprising in Egypt on the other side of the world that, like us in February1986, deposed a strongman in a people power phenomenon.

Twenty-five years ago, the military became the heroes in the eyes of the people, soldiers who had chosen the path of the good for the sake of the country. Many of the generals who sat at the command conference with President Benigno Aquino III were still junior officers when the president’s widowed mother came to power, intoxicated with pride and idealism, wearing a uniform that called them the ‘New Armed Forces.’

As we all know, it was a short-lived euphoria. The coup attempts that followed the people-power revolt shook the foundation of the military institution, and some of its ‘heroes’ became rebels carrying their battle cry of “Our Dreams Will Never Die" – dreams that essentially boiled down to a power grab.

The hero Gringo Honasan turned into anti-hero and then into a politician, elected into the Senate after his pardon, the very system that he had despised. His junior replica Antonio Trillanes, of the Oakwood Mutiny fame in 2003, followed Honasan’s footsteps from where the former colonel had left off in the 1980s.

Trillanes was among the Senators who had accused Reyes of pocketing illegal money, chiming in with the revelations of former budget officers who were part of the military’s Comptroller mafia. The Senate hearings brought to the open once more a money scandal that had already rocked the military about a decade ago.

The Comptroller has been disbanded and re-shaped into a resource management office. According to senior officers, some measures of reform have helped minimize the control of one group in the military, the men with money bags.

This problem is just one among other systemic issues that had rendered the Armed Forces less efficient in capability over the past two decades, when it has been running a moving war against communist and Muslim insurgencies. They have only been successful in pockets here and there.

Where does the Armed Forces stand now, years on, coming from the trauma of mutinies, of big-time corruption from the top echelons, of a long drawn-out counter-insurgency strategy? The saga keeps unfolding in a Shakespearean fashion.

Looking back from the days of the military-backed uprising in 1986, there has been a march forward since. There are obvious setbacks, but the armed forces marches on nonetheless, perhaps having the same kind of pride that rekindles memories of when they were heroes, which do not quite fit into the unfolding of the current situation.

So no one at the command conference speaks out loud of any worries. They may feel uncertain, like a fog surrounding them. Will the Senate investigation resolve this corruption problem once and for all? Are there hidden motives to destabilize the organization insidiously? Will they be able to tear apart an entrenched system that has gone overboard? Or will they just wait this one out?

It is far easier to understand the scale of right and wrong in field duty, the stark reality of what happens on the ground. The so-called conversion of funds that abetted corruption has been there since time immemorial, any soldier will tell you that, brought on by a negligent supply side, resorting to a technical malversation of funds for what it really is.

A soldier will paint an officer good if converted money supposedly used for paper will buy them rice and bullets instead, and bad if it goes into his personal pocket. This gets bigger as it rises to the top, where the actual power of disbursing takes place. And Reyes, as he had said before his death, “walked into it."

In cleansing itself – if it wants to – the military will have to re-examine the basis of a strong leadership. It cannot be catering to dual roles – the good and the bad that Reyes had found himself in – and maneuvering through many gray areas of compromise. Generals will have to pave the path behind them for good soldiers to follow.

It may be worth reminding the Armed Forces that they were, once, twenty-five years ago, heroes of a nation. - YA, GMA News

Criselda Yabes is the author of The Boys from the Barracks: The Philippine Military after EDSA. Her latest book, Peace Warriors: On the trail of Filipino soldiers, was launched this month.
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