Friday, August 26, 2011

A questionable badge of honour

History is replete with men who have fought in wars or served in military uniform and later became their nation’s leaders. Names like Charles de Gaulle, Dwight Eisenhower or John Kennedy were just a few whose war-time exploits enhanced their electability. Even Ferdinand Marcos used his heroic deeds during the Filipino resistance against the Japanese, whether true or embellished, to build up his qualities to become president.

At the first EDSA People Power Revolution that toppled the Marcos dictatorship, soldiers in uniform were held in respect for not shooting their rifles at the throng of peaceful demonstrators. They became instant heroes to the people, and the revolution succeeded without blood spilt on the street. Later, however, the respect for the uniform would eventually lose its lustre as the military became implicated in allegations of abuses against human rights, disappearances and extra-judicial executions.

The response by the New York police and firemen during the September 11 terrorist attack on the Twin Towers similarly elevated them in America’s pedestal of heroes. Every policeman and fireman in New York would from then on be regarded by the city’s denizens with certain deference.

The young men and women who would later continue the war against terrorism in the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq would also garner the esteem and honour the American people would bestow on the military. In its brushes with history and involvement in foreign wars, the military uniform has become a strong and sacred symbol for Americans.
United States' marines at Khakresh, Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Darrin Roark.
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to view "Marines in Action in Afghanistan."
The same goes for Canada. Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation has designated the stretch of Highway 401 (MacDonald-Cartier Freeway) between Glen Miller Road in Trenton, Ontario, and the intersection of the Don Valley Parkway and Highway 404 in Toronto as the Highway of Heroes in honour of Canada’s fallen soldiers who died in service in Afghanistan. This length of the highway is often travelled by a convoy of vehicles carrying a fallen soldier's body, with his or her family, from CFB Trenton to the coroner's office at the Centre for Forensic Sciences in Toronto. Since 2002, when the first of Canada's fallen soldiers were returned from Afghanistan, crowds have lined the overpasses to pay their respects as convoys pass.

For the United States and Canada, soldiers in the warfront are warriors fighting the enemies of democracy and freedom, in order that every American and Canadian would be able to live freely and without fear. Even if the wars they’re fighting are often wrong, they owe these men and women in uniform their utmost respect and gratitude.

Despite abuses at Abu Ghraib, the premeditated rape of a 14-year old girl in Mahmudya, Iraq, or the executions of Afghan civilians by the self-described “kill team” from the Stryker Brigade, the United States military remains unsullied. Allegations of serious abuses of prisoners’ rights during interrogations at Guantanamo have not led to the shutdown of the detention centre.

When a member of the Canadian forces assigned in Afghanistan is killed whether in action or by friendly fire, he or she is regarded as a hero. Circumstances of death are not that important; the fact that a soldier died with his or her boots on, is a celebration of heroism.

Why do we regard the military today with so much reverence?

William Deresiewicz, an essayist and critic, wrote in the New York Times that “saluting heroes is easy and absolves us from actual engagement.”

Deresiewicz wrote: “The new cult of the uniform began with a call to ‘support our troops’ during the Iraq War. The slogan played on a justified collective desire to avoid repeating the mistake of the Vietnam era, when hatred of the conflict spilled over into hostility toward the people who were fighting it.”

I doubt if we have the same collective response of adulation as a nation to our own Filipino troops, except for that single moment when the army disobeyed their Commander-in-Chief Ferdinand Marcos and refused to shoot at the peaceful demonstrators in EDSA. But this kind of courage by the army would never be repeated again. Instead, the troops would later on follow blindly the command of their disillusioned ranking officers in failed mutinies after another.

Personally, I have always had this antipathy to those in uniform, whether a cop or a soldier. When an uncle came home after fighting in Korea, he told us of the brutality of hostilities, some to the extent of hand-to-hand combat in the cold Korean front. How he survived the madness of the Korean War remained an enigma to him even after he left the service.

Early on during the anti-Vietnam War protests of the 1960’s, I began hating our soldiers who signed up for the Philcag expedition, whether they volunteered or were forced by their commanding officers to enlist to fight the communist forces in Vietnam. Later I would channel my anger toward men in uniform to riot police squads who broke up peaceful demonstrations against the government, even though I realized these cops were just being used as unwitting tools by their commanding officers. It was no wonder I would deliberately avoid joining military drills in my ROTC training days and instead volunteered to be responsible in the lowly task of arranging refreshments for the cadets during break time. If there was a military draft during my youth, I would certainly have dodged it.

My deep-seethed resentment of the military establishment and what it represented became more pronounced during the martial law period. Ferdinand Marcos used the army as his personal phalanx of gladiators to break the opposition and popular dissent. He placed generals in the civic service blurring the distinction between the government and the army. The practice of recycling retired generals by appointing them to government posts continued on even after Marcos had already been displaced. I once worked with a corporation run by a retired colonel and our relationship with each other had never been warm and friendly.

Militarization of the bureaucracy, when unchecked, could be a nightmare that exacts a heavy toll on people’s political and civil rights. Totalitarian governments have relied on the use of the military to silence opposition and dissent. Dictators are indifferent to democratic rights, and they use the military to sustain their regimes. Just look at the Philippines during the Marcos regime, or present-day Egypt and Tunisia, and Libya or Syria before the Arab Spring.
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to view video: "Palparan accuses Melissa Roxas and Staur Ocampo."
Since Ferdinand Marcos entrenched the role of the military in government during the martial law years, generals and other high-ranking officers of the military establishment have since enjoyed the awe and fearful respect of their Commander-in Chief and his or her cabinet. The military needed to be pleased and rewarded for their efforts in fighting the local insurgency despite their abuse of basic human rights. No wonder the Philippine Human Rights Commission cleared General Jovito Palparan Jr., also known as “the Butcher,” of charges that he was responsible for a number of disappearances and extra-judicial killings of government critics during the Arroyo administration. Families of student activists, workers and journalists who have either disappeared or killed continue to pressure the government to investigate and prosecute the military for their complicity but to no avail.

How then can one show respect for this kind of military?

These are people in uniform whom we pay their salaries for their services and we expect them to be accountable to the people for any abuses they commit. But who is above the military nowadays? Marcos has placed them in an unimpeachable position almost beyond the reach of the law and every president elected to run the government must ensure the military is behind his or her administration if it cares to survive.

Has there been a general or high-ranking officer of the military prosecuted for abuses? Nada. Some of them are now in Congress like retired General Palparan who represents the dubious Bantay party-list, a political party supposed to speak for thousands of Filipinos employed as security guards.

Panfilo "Ping" Lacson is also back in his Senate post after running as a fugitive from the law when implicated in the murder of a Filipino publicist. Lacson was former Director-General of the Philippine National Police and was also linked to the killing of 11 members of Kuratong Baleleng in Quezon City. Kuratong Baleleng is an organized crime syndicate in the Philippines that once was an anti-communist vigilante group.

At the local levels of government, the military is further deeply entrenched that provincial governors and municipal mayors are beholden to them. There is a shadow government behind the civilian political structure and the military seems obviously in control. Who would need a coup d’état when the government already appears under de facto control of the military?

Filipinos have never spoken so highly of those who serve in the military, unlike here in America where we consider the men and women fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan as heroes. We never question whether their mission is a just one, even if the wars they are fighting are not the right wars.
Libingan ng mga Bayani. Photo courtesy of ronaldibay. Click link below to view "Martial Law
victims: ex-President Marcos is no place to be among heroes."
In a similar vein, we abhor the mere notion that Ferdinand Marcos deserves to be buried in Libingan ng mga Bayani (Cemetery for Heroes) for his “heroic” exploits as a soldier during the Second World War, for two reasons: one, his military record is dubious, and two, his record as president of the Republic is a disgrace to everything that a hero stands for.

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