[OPINION] The sound of the military's silence

It’s the stacking of retired military officers to top government posts that makes me pause and think

Chito de la Vega

1:51:59pm September 2, 2018

12:13:29am September 3, 2018

Three weeks ago, I was disturbed that the Armed Forces of the Philippines as an institution opted to remain silent when its Commander-in-chief talked about resigning and transferring power to a military junta. President Duterte even took a step further by naming his preferred successors.

I still hold that this latest series of ramblings, like his previous ones, were meant to be smoke screens. The objective of his "smoke bombs" is to distract the public.

For one, the Duterte anti-illegal drug campaign seems to have gone awry after another multi-billion-peso shipment of shabu entered the country under the very nose of the Bureau of Customs. Wasn’t it just a year ago when P6.4 billion worth of shabu passed through Customs then under the watch of Nicanor Faeldon? We all know that the result of that fiasco was the promotion of Faeldon and his boys.

The Duterte resignation talk died down after a day’s life in the public conversation. 

But because of the seriousness of Duterte's "military junta" mindset, this deserves a second look. It's valid to feel uneasy when a president of the Philippines considers installing a junta and disregarding a constitutionally-mandated succession process.

He may prefer to be called "Mayor" but Duterte is president of the Philippines and every time he opens his mouth it is newsworthy. The nation is his audience. Come on, Mayor, you’ve been president for over two years now.

And for the military to appear like it didn’t hear it’s Commander-in-chief talk of mangling the Constitution gives me a feeling of trepidation.

The silence of the soldiers though may be explained by the culture that pervades the service.  

To follow the orders of your superior without question, I very well know, is part of military culture. Unquestioning is the operative word. The military adheres to a chain of command or the formal, clear, and unbroken line of authority, communication, and responsibility from the commander-in-chief to the generals down to the foot soldiers. The armed forces also abides by the principle of "unity of comand" – a subordinate must take orders or must report only to one superior. 

This explains why by tradition, soldiers keep their opinions to themselves. They are tight-lipped, even if they may disagree with their superiors. "Follow first, ask later" is a statement I've heard mouthed by men in uniform.

The 1987 Philippine Constitution, the one Duterte wants to replace, is unique compared to the country’s previous basic laws. It was crafted after the People Power revolution, with wounds caused by Martial Law still fresh.

The Constitution's Article II on the Declaration of Principles and State Policies, Section 3 states: “Civilian authority is, at all times, supreme over the military. The Armed Forces of the Philippines is the protector of the people and the State. Its goal is to secure the sovereignty of the State and the integrity of the national territory.”

That line, “protector of the people and the State,” was an offshoot of those tumultuous times.

During the string of coups d'état of the ’80s and ’90s, "protector of the people and the State" was almost a slogan among putschists. These military uprisings were quelled with a counter-question asked of the soldiers: “Would you follow an unlawful command by your superior officers?"

Those who opposed Marcos' Martial Law also asked the military why they supported the dictator. “Why would a professional soldier follow the illegal command of a superior?”

Silence

So when Duterte spoke about a military junta taking over if he resigns, why didn’t the military even raise an eyebrow? There was only a long discomforting silence. Before, I was sure our soldiers would uphold the constitution at all times. Now, I’m not too sure.

Was their Commander-in-chief joking? If not, Mr General, would you follow unlawful orders of your superior officers? For me, it was clear that mocking the Constitution was on Duterte’s mind. Do the duly-constituted protectors of the people and the State, merely watch in silence?

"People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence"
– "The Sound of Silence," by Simon and Garfunkel, 1964

All through Duterte’s anti-drug campaign, the police force has had the most blood in its hands. The military, in a way, was and still is mostly on the sidelines of this campaign. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) took center stage in Marawi to stamp out terrorists. And the military is also back fighting communists rebels.

At the start of his term in 2016, Duterte said he wanted to end the communist insurgency through peace negotiations. He broke ground when he dined with the communist leaders in Malacañang.

All that’s past now. These days Duterte threatens to run the rebels to the ground and finally end the insurgency.  

Duterte has also packed the top government agencies with retired military officers. He has also raised the salaries of both police and AFP personnel. A portion of the long overdue military pension was also addressed in the 2019 National Expenditure Program submitted to Congress.

I don’t mind raising the pay of the uniformed men. I also agree with finding solutions to the problems of the military pension. It’s the stacking of retired military officers to top government posts that makes me pause and think.

I pray that this is not the reason for the military acquiescence in the face of a possible constitutional issue. So please answer, Mr General, would you follow an unconstitutional order by your Commander-in-chief?

Fools, said I, you do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
– "The Sound of Silence," Simon and Garfunkel 1964

– Rappler.com