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Why the Philippine Armed Forces Are What They Are Today

o you believe in karma? Do you believe that the good or bad you do ultimately determines your destiny? The rusted-out BRP Sierra MadreFor those in doubt all you need is to look at the Philippine armed forces today to turn you from a skeptic into a believer.

When the Americans left the Philippines in 1946, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) was the envy of the entire region. It was a well-trained, well-equipped, fighting force led by a cadre of disciplined officers. However, the shine of this spit-and-polish institution slowly—at times imperceptibly—lost its luster. In addition, Filipinos were also strongly influenced by the anti-Vietnam war, counter-culture sentiment sweeping the United States during the 60’s and 70’s. What US President Dwight D. Eisenhower once called “the military-industrial complex” was not to be trusted. But with all that said, the Philippine involvement in the Vietnam conflict was quite minimal. And the AFP was for the most part spared the derision that the US military experienced from its citizens at that time.

The single overriding event that caused the Filipino people to turn their backs on the AFP was Martial Law. When then President Ferdinand Marcos unlawfully decided to keep himself and his cronies in power, he used the military not only to suppress the legitimate will of the people, but to pound them into submission through fear and intimidation. Not only did Filipinos lose all their rights, they cowered in fear of soldiers who seemed to relish their newfound power over the citizenry. During the decades of martial law the military could pick up and detain anyone it wanted to. And servicemen from generals to buck privates made sure Filipinos were aware of that fact.

And as the public’s perception of the AFP rapidly deteriorated, internally the organization also ceased to be the highly professional organization it once was. For most of the Martial Law years the military was headed by Fabian Ver, Marcos’s townmate and onetime chauffer. Nothing but an ROTC graduate, Ver rose through the ranks not because he possessed a brilliant military mind—he didn’t, he made it to the top because he was unwaveringly loyal to his benefactor, the dictator. Ver filled the top ranks of the armed services with people like him who seemed to both envy and despise their military academy-trained counterparts.

The decades of military abuse that began during Martial Law has taken its toll. Today Filipinos no longer have the respect or admiration they once had for their military. Men in uniform are kept at arm’s-length, with a wary eye on them lest they revert to their “old ways.” Today’s best and the brightest graduates don’t consider military service as a viable career alternative. The prevalent perception is that only the unsophisticated from the boonies or the desperate unable to find work elsewhere join the military.

As some Filipinos might put it: na karma sila! Our boys in uniform are today relegated to the backwaters of Philippine society. The armed services (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine, and Coast Guard) have remained underfunded for decades; their equipment allowed to deteriorate; their ability to accomplish their mission or operate effectively severely compromised.

And while the US military has managed to win back the hearts and minds of the American people after Vietnam, Balikatan exercisesno similar phenomenon has occurred for the AFP post Martial Law. Unlike the US, there is hardly any public outcry or grieving when servicemen are killed by bandit groups like the Abu Sayyaf or the New People’s Army (NPA).

Sadly, in its current state, the AFP cannot protect Philippine territory nor can it secure the country’s borders. This must change, and change quickly. An increasingly aggressive China is signaling to the region that the era peaceful coexistence we have grown so used to for close to seven decades may soon come to an end. The Philippines must quickly re-fund and professionalize the AFP. But more importantly, the military must win back the hearts of the Filipino people. Soldiers must be seen as brave men and women who put their lives on the line for the country. As we wrote on a previous editorial (click here), a military draft would go a long way in not just boosting our armed strength while building men and women of character, but it would strengthen the bonds between the public and the military, and wipe away the decades of apathy and mistrust that Filipinos still seem to harbor towards their military.

Some would say “give it time” but time is what we now have little of. We civilians must now reach out and strengthen our armed services while simultaneously changing it from within, to turn it into an institution Filipinos can count on and look up to with patriotic pride. Published 6/3/2013

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