Philippine Army Officers And Democracy
Ideally we should admire our officer corps; as Gen. Vicente Lim, hero, martyr and first Filipino graduate of West Point, wrote to his sons, “No matter how crooked, how weak the next president is…as long as the army is strong, honest, and free from politics, the nation will stand. The army has always been the backbone of all nations, barring none in the world.” Gen. Lim felt that without a principled and competent officer corps, the Philippine Army would count for nothing. This view got him into trouble, when he opposed Gen. MacArthur’s national defense plan on the grounds that it concentrated too much on training enlisted reserves, and not on creating enough officers, “the most fundamental step in building up an army.”
Instead, Gen. Lim fretted about the effects “half-baked trained officers” would have on the growth of the armed forces. Even during the embryonic days of the Philippine Army, the factors that would result in the officer corps becoming more of an agent for abuse and corruption than a positive one were evident. Gen. Lim, with his keen mind, revealed them in his letters. In a letter dated April 14, 1939, he recounted a meeting in Malacanang. “I told [the president] that the tradition of this army is to help each other, right or wrong, which is a fatal tradition, if it continues for the existence of the country.” This tradition represents esprit de corps taken to absurd lengths: And woe to any officer, like Antonio Trillanes, who preferred honesty to obedience.
Being a true officer and a gentleman, Gen. Lim also disliked brutality in the army. In a letter dated Feb. 1, 1941, already thinking ahead to the inevitability of war, he wrote, “I noticed that non-commissioned officers following the line of least resistance to acquire obedience to their orders use their fists and do bodily harm to subordinates. Abuse of authority is rampant in this army; the whole structure of our discipline is based on fear…fear of loss of money; fear of privilege taken away; fear of the power behind authority… A man can be led, although I admit it to be rather difficult and tedious, in the right direction through sound reasoning and confidence in the leaders.” Lim prided himself in attempting to lay the foundations for the eradication of army brutality; he hoped it would be one of his legacies, but it did not outlive him. It has even spread, as deaths due to the hazing of military frat members attests. It is also interesting to see his views on Philippine democracy.
In a letter dated July 16, 1940, Gen. Lim made his political views, based on his military perspective, clear. He wrote, “The principal defect of our national defense is not the training or lack of finances, but the great and dangerous defect of democracy which has been implanted into the minds of the Filipino people. We have a nationally wrong conception of democracy. Our democracy in the Philippines is unilateral. It is only for the benefit, for the freedom, for the rights, comfort and happiness of each individual member of the nation. That is the common belief, and I venture to say 99.9 percent of our people believe in that kind of democracy. They do not know their obligations, their duties, and the sacrifices that they should give to the state which is the relative counterpart of the amount of personal democracy he should indulge. The two should balance. We do not have yet in the minds of our people the thought that in order to enjoy the spirit of democracy they should give their lives and property to the state…”
Two days later he would write (in another letter) “I would rather work in a Philippines half-way being totalitarian than in a complete democracy which is misinterpreted by 99 percent of our people.” He was not alone in this view at a time when Malacanang was advocating “partyless democracy,” (which would mutate into Marcos’ “constitutional authoritarianism”) and other leaders like Jose P. Laurel, who also felt Filipinos had become soft, urged Filipinos to adopt the principles of Japan’s samurai code, bushido. Of course corruption was the first sign of this “softness,” including corruption in the military of the 1930s which made Gen. Lim sick, particularly in one case where an officer was court-martialed and would have been exonerated despite the evidence, if Lim hadn’t intervened. It was bad enough that “the esprit de corps which had been handed down to us that right or wrong we should protect our comrades.” Lim wrote. He felt it would take 20 years to put the military on a sound footing.
That is, if outside interference was avoided. Imagine the fate of the army if it were politicized! As he wrote on July 23, 1941, “I have been saying without any mental reservation or equivocation on my part, that the thing to do to preserve this nation is to keep the army out of politics… I have more faith in our future generation to build this army up than the present generation to eradicate the evil. I hope the graduates we produce from the military academy and those who graduate from the two academies in the States will be able to change this army in the next 25 years…the minute you put in favorites, relatives, and compadres, then this army will bring down the government.” Or form part of it?
Lim’s obsession was the creation of an efficient army, not the transformation of the state. He was even skeptical about military service requirements. And this was when it was a selective program: President Marcos decades later would make it a universal program.
May 6, 1939: Lim wrote, “I told the president that I am sorry that I do not concur with General MacArthur’s plan of [the army] taking care of the citizenship training of the youth of the land and that we are going again in the wrong direction as I still believe that the training of the youth really belongs to the homes, the churches, the schools and other institutions, like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.”
Lim had written earlier, on March 28, that “in 1934, I set forth three fundamentals under which our army should be built…first, the citizenship training; second the physical development; and third, the education along military lines.” Lim felt the army had no business meddling in the first and second stages.