The Explainer: Military Justice

A Few Good Men: Col. Jessep: Matthew, sit down, please.

[Lt Col Markinson sits]

Col. Jessep: What do you think of Kendrick?

Lt. Col. Matthew Andrew Markinson: Nathan, I don’t think my opinion of Kendrick has anything whatsoever to do with…

Col. Jessep: I think he’s pretty much of a weasel, myself. But he’s an awfully good officer, and in the end we see eye to eye on the best way to run a marine corps unit. We’re in the business of saving lives, Matthew. That is a responsibility we have to take pretty seriously. And I believe that taking a marine who isn’t quite up to the job and shipping him off to another assignment, puts lives in danger.

[Lt. Markinson begins to stand]

Col. Jessep: Sit down, Matthew.

[He sits]

Col. Jessep: We go back a while. We went to the Academy together, we were commissioned together, we did our tours in Vietnam together. But I’ve been promoted up through the chain with greater speed and success than you have. Now if that’s a source of tension or embarrassment for you, I don’t give a shit. We’re in the business of saving lives, Lt Col Markinson. Don’t ever question my orders in front of another officer.


That was a scene from the film, “A Few Good Men,” and it gives us an insight into how different the military culture is, from the culture you and I, as civilians, take for granted.

The military life is not only a dangerous life, but it is a life that’s extremely limited when it comes to exercising freedom. Iron drill and discipline, after all, are essential when it comes to the reason for being of any armed forces: national defense, and using force of arms to maintain that defense.

Time and again, we’ve seen soldiers break the iron bonds of discipline, and we’ve seen civilian authorities having a hard time restoring that discipline. So tonight, let’s take a look at the military’s code of justice.

I’m Manolo Quezon, The Explainer.


I. Praetorian traditions


The French thinker Montesquieu, in his book “The Spirit of the Laws,” made this observation about the military mind. Pat, would you like to read?


It is natural for mankind to set a higher value upon courage than timidity, on activity than prudence, on strength than counsel. Hence the army will ever despise senate, and respect their own officers. They will naturally slight the orders sent them by a body of men whom they look upon as cowards, and therefore unworthy to command them.

– Montesquieu

The Spirit of Laws


And so, in times of crisis, where the politicians are weak or in disrepute, there is a tendency for soldiers to reach for their guns. This is often called the praetorian tradition, because of the Praetorian Guards, the bodyguards of the Emperors of Rome who discovered they could topple and elevate emperors on their own authority.

Political leaders, in turn, who brook no opposition, make it a priority to turn national armies into their own private guards.

When the German President Paul von Hindenburg died, Chancellor, or Prime Minister, Adolf Hitler merged his prime ministership with the position of president, and called his new position that of Fuhrer, or leader.

Hitler ordered that instead of taking their oaths to the German constitution, henceforth German soldiers would take their oath of loyalty to him, personally. The German army complied, and took their oath so seriously that it made rebellion against Hitler almost impossible.

But Hitler is an extreme example; let’s look at examples closer to home.

In 2006, the world woke up to scenes like this one, as Bangkok was subjected to yet another military coup.

But as for us, most recently, we were all glued to our TVs, and witnessed puzzling scenes such as this one:

Why did the Thais mount a serious coup, and all we’ve seen here at home, in recent years, are dramas that pretend to be coups?

To understand why, we have to refer to this book, which was the final report of the fact-finding commission authorized by Congress in the wake of the 1987 and 1989 coup attempts. Here’s a particularly relevant extract from the report’s account of the August, 1987 coup attempt. Pat?

Unable to get into Malacanang, the rest of the rebel troops under Honasan headed for camp Aguinaldo through the Sta. Mesa route. But in the course of their withdrawal,  they shot at civilian onlookers who were jeering at them, killing 11 and wounding 54.

-The Final Report of the Fact-Finding Commission, October 1990


Now I’ve often pointed to this book, because it’s one of those that makes for essential reading if you want to understand our military.

In “Closer Than Brothers,” Al McCoy says that rebels received such a beating, in terms of public opinion, because of the shooting of onlookers in Sta. Mesa, that after that, rebels developed the habit of planning their coups as public-relations exercises, that is, political theater and not military campaigns, in order to avoid frightening the population and alienating popular support. They also developed, in a sense, a sense of subordination to civilians, making every attempt appear, at least, that they were responding to civilians instead of trying to dictate things to the public.

McCoy, in his book, takes a look at two classes of the Philippine Military Academy, that of 1940 and that of 1971.


He says the two classes were poles apart. The Class of 1940, indoctrinated under the Commonwealth, on the whole defended democracy.

The Class of 1971, indoctrinated at a time when Martial Law was being planned, became enthusiastic tools of the dictatorship and then embarked on a series of spectacular coup attempts in 1986, 1987, and 1989.

McCoy’s work, in a sense, was foreshadowed by a general who participated in the education of PMA Class 1940.

General Vicente Lim, in one letter, pointed out –Pat?


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. Vicente Lim in “To Inspire and To Lead”


And in another letter, he warned –Pat?

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.

-Gen. Vicente Lim in “To Inspire and to Lead”


I’m focusing on these insights into our military’s culture, and the military mind in general, and why the rebellious elements within our armed forces act the way they do.

When we return, though, we’ll go beyond why soldiers break the rules, and look at the rules that apply to our soldiers themselves –and the difficulties involved in enforcing those rules.


II. Courts-martial


Caine Mutiny: This is over the line. Queeg is a paranoid or there’s no such thing as paranoia….Is it [the strawberry incident] worth turning a ship upside down? Would anyone but a crazy man do it? Steve, are you familiar with Article 184 of Navy Regulations?…’It is conceivable that most unusual and extraordinary circumstances may arise in which the relief from duty of a commanding officer by a subordinate becomes necessary either by placing him under arrest or on the sick list. Such actions shall never be taken without the approval of the Navy Department except when it is impracticable because of the delay involved.’ If I were you, Steve, I’d memorize it.


That was a scene from “The Caine Mutiny,” on which “A Few Good Men” was based. The scene describes a dilemma soldiers have to confront in extreme situations. Mutiny is a crime. But can mutiny ever be justified?

Besides the Constitution, our armed forces rely on two major laws, both passed during the Commonwealth, which provide for their organization and their system of justice. Commonwealth Act No. 1, the National Defense Act, provided for our armed forces, for a department of national defense, for compulsory military service, and so on.


Commonwealth Act No. 408 provides for the Articles of War. The Articles of War provides for a system of military justice.


The Oakwood Mutineers, for example, are being tried under a court martial, for violating the Articles of War. A military trial involves a court martial, that is, a court composed not of civilian judges, but officers, and which tries soldiers for violating not civilian, but the military’s code of military justice.

On the other hand, Republic Act 7055 returned jurisdiction to the civil courts for offenses against the Revised Penal Code, even if committed by members of the military. The Revised Penal Code makes sedition, rebellion, and coup d’etat crimes; so any soldier accused of these crimes faces, not a military court or court martial, but a civilian court. That’s why, for example, General Lim was being tried in a civilian court, from which he walked out in late November –now, he says, against his will.


The Articles of War are to our armed forces, what the Revised Penal Code is to us, the civilian population: the list of punishable offenses that can be used by the state, except when the state specifically says even soldiers have to be tried before civilian courts.

At this point, I’d like to invite our guest to join us. We’ve examined the theoretical aspects of military justice, but how does it operate in real life?

Ellen Tordesillas has devoted a lot of time and energy to attending the various court martial proceedings taking place. As a civilian who has faced her own set of court cases, she’s in a good position to compare and contrast civilian and military justice.

When we return, we’ll be asking Ellen why soldiers keep copying Joker Arroyo, and walking out of their trials.


My view


Let me quote something Rizal wrote, in his essay, “The Philippines a century hence.”

All the petty insurrections that have occurred in the Philippines, Rizal wrote,  were the work of a few fanatics or discontented soldiers, who had to deceive and humbug the people or avail themselves of their powers over their subordinates to gain their ends. So they all failed. Rizal went on to point out that No insurrection had a popular character, or was based on a need of the whole race, or was fought for human rights or justice; so it left no ineffaceable impressions … And in fact, Rizal concluded, when they, that is, the public, saw that they had been duped, the people bound up their wounds and applauded the overthrow of the disturbers of their peace! But Rizal then issued a warning. What if, he asked, the movement springs from the people themselves and based its causes upon their woes? What then?

What then, indeed. And for this reason, we must always insist on checks and balances. For the ancient Romans asked, “who will guard the guardians?” And for us, the answer is, our insistence on civilian supremacy over the military –and also, that both civilian and military institutions of justice work the way they’re supposed to. On the principle that justice delayed is justice denied.


Manuel L. Quezon III.

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