The Explainer: Game of Generals

Game of the generals

Manolo Quezon, The Explainer

Posted at May 22 2017 04:19 PM

Over the weekend, news of the appointment of retired general Danilo Lim led to chatter on why so many military men get appointed to executive positions. Especially because Lim’s last appointment, to the Bureau of Customs, did not end well.

What is it about military men that tempts civilian presidents to put them in positions of civilian authority? It is the urge present in all chief executives: to have decisive people, leaders of men in their own right, who don’t debate or question orders but instead, implement them. Over the past half century, many generals reach star rank having taken management courses, too. This makes generals, in many ways, even better, for presidents, than technocrats: they know how to manage, and know how to get things done, with force if necessary.

Ever since President Magsaysay appointed Fred Ruiz Castro, then Judge Advocate-General of the AFP, to become executive secretary, presidents have turned from time to time to retired generals or military officers to be their Little President: Marcos appointed Alejandro Melchor, Jr.; President Arroyo had the most, ranging from retired AFP generals Renato de Villa and Eduardo Ermita, and retired PNP general Leandro Mendoza. But here, the built-in problem of putting military men in important executive positions can be seen in what presidents eventually did with these generals. Castro was fired, because he allowed the president’s relatives to merely visit his office; Melchor proved so powerful and independent-minded, Marcos not only removed him, but abolished the position of executive secretary altogether. President Arroyo created a new position, chief of staff, in the Palace, in parallel with that of executive secretary.


Not all generals are cast in the same mold.

We have had five generations, roughly speaking of generals in our national life. There were the revolutionary generals, then the generals of World War II, the generals of the post-war years until martial law, the generals who earned their spurs during martial law, and the post-EDSA generals. Each generation of generals approached power and politics differently.

Revolutionary generals like Aguinaldo were not professional military men, they were landlords, officials, and prominent individuals who happened to engage in warfare out of necessity, not training. Our first professional soldiers rose through the ranks in the American and Commonwealth periods and were tested as generals under fire during World War II.

Their subordinate officers became the generals of the premarital law era, and historian Al McCoy divides them into two types: those who took civilian supremacy over the military seriously, and those who believed civilians had to give way to the military.

The dividing line between the two was Ferdinand Marcos, who retired the older generals who opposed martial law, and put in place generals eager to carry out his orders to impose a dictatorship. These generals, as they overstayed in their positions, were challenged by younger officers who viewed them as inefficient and tainted with scandals. In turn, these young officers would end up choosing one of two paths: to rebel against authority in the hope of instituting a military dictatorship by means of a coup, and those who remained loyal to civilian authority.

Today, our present crop of generals are the tail end of the generations that divided along the lines of coups and people power, and it can be argued that unlike their immediate elders and upperclassmen, they are fundamentally more inclined to take civilian authority as a given, and aren’t as interested in politics. But even if this is the case, appointing them to civilian positions still reminds older Filipinos of the martial law years.

But just as each generation was molded by its era, each general has to be judged according to his record. For every Danilo Lim who once participated in a coup, there is an Año, who some view as decisively opposed to military intervention in politics. If there are supposed to be 12 retired military officers (not all of them generals) in executive positions today, one has to see if the balance tilts towards generals with a record of political causes or involvement, or strictly professional soldiers.

At first blush, the composition is mixed. There are allies who served or were promoted under former President Arroyo: Roy Cimatu, Hermogenes Esperon, Ricardo Visaya, and Ricardo Jalad. We can call them political generals. There are the ones some believe are professional soldiers wary of involving the military in politics or the drug war: Delfin Lorenzana and soon, Eduardo Año. Then there are the former military rebels, Nicanor Faeldon and Danilo Lim, who are at odds with former soldier-rebels in politics, namely Senator Trillanes and Rep. Alejano. Alexander Balutan for his part, once defied an order from President Arroyo, testified in Congress about cheating in Mindanao, and criticized the Aquino administration. Aside from countering Trillanes and company, then, we could classify them as impatient with civilian processes and governance. The rest, former general Jalad, former Major Jason Aquino, are less well-known, so prudence dictates classifying them as unknown factors at this point.

This rough accounting, however, suggests one thing. Just as the civilian allies of any president represent different factions in a coalition, so too do the retired officers and generals a president decides to hire. That the former generals most outspoken against politicizing the military hold both the National Defense and Interior and Local Governments departments, might be reassuring to some. Only time will tell if they really matter, or if all the other retired officers represent the more powerful faction in official circles.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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