When the fighting in Marawi City began, public opinion, broadly speaking, rallied around the flag and our troops—something made even easier by the military establishment’s obvious reluctance over martial law and relative transparency over the unfolding events.
Somebody observed that Moro refugees willingly evacuated Marawi City not only to save themselves but also to assist the military in clearing out the terrorists. But these refugees are now critical of the government because of the military air strikes. A refugee rued that even if the military sprayed all their houses with bullets, they could patch them up; but to bomb is to utterly destroy, and that they could not accept.
To compound matters, up to that point the refugees had heard no assurances from officials that government would help them rebuild. Instead, what traveled through the refugee grapevine was news of which areas were being destroyed, resulting in people forming a fairly complete picture of who still had homes, and who no longer has one to return to. It is the destruction of homes that is turning refugee opinion against the armed forces.
A Metro Manila resident who heard this responded, “Do you think any government would dare to do to Metro Manila what is being done to Marawi City?” An opinion born of experience with the last time there was urban fighting in the capital—in 1989. Destruction was significant, but nowhere near what it could have been—as was the case with Manila in 1945, when fanatical, suicidal, ruthless Japanese troops systematically set about murdering as many civilians and killing as many Filipino and American soldiers as they could.
One of the most difficult and bloodiest forms of fighting is the kind that takes place in an urban setting. A small, motivated and ruthless force can tie down a much larger one.
The instinct of the military is to shoot and demolish first and ask questions later, rather than risk the lives of its troops. Gen. Robert Beightler who commanded the 37th Infantry Division during the Battle of Manila in 1945, summed it up this way: “Although I know there was plenty of weeping and wailing from property owners who saw the buildings disappear in the blasts of 240-mm shells, if I could have had those dive bombers too, I might have made the big rubble into little rubble.”
That is the military mind at work: Once the mission starts, the instinct is to throw everything into the fight, to finish it faster, with minimal loss of military lives. Civilian casualties are justified—resulting in a smaller overall loss of life than if things had gotten bogged down and protracted.
But the danger, as quite a few voices from Mindanao civil society expressed last Friday, is that as government tries to accelerate its operations, the toll can have unexpected repercussions not just on the Moro people, but also on the wider public opinion. It can radicalize younger Moros; and it can fan the embers of old prejudices.
If we are troubled by the thought of jihad, we should be equally troubled by images of the crusades. Back in 2008 when news of the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity agreement broke, one Mindanao blogger recounted how citizens rushed to their church, brought out the town’s statue of the Virgin Mary, and held an impromptu procession, vowing to defend their homes to the death against the Moros.
Another blogger wrote about their mayor closing his oration about rumors that the city [Iligan] would be ceded to the Moros with the cry, “Viva Señor San Miguel!” as his fellow Iliganons thundered, “Viva!”
“The Mayor was speaking the heart language of the Iliganon, something that they could understand. He was speaking the old language of the Spanish times at the time when the citizens of the old fort of Iligan defended the fort and even waged battle against the Moros,” he recalled.
And yet today, Iligan is one of the places where residents of Marawi City have found refuge with relatives and friends. And it is in Marawi where story upon story has emerged—of Moros standing up against the terrorists, risking life and limb to protect and rescue Christian town-mates. When has the nation seen such authentic spirituality, such heroic solidarity, in the face of brutality? And if such voices insist there must be a different way to free Marawi, shouldn’t the first instinct of those who serve and protect be, to listen?