The Long View: The praetorian temptation


The praetorian temptation

 / 04:06 AM January 27, 2021

The praetorian or imperial guards of ancient Rome ended up deciding the fate of emperors, eventually putting them on the throne and deposing them as they saw fit. The discipline, and shall we say consecrated—to the ideals of national defense and service—life of the military, tend to make them contemptuous of civilian officials with their freewheeling ways, including the manner in which officers must jump through the Commission on Appointments’ hoops for promotions to be confirmed. This, in turn, makes it very tempting for soldiers to believe they could run government better—more efficiently, and with greater discipline and even devotion—than civilians. Similarly, civilian managers exasperated with the slowness and indifference of the bureaucracy are easily tempted to believe that injecting military brass into civilian agencies can kick them into shape, including the implementation of orders from above.

After a generation of increasing the military presence in civilian government, which began in the immediate aftermath of World War 2, Ferdinand Marcos, in 1972-1973, harnessed the military to mount a self-coup against the government. The military, or a faction of it, tried to replace Marcos with a junta but was caught; its bacon was saved by the Church, civil society, and the public, but from this coalition of the surprised in 1986 grew, on one hand, the coup-addicted cadre of officers who kept trying to mount coups (most famously in 1987 and 1989; their protégés tried again in 2006), and, on the other, the semi-interventionist majority whose clout consisted of deciding whether to withdraw support from the presidency (as in 2001) or not (as in 2006).

The military moths drawn to the flame of putsch-making end up getting power the proper way, through the votes of the people, by ending up in the party list in the House of Representatives or with seats in the Senate. Less obvious but more remarkable are the majority who remain in the service, and who affect events by their collective decisions not to act: again, 2006 being the most notable example, but also more recently, in the military’s decision to decline to support the idea of a nationwide martial law, or a revolutionary government, or being drawn into the so-called war on drugs. Each of these three decisions to decline additional powers, or embark on a non-military additional scope of action, is in turn the result of a little-known but almost miraculous change in the mentality of the armed forces, which took place between 2001 and 2016. Someday perhaps, the story of how this happened will come to be written, and in its pages names like Avelino Cruz Jr. will feature prominently—and honorably.

But if the military, institutionally, has weaned itself from its former bad habit of engaging in coup-hatching, or being too welcoming of being courted to be the deciding factor in administration-toppling in the streets, it is still the military—one designed, from the start, to be as interested, or even more interested, in fighting domestic insurgency as it is in confronting external challenges to our borders. When, in 2005-2006, the Catholic Church, weakly led, lacked the nerve to categorically deprive then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo of the mandate of heaven, the military stayed in its barracks; but it embraced (and was thus kept busy by) going after radicals. Similarly, behind the scenes it stayed in the barracks despite every effort by the current President to entice it to embrace martial law, or revolutionary government, or being dragged into the so-called war on drugs.

But after being sickened by the sight of radical leaders it helped capture being released from jail, and others welcomed into the Cabinet, and thus seeing the gains of the past quarter century in fighting insurgency essentially evaporate, the military was not, and is not, shy about making up for lost time and lost ground by going after radicals. Similarly, for all the talk of a junta in fact, if not in name due to the proliferation of ex-generals in civilian posts, the reality is starker: Former top brass, it turns out, adjust incredibly easily to civilian life, or get hopelessly neutralized by the civilian system (or lack of it). The result is that The Economist Intelligence Unit estimates we will achieve 60-percent vaccination level only by the end of 2023.

The lesson is simple: For all the military being more democratic these days, old habits die hard. When the military feels free of civilian authority, it reverts to its training of shoot first and ask questions later, applying as much to accusations against persons and institutions as it does to combat in the field.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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