The Long View: First generals skeptical of ROTC for civics

Note: A companion to my column is this exploration of civilian-military, American-Filipino relations and issues on professionalism and ethics, affecting our pioneering generation of military officers as found in diaries in the 1930s: please see Civilian-Military, and American-Filipino Military, relations in the late prewar Commonwealth, 1939 in The Philippine Diary Project)


First generals skeptical of ROTC for civics

By: Manuel L. Quezon III – @inquirerdotnet

Philippine Daily Inquirer / 04:30 AM April 19, 2023

A recent Pulse Asia survey question commissioned by a senator reveals 78 percent agree to the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) being mandatory in college, with a similar percentage being for it because it fosters discipline. Some online reactions questioned why the public at large and not just affected students, were asked their opinion, which reveals a limited understanding of how policy is arrived at or even a sense of broader national community. One possibility is that the question reveals the relative high regard in which the armed forces are held, an opinion demonstrated in a Social Weather Stations survey in 2019 when 79 percent of respondents had high trust in the military.

It’s the givens of the debate that deserve further scrutiny. The first given is that the citizens targeted are only those in school, which over time restricts the citizens covered to a shrinking minority of the otherwise eligible. The second given is what’s used as the central justification for the proposal: not military needs, or benefit, but rather, as a way to make up for the deficiencies of our educational system and civil society. Military training, this thinking goes, will foster patriotism, good citizenship, and even foster good manners, right conduct, and moral behavior. But also, this opinion cuts across social classes, which suggests a shared opinion of the military and military culture.Every Philippine Constitution since 1935 has made military service a universal obligation. The framers of the 1935 Constitution, concerned the sons of the wealthy would avoid military service, felt it was necessary to make it compulsory for all to prevent the idea catching hold that the armed forces of the future independent republic would engage in “rich man’s war; poor man’s fight.” So, every able-bodied man, upon reaching the age of 20, was obligated to register for military service. But while universal and compulsory, military training, in its practical application, was going to be limited. In the first place, there would be an annual lottery to pick from among the eligible 6,000 individuals who would undergo training every year. MacArthur successfully proposed ramping up the number of trainees to 40,000 annually starting in 1937.

Filipino officers trained in the US, on the other hand, preferred an emphasis on officer formation: a case made for the Filipino officers pushing it, by the President’s own anger and concern over not just a large number of existing officers being court-martialed for offenses, but what, to him, was the added scandal of the military’s own punishments being too lenient. The professional-minded officers felt the military had no business engaging in matters outside the military sphere of competence. This is why the year 1939 also saw the abandonment of a scheme to include vocational training in military training, an advocacy of Gen. Paulino Santos when he was chief of staff, in the hope it would introduce conscripts to modern agricultural methods that Santos felt was crucial for national development. Instead, Santos was retired from the Army, and given the chance to implement his advocacies by being put in charge of settlements in Mindanao.

MacArthur for his part, tried to hold the line on the large number of trainees by pointing to the need to disperse training throughout the country, and that, (as paraphrased by then Col. Fidel Segundo in his diary on June 1, 1939) “that the scattered cadres were decided upon in order to develop nationalism in the various localities,” which earned him a stinging rebuke from his Filipino commander in chief: “The pres.[ident] stopped him short by saying that the development of nationalism among the people is a political phase of the national defense and not a military phase, and as the political head of the nation, he is charged with this mission and MacArthur confine himself strictly to the military phase.” For his part, Segundo’s own opinion was this: “MacArthur[‘s] argument in developing nationalism by the scattered cadres is fallacious. A man develops nationalism irrespective of where he trains and the influence of such a soldier is the same whether he trains at home or in some other locality.”

The views of another Filipino officer are interesting and related. Gen. Vicente Lim was the first Filipino graduate of West Point, commanded troops in Bataan, and was executed by the Japanese in the closing weeks of the Japanese Occupation. His children published his letters to them, and from them, we can glean his attitude toward military service requirements. Lim had written to his children, on March 28, 1939, 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 fundamentals, or stages. On May 6, 1939: Lim wrote to his children, “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.” The influence of Filipino officer’s opinions such as Segundo’s and Lim’s was revealed in that June 1, 1939 rebuke. Back during the Duterte regime, then Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana was quoted by Ramon Farolan as favoring a return to mandatory ROTC because he foresaw the coming inability of the armed forces to fill future officer vacancies. But this reminds us that ROTC is a program for a few—the relative minority within their generation, of school-age citizens who actually reach and stay in, college—to fill a relatively few officer positions in the armed forces. The prewar concerns over the quality of the officer corps, remains a valid one, neither is this concern, nor the matching need for enlisted men and women, too, addressed by making ROTC mandatory. Reviving compulsory Citizen’s Army Training in high school, on the other hand, though many more reach high school than college, risks training too many, when the era of vast citizen-armies may already be gone. Again, because the justification is only secondarily military—and primarily civics—it sidesteps the hard question the military and political leadership ought to answer: What, exactly, are the specific personnel needs of the armed forces in the future, and what training (and incentives) are required, to adequately meet those needs?

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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