WAYWARD AND FANCIFUL: The peacebuilder takes command. By Gail Ilagan

That, perhaps, is the paradox to soldiery, and especially in the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

Ferrer began his speech with a reference to the pyramid as a metaphor for the career path of a military officer. Starting at the base, the top does look insurmountable, and as one stays longer he is likely to find the chances to go higher thinning out. As a matter of course, the responsibilities expand exponentially with every step up the ladder.

Logically, we can assume that the one who makes it to the top is the one who adheres to the supreme sacrifice of fitting himself into a prescribed organizational mold at the expense of expressing his individuality. However, I think it would take a certain degree of idiosyncrasy to earn the right to get ahead. One has to be pretty remarkable to make it through the bottleneck, and especially in this age when the AFP is finally making gains at professionalizing the ranks.

Every once in a rare while in AFP history, an officer comes along who can best serve those below and those above through an exercise of idiosyncrasy. (Even Clark would probably agree that he did not intend the first part of the sentence to negate the second part.) Certainly, were Ding Ferrer like all the military commanders who came before him in Basilan, that province would never have known a time when peace could actually be had. If Ferrer hadn’t been idiosyncratic in that regard, the people of Basilan would still be languishing in vain hope. Instead, at the dawn of this millennium, Basilan saw that life in that island could actually be peaceful, harmonious, and secure.

(In 2007, I edited for Balay Mindanaw a publication on soldiers as peacebuilders in Basilan. This had since become merely an internal document for Balay after, I suspect, the beheading of 14 Marines on 18 August that year in Silangkum, Ungkaya Pukan in Basilan. I still hope for that publication to reach the mainstream for the lessons at bridging leadership and the message of hope for that war-torn island.)

Some years after his Basilan stint, Ferrer found himself heading the Sixth Infantry Division based in Camp Siongco, Awang in the town of Datu Odin Sinsuat just when some disgruntled MILF elements decided to violently protest the non-signing of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain. Tracking the 2008 offensives that resulted from this display of bad behavior in Maguindanao and the Cotabato Provinces, a veteran journalist who had seen more than her share of the war there told me that, “This is the first time na ang sundalo wa nagpabadlong.” She said that with a disbelieving shake of her head. I guess she’s gotten used to soldiers whose conduct in combat leaves much to be desired.

There is a host of reasons why our soldiers were relatively disciplined and well-behaved during conduct of the pursuit operations against Ombra Kato. But ultimately, it’s about leadership. If our soldiers did not have a leader who was absolutely convinced that the military cannot be part of the solution were it not part of the problem, then the only singleminded concern would have been for our men to neutralize the enemy whatever the cost. I would opine that were it not for the fact that Ding Ferrer was the commander on the ground at that time, the conduct of the 2008 war could have been so much worse.

Talking about the impetus for the Basilan peacebuiling initiative, Ferrer refers to his experience as a lieutenant in Sulu. Leading his hungry troops after a long, tiring operation, they come upon a pair of ducks. Now, soldiers on operation are weighed down by equipment, it doesn’t leave much space for food provisions. The ducks looked delectable, so Ferrer offered the owner, an old Muslim man, to buy the ducks. The man refused saying that he only had those two left and he needed both to start a new brood. Just then, a third duck waddled by. Famished beyond belief and perhaps disappointed at the owner’s refusal, Ferrer turned to the old man and said, “You said you only have two ducks. This third one is not yours then.”

Later, Ferrer would reflect on his behavior and come to see that the resentment that many civilians in conflict affected communities hold against soldiers is not without basis. All is not fair in war, but the soldier really doesn’t have to help that along. He could instead be part of the effort to make things right. And that was what guided Ferrer’s command in Basilan.

A former brigade commander in Comval once told me that the relative isolation of Basilan allowed for Ferrer to better control the success of his initiative. For example, unlike Comval, the communist terrorist forces have yet to gain presence there. Be that as it may, Ferrer did show that soldiers could also wage peace in a big way. What spelled the Basilan difference really was that fact that Ding Ferrer tried, unlike all those other commanders who came before.

As in Basilan, Ferrer did not see the recent war in Maguindanao, Shariff Kabungsuan and the Cotabato Provinces as merely one to be played out between two opposing forces. Under his command, our soldiers worked closely with local government units, relief organizations, and civil society to
cushion the impact on communities and civilians. Then, too – and this is usually my litmus test of professional soldier conduct – altercations and misunderstanding between soldiers and the critical media came rare and far between. Expecting the worse, many among our ranks were actually confounded by the cordial accommodation and the seeming lack of suspicion, if not downright openness from our soldiers. Of course, there was that incident of mediamen getting too near the Awang ammo dump as it was accidentally going off that had the camp security chief almost going ballistic, too. But those instances of standoffs really were few and far between.

So will Ding Ferrer, as commanding general of EastMinCom, pacify the CARAGA Region, Shariff Kabungsuan, Maguindanao, and Regions 11 and 12 where, according to outgoing EastMinCom CG MGen. Armando Cunanan, “stubborn east meets the wild, wild west”?

I’d like to sit down with Ferrer and quiz him about how his paradigm for bridging leadership could translate to bring about peace in his new area of responsibility. What does he see? And does he see it clearly?

I’d also like to ask him what policy he would prescribe for dealing with child soldiers. My unsolicited opinion on the matter is that the Philippine Military Academy should not be accepting officers-in-training with mental age under eighteen. That would spell horrible things for the third duck and its old owner. On an aside – I always wondered whether it was a white duck.

Oh, well, the man obviously has more important things to do just now than to sit down and play mind games for the amusement of an educator turned wayward and fanciful columnist.

Still, and for what it’s worth, I’d probably sleep better tonight. The peacebuilder has come to town. Never mind that he has to share space with the punisher. Stranger bedfellows have we in Mindanao come to know. (Wayward and Fanciful is Gail Ilagan's column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Ilagan teaches Social Justice, Family Sociology, Theories of Socialization and Psychology at the Ateneo de Davao University where she is also the associate editor of Tambara. You may send comments to gail@mindanews.com. "Send at the risk of a reply," she says).