WAYWARD AND FANCIFUL: Eerie

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/30 January) — They were from Class Poseidon.

They go down in Philippine military history as the only SCUBA Diving Course batch to ever be sent on a test mission – and not for the execution of a beach landing site (BLS) exercise as would have been a logical expectation, but to undertake law enforcement in the unfamiliar, unforgiving mountains of Albarka, Basilan. That was a mission cloaked in utmost secrecy. It gave the soldiers little time to calibrate their mindset, pack away their tanks, and prepare their war equipment.

In fact, the rifles were only issued out just hours prior to loading them on the boats bound for the mission site. There was no assuring “my gun is my wife” comfort to this new relationship. Some had not even “zeroed” their guns before it was time to jump off.

Forty-two of them went in. They were distributed in three teams. Three hours into their lonely trek in the dark before someone out there fired a single shot. They dropped and observed. Was that shot meant for them? Even more cautiously this time, they continued the climb. Ten minutes later, they came under heavy fire.

Forty-two of them deployed to form a defensive box. But even as they did, they were doomed out there on a slope that afforded very scant cover. On that fateful dawn on the 18th of October, the Poseidon made its last stand as a class – SF troops and a handful of Scout Rangers. The forty-two tried valiantly to fight back as sniper fire came from all sides.

The firing when it began had worked like a magnet, soon drawing into play all the heavy guns in the area. Soon there were rocket propelled grenades raining down on the soldiers’ position. Soon there was automatic fire. Soon, there were nineteen dead among the forty-two.

Poseidon fought back, but ran out of bullets. Must have been minutes, or hours – who can tell? The officers were down or out. No one was giving commands any more or rallying the troops. Or if anyone was, nobody was hearing it.

Getting out, it was every man for himself. A few found room to wriggle out, desperately scrambling from tree to boulder for protection as they blindly pushed their wounded bodies to claw out of the killing zone.

Someone froze, unresponsive. He had to be left behind, abandoned to his fate.

Someone gave up his life to cover another.

A week later, listening to the wounded survivors of the 18 October 2011 Albarka encounter, I thought that was the worst combat engagement our troops would ever have since Erap’s all-out war in 2000. Terrible couldn’t quite capture what that experience was for the survivors. It definitely was an experience that none of them would want repeated.

Albarka was an exercise in arrogance of combat commanders directing the operation by remote control. Even to an eye untrained at military decision making in mounting combat operations, it would appear that planning for that mission failed to properly evaluate the terrain and the threat thereat. It whimsically wished that the adversary there did not have the capacity to mount the gathering of offensive fire that, like a clarion call, the initial firing assembled.

This was pintakasi – a primal response to the intruder: Off with his head. Let’s kill him dead… and then we kill him again.

Many among the survivors from Poseidon remember the sound of that battle as a crescendo that would never seem to end.

Tolkien wrote about Eomer, young and fiery eyed, the song of battle coursing through his blood. Take away romanticizing war and remember only that battle changes the psyche of its participants.

Combat, with its unpredictable, unrelenting, and constant threat to life, is the most intense of human stressors. Finding oneself a target of bullets meant to kill, one is never more alive than when the heart is galloping fit to burst and one’s nerve endings are heightened to intensities beyond bear. You are faster, stronger, lighter than you’ll ever be. Time dilates, or contracts. At some point it stops, only to start again.

Inhibition flies out the window, and you find yourself doing things you never thought possible or permissible. But one false move and you end up dead. That is too how you end up expending aggressive impulses until that mad drumming of pumping adrenaline bleeds away. Bloodlust demands more daring exploits and takes a long time to slake. War is a moment one lives like in a dream. And then –

Ah, look at what you’ve done.

People unlucky enough to understand war understand that all is fair.

But Albarka would have come out differently had the planners coordinated the operation with other military units. There could have been more immediate support from prepositioned assets. As it turned out, choppers that could have softened enemy positions or evacuated the wounded were veritably useless to the soldiers as they were under fire. Those choppers were in the other island.

Similarly, support troops were hours away on the other side of the island. Had they known, they said, they could have moved closer earlier, ready to aid. Except that their movement needed clearance from somewhere higher up in the chain of command.

The tanks, too, needed someone’s clearance to roll. That someone wasn’t there. Or maybe he needed someone else’s clearance to give the go ahead.

Such is the problem of figuring out standby support to a unit’s operation in the AFP. Planners and commanders have to negotiate up and down and sideways. That spells time, something that a foot soldier had very little of when he’s dying under heavy fire.

In October 2011, it would be three days before all the soldiers from Poseidon were accounted for. Outraged at the final death toll, the nation demanded all-out war. The President countered with a call for all out justice.

A few months back when the last case on Albarka was closed, I wondered if indeed the boys got all out justice –whatever that meant.

Early Sunday with the PNP SAF elements trapped in a Mamasapano riverside cornfield eerily sounds like one early morning in 2011 when Poseidon was partway up the mountains of Albarka. I hear again the call for all-out war. But I do not hear the President call for all out justice this time.

I learned the lesson of Poseidon while waiting out pained pauses and anguished silence of the survivors who grappled with the words to talk about it. I didn’t have to learn about their pain, but those were boys who had the rest of their lives ahead of them. As a helping professional I know that it is when one’s worldview gets so dislocated that he needs a guiding voice to bring him home. And while our efforts may not sometimes be enough, the only thing we can do for him is to try to bring him home.

Someone else who should have did not learn the lesson of Poseidon. He cloaked the planning of Mamasapano in secrecy, hoping against extreme odds for the boys to come home with the prize. He blithely disregarded the pitfalls of sending the boys walking into the SPMS box in Maguindanao. Whoever he was, he probably knew that the SPMS box may actually be as perilous – if not more so – as the unforgiving mountains of Albarka. (Wayward and Fanciful is Gail Ilagan’s column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Ilagan chairs the Department of Psychology at the Ateneo de Davao University. You may send comments to [email protected]. “Send at the risk of a reply,” she says.)

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