WAYWARD AND FANCIFUL: Blood sport…game over… reboot

DUMAGUETE CITY (MindaNews/06 December) — Forty days after coming off the bloody encounter in Al Barka, two or three of the soldiers are still finding it hard to control the emotions that accompany memory retrieval of the 18 October 2011 event. For others, I could sense some psychological distancing from the event, and for many of them, they could now set the experience aside for a while and get on with life.

When doing trauma work, I aid memory retrieval by asking the client to draw a map of the trauma event as he narrates his experience of it. I was surprised this time when, instead of taking my pen and paper, one of the soldiers showed me his power point presentation instead. He had been working at a rendition of the sequence of encounter events, and I could see that the time he devoted to it allowed him to de-escalate his emotions and construct a coherent system of meaning of his life as a soldier that encompasses his painful encounter at Al Barka.

I should be so happy, right? Except that I felt like I was looking at a computer game: one that spelled “Game Over.” Time to reboot. Play again.

What about the young men who died? They surely were not virtual soldiers that we can represent as blue, yellow, or black circles against a backdrop of gray contour lines and red bursts representing enemy sniper fire. They were real people who had thoughts going on in their minds as the deadly battle unfolded. They were real people whose death deserves to be mourned. Dying the way they did requires that we do them justice.

Where the wounded survivors are concerned, the seeming forgetting around this time is normal. This psychological cushioning usually happens after posttraumatic safety has been established. It gets the individual ready to remember more clearly and enter with acceptance the grief over his losses.

While I am cautiously satisfied with how the survivors are moving towards healing from their personal trauma, I am not happy that the military establishment seems to have developed Al Barka amnesia. It appears that after Lt. Col. Leo Peña and Col. Alexander Macario had been relieved of their posts in Basilan, that is all that should be said about the matter. Game over. Reboot.

But what about the death of the nineteen soldiers? Aren’t there more questions that the military establishment should be asking after the board of inquiry did its preliminary investigation? Where does the AFP go from here? What was in that board of inquiry report and why has it been seemingly buried? Is this seeming forgetting intentional so the rest of us would also forget this terrible thing about young men having been sent to their death? What kind of an organization would the AFP be if it does not pay premium to an accurate institutional memory? It will, I can see, keep making mistakes in Basilan.

In the last month, I had asked some questions about Al Barka. Some were easy enough for my sources to answer.

I asked why students were sent. They said that before they were scuba diving students, they had been trained as soldiers. They were sent to combat as soldiers, not as scuba students.

I asked why the Military Scuba Diving “Poseidon” Class 42 was given a test mission when the previous MSDC batches never called for a test mission. I was told that military training institutions have the leeway to introduce improvements in the way courses are delivered.

I asked why soldiers were sent to do a law enforcement task. I was told that such is done in Basilan because the police could not serve warrants of arrest.

I had asked some questions about Al Barka that had been met – and continue to be met – with dead silence. I believe these are questions that the military should answer:

I asked why Basilan merited the stay of an all-Special Operations Command (SOCOM) force composed of Scout Rangers (SR) and Special Forces (SF) units. Special Operations units are trained for direct action. On 18 October 2011 and in the months before, it appears that all the soldiers deployed as territorial forces in Basilan came from the SR and the SF. In fact, they were part of what was called the SOTF-B (Special Operations Task Force –Basilan), not JOTF-B as I erroneously noted in an earlier article. What is so wrong with an all-SOCOM force in Basilan? Well, connect the dots. What do you get when you only have SOCOM forces on the ground? I guess, you get war and nothing but war, because that is what “direct action” means.

War is not what Basilan needs. It needs a long, well-considered application of operations other than war, such as what Ding Ferrer started to do there when he was Basilan area commander seven years ago. I believe it is still what Ding Ferrer wants to continue doing down there. Instead, higher authority gave him the gift of an all-SOCOM force in Basilan who had not been trained at peacebuilding the Ding Ferrer way. SOCOM forces that report to SOCOM headquarters in Luzon first, not to WesMinCom in Zamboanga.

So is this the state of affairs where the 18 October 2011 carnage came from? Did deploying an all-SOCOM force in Basilan have anything to do with the especially acrimonious battle that 18 October 2011 proved to be when our soldiers were literally turned into prey for blood sport? Whose bright idea was it to deploy an all-SOCOM force down there? Well, whoever it was did not have an understanding of Basilan and had obviously intended to turn it into a harvest of medals from racking up enemy body counts. For whose glory, we can only surmise. This hawkish objective still in the year the AFP pledged to implement the Oplan Bayanihan smacks of the kind of insincerity we can expect from warmongering armchair generals who think that the only thing a soldier should be doing is to fight wars – or make one when there are none.

It is stupid, to say the least, to put the SR and the SF together and assume that they would have smooth interoperability. That can only happen perhaps if one were to be placed under the operational control of the other. Trained to stand alone, interoperability is something these units need to work on. With the Al Barka operation, on the other hand, the SF evidently worked out the operational plan without consulting the SOTF-B led by Col. Alexander Macario, a Scout Ranger, who was Basilan area commander then. Yes, of course, the SF can plan and mount their own operation using their own personnel and their own resources. They have to tell the area commander though if they are about to move, but they don’t really need to involve the Scout Rangers in the planning.

What’s crazy about that is that when things fell apart for the SF on 18 October 2011, it did not have enough troops on reserve to reinforce; and the SR troops in the neighborhood could not immediately reinforce the SF the way it could have if it were SR troops that were involved. Also, SOCOM forces negotiate more bureaucracy than regular infantry troops when arranging tactical support from the Philippine Air Force and other Army units such as Armor. So even if the desperate ground troops could have contacted the SR units nearby or the planes and big guns, the latter couldn’t have come to their aid without proper coordination and clearance from the authorities they respectively report to. And that is why any planning to conduct operations on the scale envisioned by the SF for 18 October 2011 should have extended to coordinating properly with the ground commander rather than just informing him of the activity barely an hour before jump-off. How much of the required support from the sparse military asset available in Basilan could the area commander realistically mount and have on standby in an hour? How much of this was his to command without needing clearance from Westmincom in Zamboanga?

To my mind, that indeed was how to send the men to their death. The mission anticipated success so bad, it failed to make contingency plans for when difficulties would be encountered at any point. Failure was not an option, and so no preparations were made for it. And in the aftermath, it seems like we all should forget this. Game Over – Reboot.

And just as the rescue troops were picking up the bodies off the encounter site, Peña did the honorable thing: He owned up to the responsibility of a botched operation. Hours later, Macario did the honorable thing: He claimed responsibility for giving Pena the nod for the SF mission. And so it seems, we’d all do well to forget all about this.

Except that I can’t.

Who really conducted the planning for this operation that Peña had his troops execute? Why was the SF planning an operation in Basilan without informing the Basilan area commander?  Because it was a bad plan, okay? It was worse than bad. Nineteen dead, 14 wounded. Such would have been unnecessary if the planner had a realistic understanding of the Basilan environment and terrain. It seems to me though that the planner was viewing Basilan from a computer terminal far away, and that this planner had the clout and the malicious intent to defy Western Mindanao Command chief Lt. Gen. Raymundo B. Ferrer on how things should be played out in Basilan. Ding Ferrer, for all his faults, understands Basilan and what Basilan needs. This stupid plan couldn’t have come from Ding Ferrer.

Basilan is not a computer game that one can reboot when the players run out of life. From where I am sitting in a downtown Dumaguete Internet café, the terrible thing that happened in Al Barka not too long ago appears to have already been swept under the rug by the AFP. Why isn’t the AFP disclosing the findings of the board of inquiry on Al Barka? Why isn’t it pursuing questions on who stands to account for the death of nineteen men? Are we doing Peña and Macario justice by accepting their gentlemanly owning up when we know there is more to this than two officers holding the bag with aplomb because they indeed happened to be the ones left holding it when the bell tolled nineteen?

Why has there been an end to the questions on Al Barka? The military doesn’t want to know who was really responsible, is that it? Did PNoy receive that board of inquiry report? Is the AFP waiting for our attention deficit president to remember that nineteen young men died when they shouldn’t have? Or has the president’s attention deficits rubbed off on the AFP?

And, without the benefit of learning from the lessons of Al Barka, are the planners getting ready to play again? Because that does sound like what a warmongering virtual general would do. When it’s game over, the thing to do is reboot and play again. (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.)