War against COVID-19

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The Duterte administration could use some creative writer or literary scholar to supply it with a fresh stock of metaphors. To date, “war” has provided the dominant image to brand the government’s priority programs: War Against Drugs, Terrorism, Poverty, Corruption, wars without definitive endings.War does evoke images of courage and commitment, self-sacrifice and patriotism in the nation’s service. Ironically, President Duterte will vigorously avoid invoking the war imagery on the problem proper to the military, the defense of the West Philippine Sea; that might involve a real, not a metaphorical war. Heaven forbid that his army and his people should take any risk to oppose a stronger foe, when war, as he has learned from history, can cause painful consequences. That is why Filipinos did not fight the Spaniards, the Americans, and the Japanese, or defy the forces of the Marcos martial law regime.

With the pandemic threat, the government smoothly slides into the familiar, figurative language: War Against COVID-19. But the literal interpretation of the war metaphor is problematic. Primary responsibility for waging the pandemic war then logically falls on the armed forces and their ranking officers. But we have to recognize that this has been Mr. Duterte’s personal default button for his other wars, from which no one in his inner circle apparently dares to deviate. Hence, against corruption, generals in DILG and Customs; against poverty, a general in DSWD; against ignorance, a PNP deputy chief in Tesda.

Against COVID-19, presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo proclaims the need for military leaders who have developed a “culture of discipline, obedience to superiors, training in

organization, tactical strategies in fighting the enemies of the state and thorough preparedness in organization.” One might inquire what training they had received to defeat a largely unknown and invisible enemy that hides among the people they are supposed to defend.

Still, as the British mathematicians who cracked the German World War II Enigma code and the scientists of the US moonshot that helped launch the internet have demonstrated, the management and technical expertise available in security agencies has gone far beyond combat skills. The armed forces also command their own equipment and personnel. In the United States, the military can deploy hospital ships to decongest civilian hospitals and medical personnel to reinforce the public health system in the most infected areas. In our case, the role of the military appears focused on enforcing lockdown controls, arresting violators, and maintaining public order.

But clearly, for Panelo, the most highly-prized virtue that the military brings to the governments’ different wars is their obedience to the chain of command. He commended the leaders of the armed forces because: “They are not embroiled in bureaucratic rigmaroles. They abhor useless debates. They are silent workers, not voracious talkers. They act without fanfare. They get things done.” This was an extraordinarily contemptuous putdown of the civilian bureaucracy that might have embarrassed even the military officers themselves.

Panelo and the administration seem stuck in a World War I mental frame, when the enemy was visible only several hundred meters away in their fortified trenches. It took iron discipline and unquestioning faith for soldiers to leap, on command, from their own protected positions and charge across open ground covered by enemy fire, to find safety only by occupying enemy trenches.

Modern warfare has become too complex for the military’s absolute obedience to serve as the key to victory. More so with metaphorical wars for socioeconomic goals like public health. Granting that military personnel are good at following orders, how good are the orders they must follow, when the Commander in Chief has already disclaimed any expertise on pandemics?

The military does have much to contribute to the campaign against COVID-19. It may lack now someone like Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has the credentials, the credibility, and the courage to speak truth to power. But to believe that military men merely implement top-down orders depreciates their value, reducing them to puppets on strings. This reflects a low regard for the military, so low that its proponents cannot even conceive that the military might consider this assessment insulting.

Edilberto C. de Jesus is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.

Business Matters is a project of the Makati Business Club (makatibusinessclub@mbc.com.ph).

Posted on 04 April 2020 under Business Matters section of The Philippine Daily Inquirer