More on the same subject, about the military’s vexing role in a rambunctious democracy.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about an "unexpectedly disturbing" column by the eminent Randy David. I have made no secret about my esteem for the leading sociologist; like many others, I entertain the hope that he would write more often for my paper’s opinion pages. I have found his writing both learned and on-the-ground practical, essential reading in these parlous times. But his column of August 28 was profoundly upsetting.
In it, he praised the young who had taken the lead in the impeachment drive against the President. And then, in a fatal leap of misplaced faith, he wrote this:
Seven military coup attempts challenged the foundations of President Cory Aquino’s people-power regime. Those of us who had fought Ferdinand Marcos and joined the Edsa People Power revolution could only see in these attempted coups the hand of military adventurism. We did not hesitate to defend what we perceived to be the democratic gains of Edsa. But looking back now, and after having met young officers like Capt. Rene Jarque, who has died "without seeing the dawn," so to speak, I am convinced we were wrong to dismiss these coups as mere power grabs. The major ones of these coups were led by young officers who stood for genuine social change, and saw no other way of achieving it than by seizing state power. Young people in the military saw what the return of the old was doing to their own organization. They saw how the same politicians were reversing with impunity the spirit of renewal that Edsa had embodied for them. They could not bear to see all this and do nothing.
Let me borrow a useful conceit from literary criticism: David’s second look at recent history is a disturbing distortion, because it depends uncritically on the intentional fallacy. It mistakes the intention of some of the coup plotters for the reality of the coup they plotted.
There is no doubt that some, or perhaps even many, of the officers and men who joined the August 1987 and December 1989 coup attempts ("the major ones") were motivated by a sincere desire for "genuine social change." That fact, however, does not make the attempted coups themselves any less a power grab.
The object, in both instances, was to seize state power. That object was justified in the name of military reform (for some) and social change (for some others). But it was an object that first emerged during the bleakest years of the dictatorship. Thus, after democratic institutions were restored, the conditions for the seizure of state power had already changed. But the masterminds, the main coup plotters, thought otherwise.
David scores what "the return of the old [political traditions]" did to the military in the late 1980s. He also blames the politicians for reversing "the spirit of renewal that Edsa had embodied for them [that is, the military reformists]." These two assertions of fact imply that, if the renewal of democratic institutions had continued apace, the reformers in the military would not have attempted a coup.
I think this is a sad misreading of the true historical situation. The true leaders of the military reform movement wanted to seize power in February 1986; it was because Marcos preempted them that they found themselves holed up in Camp Aguinaldo. In other words, the military roots of the first flourish of People Power actually lay in a failed coup (the first, we note, in a long series of failed attempts).
After Edsa I, the true leaders found themselves increasingly out-of-place in a democratic set-up, like born-and-bred military fish out of roiling democratic water. And not just any kind of fish: They were spoiled fish, raised at a time when the military took an active part in running the country. It was natural for the likes of Honasan to see themselves as national albeit still-obscure leaders, favored by the gods of inevitability. It was only a matter of time before this once and future ruling class would attempt, again, to seize power for themselves.
The notion that this class had stepped aside after Edsa I, but at some time could no longer bear "to see all this and do nothing," is revisionist history. It may be motivated by a deeper appreciation for the nuances that led bright young men to launch destructive coups, but it is still revisionism.
The true leaders of the coups took advantage of their men’s sense of idealism. For them, the spirit of Edsa was not renewal, but interruption. That is why, even till now, personalities like Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile insist that the true anniversary of Edsa I is not February 25, when Marcos fled, but February 22, when the reformists first rose in arms. So much for idealism.
Surely there are other ways to praise the youthfulness and idealism of the political opposition, without turning yesterday’s coup plotters into today’s harmless do-gooders.