There never was a good war nor a bad peace. — Benjamin Franklin
If the government is thinking of the greater good of Mindanao and the country, it had better call off the all-out offensive that has been launched by its hawkish generals in Sulu and Basilan. If it has to go after the Abu Sayyaf bandits that killed 14 Marines and beheaded 10 of them, it should conduct small, commando-type operations instead of set battles. Decades of encounters with Moro separatists and bandits have shown that conventional warfare does not work well in Mindanao.
Church and political leaders, civic and women’s groups have lamented the waste of lives in Mindanao. The latest to die on the government side were 10 Marines and five junior officers who, reports said, were mowed down “like sitting ducks” by the Abu Sayyaf after they ignored their guides’ advice on what trail to take.
What is strange is that, as disclosed by an Army officer on condition of anonymity, the encounter was “considered part of their training in close-quarters combat” and “was just a test mission.” What? Are the generals playing with the lives of soldiers, sending them on “test missions” to find out which tactic will work against the Abu Sayyaf? If this is true, this is the height of callousness and insensitivity on the part of these desk-bound generals.
Many lives have been wasted in the all-out offensive against the Abu Sayyaf. And most of the victims have been soldiers in the flower of their youth. Their deaths bring to mind what US President Herbert Hoover said about war: “Older men declare war. But it is the youth that must fight and die. And it is the youth who must inherit the tribulation, the sorrow, and the triumphs that are the aftermath of war.”
Actually, no one wins in a war; everyone is a loser. The casualties lose their lives or some of their limbs. Wives become widows; children are left orphans. Their fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters all grieve for them. The world of the soldiers’ families is turned upside down.
An all-out war is bad not only for the families of the soldiers, but also for the regional and national economy. Senators last week said that an all-out war could cost the government P1 billion a month. Think of what P1 billion could finance to improve the lives of the people in Sulu and Basilan, two of the most underdeveloped places in the South. One billion pesos could pay for more low-cost houses, schools, hospitals, roads, bridges and livelihood programs.
Joseph Gloria of the Social Watch Philippines-Mindanao last week said that the all-out offensive in Sulu and Basilan is further setting back the eradication of poverty and other Millennium Development Goals in Region 12. He added that in a conflict, the most affected are the children because when wars erupt, people take refuge in the nearest schools and deprive the children of places for their education.
Already, 15,000 people have been “affected” or “displaced” by the hostilities in Sulu and Mindanao. The government officials’ terms — “affected” and “displaced” — do not fully convey the depth of suffering and fear of uncertainty that the people affected by the war are feeling. Truly, as writer Arthur Koestler once said, wars consist of only 10 percent action and 90 percent passive suffering. And it is mostly the women and the children, aside from those who die and are maimed at the front, who greatly suffer.
As of last week about 9,000 soldiers had been committed to the all-out offensive in Sulu and Basilan. Nine thousand soldiers going after what — 150 or at most 200 — Abu Sayyaf bandits reinforced by some rogue guerrillas belonging to the Moro National Liberation Front. The imbalance of forces is very overwhelming in favor of the government, and yet up to now the encounters have resulted only in the massacre of young officers and soldiers. Clearly, the situation shows again that conventional warfare, set battles will not turn the tide in Mindanao.
It is not too late to de-escalate the hostilities. If the Marines have to avenge their slain and beheaded comrades, so be it. But limit their activities to surgical operations that will not affect entire islands. Macho warriors cannot forget the Old Testament maxim of “a tooth for a tooth” and “an eye for an eye.” And it is always easy for generals who stay in the comfort of their airconditioned war rooms to wage war and play with the lives of their men. But the morally courageous stand is to call for the reduction of hostilities and to work for peace.