In the late 1960s, when the outcome of the Vietnam War was still uncertain, some US sociologists warned that its social costs to the United States could be immense. Any major war has an impact on the society from where the combatants are drawn. The Vietnam War would be no exception. Vietnam itself emerged from the war in economic, political and social ruin, and is still on the road to recovery. In the US case the impact did not include the economic devastation that being a theater of conflict brings.
But the US had thrown 500,000 young men into a war whose justness was uncertain at least. At home, the uncertainty and even conviction that the war was immoral had spread.
Although it had been going on before then, the program, called Operation Phoenix, officially started only in 1968. It officially ended in 1970 but continued beyond that year. Run by the US CIA with the collaboration of South Vietnamese troops, it was specifically meant to target non-combatants and was thus in violation of the Geneva Conventions. US figures place the number of assassinated civilians and guerilla suspects at some 20,000, but the number could be higher.
The killing of civilians and the torching of villages, which research has found was not as rare as earlier alleged by US authorities, necessarily had an effect on troop morale. Although whatever pangs of conscience some US troops could have suffered were assuaged by the thought that those killed were “communists,” anyway, some did return to the US deeply disturbed. Opposition to the war having spread at home, some demobilized troops also found themselves at odds with a population they expected to be supportive.
The Philippine troops that have been thrown into a contemporary and local version of Operation Phoenix–the Arroyo regime’s “total war” against “the Left”– are of course not a foreign invading force. But they are nevertheless estranged from the communities where they have been deployed.
The estrangement is built-in. Human rights–to which it pays lip service when convenient–is not one of the strong suits of the military, in the first place. The Armed Forces of the Philippines also makes it a policy to deploy troops into communities other than those they came from, precisely because it doesn’t want ties with the people to affect troop performance and morale.
The other way of putting this is that the AFP wants the troops to look at the communities where they’re deployed as peopled by strangers they can harass, arrest, torture or kill without any qualms. Muslim troops are thus not deployed in Muslim areas. Ilokanos are not deployed in their home provinces, etc. Among the results is to enhance existing regional antagonisms and to compromise the centuries-old process of building a national community.
In addition, the checkpoints, the house- to- house “census” meant to intimidate NPA “supporters,” the abductions and the killings, and the hiring of informers from within the communities, make normal life impossible. They also tear communities apart by pitting neighbor against neighbor, while undermining the authority of local officials.
For all its brutality and the number of deaths it achieved, Operation Phoenix was a failure in Vietnam for two reasons: it generated internal refugees, and it alienated the population further. The Vietnamese context at the time was the key to the failure. Widespread corruption resulted in a system in which local officials threatened to denounce or have people arrested unless they were paid off. Some officials also used the program against non-communist regime opponents. The killings and imprisonment–too often based on faulty intelligence–also became so widespread that sometimes entire communities had relatives who had been killed or were in prison.
The same context practically obtains in the Philippines, where corruption thrives and enhanced military power leads to abuses that fuel popular discontent.
It is probably too much to expect the military to think of the long-term impact on the nation of its current strategy. No country under military control has ever prospered, after all. Civilized countries leave authentic strategic thinking–i.e., what certain policies can do to the nation–to civilian authorities who have access to social, political and economic experts.
But the military is already in effective control of a critical policy affecting the fragile unity of the diverse tribes and regions of this country. This de facto usurpation of a civilian prerogative is due to the Arroyo regime’s dependence on and fear of the military, and its clinging to power even if it be on the ruins of the national community and the bones of the long- suffering Filipino people.