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WAYWARD AND FANCIFUL: Postscript to the Soldiers of Marawi

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DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 12 Oct) – The title of my article on the book Transfiguring Mindanao: A Mindanao Reader is Local Frontlines of Globalized Islamic States Networks: The Emerging War Arena for the Filipino Soldier. And in the article, I presented the 2017 Marawi Siege to be that.

This title paraphrases how Digong characterized the Marawi war arena when he pleaded his case to the Congress in July 2017 for the extension of martial law until the end of that year. He described what was happening then in Marawi as a “newly evolving urban warfare”.

So that’s the second part of the title actually: The emerging war arena for the Filipino soldier. Emerging, or – as Digong said, “newly evolving” – because for the longest time, soldier training in the Philippines had been towards preparing them to meet the enemy in the boondocks, in the jungles, in the hinterlands. For too long, our internal wars were fought in the peripheries, too far from the mundane experiences of the ordinary Filipino, so much so that the rest of us could just pretty much ignore internal strife then. It’s a validation of our relative safety to come to believe that war in this country is happening to someone else.

But when war happens in a city, it happens where we all can see it. Today, that would happen to an internet-connected community so we get the news in real-time. It’s a city. It makes us think about what if it happened where we are? Marawi may have been another city, yes – but, it makes us register that the threat could very well come for us in our cities, in our homes.

And that is why I was motivated to write this article for the Mindanao Reader. There, I think, is a need for young readers to contemplate on this potential scenario for the future.

In researching this writing project at the close of 2019, I was lucky enough to have the current Philippine Army commander as my primary source or respondent. General Romeo Brawner served as the Army spokesman on the ground in Marawi during those fateful months. In late November 2019, he had just been recalled from his brief stint as 103rd Army Brigade commander in Marawi to take over as Commandant of Cadets at the PMA in the wake of a hazing death. Among the first things he did when he got to Baguio was to email a request to my ADDU boss Fr Tabora for me to come to PMA and provide mental health support to the corps. So I strong-armed him to do an interview a few weeks later para quits kami.

Those of you who know General Brawner or may have seen him on the news probably know that he can be engaging raconteur if you can capture him for a sitdown. He was raised in a home with a judge and a higher education professor as parents, so there in itself is quite an extensive liberal education from the nest. After high school, he went to UP Diliman before becoming a cadet at the PMA. He says it was mostly to avoid having his manhood challenged by his uncles who were PMA alumni.

His cadet days did not go as smoothly though – sometime midway, he experienced disappointments and doubts, but with the help of some mentors he was able to overcome these. He went on to eventually graduate at the top of his class. Today, he has three postgraduate degrees and can really talk to just about anybody on any medium.

I digress.

Anyway, Gen. Brawner helped me understand how the Marawi Siege became possible, how the ISIS takeover of cities in faraway Iraq and Syria beckoned to some fringe groups here on our islands to plot for the taking over of the only Islamic city in the country. Long and short, ISIS influence made inroads here in the Philippines as early as 2014. It initially fed on avowed violent extremist groups – we had those already – the ones who were quick to post their videos of pledging allegiance to ISIS and to Abu Bkar Al-Baghdadi.

Mainly through social media and thereby attracting the millennial segment of our population, this extremist ideology would invite adherents through savvy propaganda and slick recruitment strategies. Young men and women dropped out of school to learn bomb-making in clandestine training camps. Or they stayed above ground and raised money for the cause, networking to provide support to jihadis who executed bombing of commuter buses, night markets, malls, churches, and promenades, mostly here in Mindanao. They procured guns and ammos as well as the materials for improvised explosive devices.

Until August 2016, the official line of the military was that there was no ISIS-related threat in the country – that internet postings alluding to such were merely attention-seeking bandwagon activities to the bigger war happening in the Middle East.

Thus ignored and unacknowledged, the threat grew in number in secret. And so they became a force for the rest of us to reckon with, but especially the soldiers.

What is this new war arena for the Filipino soldier?

Urban warfare features heavy guns and IEDs fought in heavily fortified concrete structures that provide many hiding places and sniper nests. Clearing the enemy would mean destroying these hiding places and sniper nests so they could not be used for those purposes. That often means totally destroying sturdy buildings. It will need bigger bombs. Think of that for a moment. To render buildings unusable for hideouts, shields, or sniper nests means to reduce them to rubble. Bring it to the ground to save it.

Assault weapons and any form of heavy guns loaded with armor-piercing rounds can inflict so much damage in so short a time. You have guns like these, you don’t need a lot of fighters.

Urban warfare means the use of computer-guided drones to gather intelligence or serve as forward observers to identify targets. Attack drones could also be used to inflict damage on the enemy without risk to the operator. We saw drones used in Marawi. As we speak, drone technology is accelerating, so in future wars I expect drones will have more lethal uses. Someone somewhere is literally testing that now.

Night vision goggles and heat-seeking rifle sites now make war a potentially 24-hour possibility, unlike in the past when soldiers fight during the day and sleep at night.

So no more “harboring” or setting up camp two hours before the sun comes down. The threat out there in the battlespace is 24/7.

Urban terrain requires more modern equipment to navigate. World War II tanks cannot navigate narrow side streets. Wide tanks are blind at the side. They need flank protection, requiring soldiers on foot to march at the side to prevent an unseen enemy coming up to drop a grenade inside. Soldiers on foot at the side of the tanks can be easily harvested by snipers from the roof above. We read of tanks that got abandoned on the streets of Marawi and now we know why.

Urban warfare means the presence of civilians who can be used as human shields or could be coerced to be force multipliers. We know of hostages who were put to work assembling bombs, cook, clean, wash and take care of the wounded. Or taken as reluctant brides. Civilians trapped in the warzone could be an enemy advantage – they confuse soldiers and slow them down.

Money and other resources tend to aggregate in the cities. Urban warfare means houses that can be looted for guns to be added to the enemy arsenal, as well as for money and valuables that could be used to fatten the war chest. It means generators for power supply. It means grocery stores, department stores, gas stations, banks, and drug stores that can be looted for food, funds, materials, and medicines. Thus the entrenched enemy could remain entrenched far longer. It would take longer to starve them out.

So all told, the lessons of Marawi have informed modernization in the AFP to prepare our soldiers to fight in that emerging war arena. The Army is enhancing its light infantry capabilities, it is institutionalizing cross-training with other armed services for closer coordination on joint operations, and it is focusing on close quarter combat and other aspects of military operations in urban terrain.

It is training people for cyber intelligence, signal intelligence, human intelligence, and other kinds of military intelligence operations. It trains soldiers to scour social media and Darkweb sites where recruitment, terrorist financing, and propaganda are happening. It has also procured modern equipment better suited for urban terrain.

To conclude, we pray that war never comes where we are. But if it does, we would wish for the defenders of our people and our land to be better equipped and better prepared to fight our battles for us.

(This article was written as the author’s address during The Transfiguring Mindanao Conversation Series for its segment on The New War and the New Peace: On the Mindanao Frontlines held via Zoom on October 12, 2022 by the Institute of Philippine Culture of the Ateneo de Manila University.)

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