An open letter to the President
By Laurence Hector B. Arroyo
Dear Mr. President:
The time has arrived for you to own up to the Mamasapano incident. You must apologize.
Apologize for your incomplete grasp of the nature of the chain of command that governs and binds the AFP and PNP hierarchies. The chain of command required you to deal directly with the AFP Chief of Staff and the PNP Chief, but, for reasons of your own, you chose to deal directly with the suspended PNP Chief and the 2-star SAF Commander. You can bypass, as in fact you did, the chain of command except that when you do so, you create confusion among those who have, throughout their professional lives, rigorously observed such chain. Orders go down the chain of command and not the other way around.
Apologize for sending men on a mission which, from its inception, was already compromised by the peace process. You wanted the best of both worlds. You wanted to capture a terrorist in enemy territory but at the same time you wanted to preserve the peace. You did not have the foresight to realize that you could not have both, so that when battle broke out, as it foreseeably would, the 44 found themselves immolated on the altar of peace.
If you won’t apologize for your participation in the ill-conceived mission and for screwing up the chain of command, at least apologize for your conduct in the aftermath of the disaster. Dealing with a suspended PNP Chief in an operation as sensitive and large as Oplan Exodus merely betrayed a lack of good judgment. On the other hand, your conduct in the days after Mamasapano exposed a greater flaw —a flaw in character.
Apologize for not speaking to the nation sooner. Forty-four of your finest men were killed in action in the service of country, while you, the Commander-in-Chief, went missing in action at a time when the nation needed you most. The SAF 44 fell by the afternoon of January 25. Yet, we did not hear your voice until four days later. And even then, you had not much to say and little emotion to show.
Apologize too for your piecemeal, selective and less than candid disclosures. For the longest time, you chose to keep silent. Then, when the clamor for answers became too loud to ignore, you declared that the hapless Gen. Napeñas deceived you. A few weeks later, with your popularity rating at an all-time low, you claimed that suspended PNP Chief Purisima let you down. In this instance, failure was not an orphan. It was, at least according to you, fathered by Purisima and Napeñas. You were a triumvirate but only up until Marwan was killed in the wee hours of January 25 because until then, the mission was a success. The moment the fields of Mamasapano turned red, however, you denied your paternity and took to describing the police operation as “Mission Impossible”.
But above all, apologize for not being at Villamor Airbase. You flew to Zamboanga in the morning of January 25, ready to take credit for what was supposed to be the glorious capture of one of the world’s most wanted terrorists. But where were you when your men came home as corpses?
You are (were) their Commander-in-Chief. You sent them into battle. They died for the sake of the mission and for country. You owed it to them to meet them at the tarmac of Villamor Air Base. You owed it to them to stand tall and grim and straight under the bright sun, amidst the tears of their families and the nation. Your men and their families were not asking for much. They were only asking that you be there when the cargo planes touched the ground and stay there until the 44th casket was delivered from their bowels.
Your spokesperson Abigail Valte explained that you had a previous engagement to visit a car plant in Laguna and that, anyway, you were scheduled to attend the necrological services the following day. When your men die, the world should stop, if only for a few minutes. When your brother or son or father dies and his remains are brought home, you rush to the airport. You do not say I have to go to a car plant. You do not say I’ll be there tomorrow. The dead cannot wait. You have to be there when they arrive. You have to remain there until the last casket is unloaded. A president who has the power to send men into combat and to their deaths certainly has the power to cancel a visit to a car plant. The choice was not between being present at Villamor and at the necrological services. You should have been present at both.
You call them heroes but you did not give them a hero’s welcome. You claim to be their father, but you did not treat them as sons.
Above all, apologize to the SAF families for your painful words. When a wife who has just lost her husband in battle asks you why the Government did not retaliate with airstrikes, you do not say, “naglalaro ka ba ng computer?” When a young widow asks you how she can get justice for her dead husband, you do not say, “Anong gusto n’yo gawin ko, kunin natin ang fingerprint ng mga kalaban?” Nor do you say, “Namatay rin ang tatay ko, alam ko ang pakiramdam niyo kaya patas na rin tayo ngayon.” This was not about you but about them. This was not about the death of your father, but about the death of their husbands and sons. By all means, tell them that you recognize the depths of their grief but do not tell them that you are even. Understand that in the morning of January 25, their husbands were still alive and that, before the day could end, all 44 had fallen. If they were persistent, you owed it to them to be patient. If they were angry, you owed it to them to show understanding. If they had questions, you owed it to them to answer their questions in a presidential manner. If there was any time where you were expected to be at your most presidential, this was the time. You were not talking to children. You were talking to the widows of heroes—broken, grieving, uncomprehending widows.
It is ironic that the mission was labeled “Oplan Exodus”. Exodus is a story about deliverance from oppression and death. In any event, even Moses, I am sure, would have apologized to his people had the Red Sea come crashing down on them instead of on the pursuing Egyptians.