Back to the past: The return of ROTC

Vice-President and Education Secretary Sara Duterte wants the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), which is currently elective, made mandatory again. President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. apparently agrees. As part of the legislative agenda he presented to Congress in his July 25th State of the Nation Address (SONA), he urged approval of a bill that would make ROTC a requirement for students in the 11th and 12th grades.

ROTC was required until 2002 of every male student in both private and public colleges and universities, but has since then been one of three options in the National Service Training Program (NSTP).

Before anyone says that Duterte-Carpio’s and Marcos Jr.’s seeming obsession with a program that, to put it mildly, was riddled with anomalies when it was required of college students is indicative of a martial mindset, the stated reasons for its return have mostly been on its supposed value in inculcating love of country among the youth and in improving the country’s disaster preparedness.

Instilling love of country and discipline were among former President Rodrigo Duterte’s reasons for supporting in 2018 a bill that would have similarly made ROTC compulsory again. But Mr. Duterte once regaled his audience during a speaking engagement on how he himself avoided ROTC during his college days by bribing a tuberculosis patient into having himself X-rayed under the Rodrigo Duterte name because he did not want anyone to yell at him. Most students indeed looked at ROTC as a waste of time, and only an opportunity for officers to yell at them.

Vice-President Duterte did say that the program is needed to instill discipline among the youth. But she seems to have shelved that argument, probably because she and its advocates in the military bureaucracy do not want to provoke speculations that they see it as a way of preventing students from being political and social activists even before they go to college.

If that is indeed the real reason, however, they need to be reminded that the program was still mandatory in the late 1960s and the early 1970s when student and youth activism was at its peak and spreading its reformist message among professionals, farmers, and workers. Only more than 30 years later, in 2002, were college students given the choice, through Republic Act 9163, of going into ROTC or taking the Literacy Training Service or Civil Welfare Training Service programs as part of their NTSP obligations.

The first trained students in improving literacy and numeracy among out-of-school youth, while the second prepared them for the task of aiding affected communities in disaster-prone Philippines. Both emphasized the patriotic duty of serving the nation through engagement with the local and national community.

These alternatives to ROTC became available through RA 9163 a year after a student of the University of Santo Tomas was found dead in the Pasig River with his arms bound and his mouth taped. Mark Chua had earlier exposed in The Varsitarian, the UST student paper, corruption in his school’s ROTC program and had named those whom he said were responsible.

The killing of Chua was enough to provoke much of the media into exposing or recalling the many anomalies in the program, such as the corruption that among other indications included some students’ buying their way out of it through various means such as bribery as Mr. Duterte did, and ROTC cadets’ being made to purchase uniforms, shoes, and other paraphernalia only from sources specified by their military handlers.

There were also reports of rampant abuses by cadet officers, complaints over the use of substandard equipment, and, most of all, its failure to inculcate the love of country and people in the students’ being required to take it which was supposed to be its core purpose.

The experience of this columnist and the rest of his generation validates most of those complaints. They too had to finish four semesters of ROTC before they could get their college degrees. At the University of the Philippines that meant marching every Saturday both on and outside the UP Diliman campus under sun or rain; sitting down to hear the lectures of hardly coherent cadet officers whose vocabularies were limited to curses learned from US war movies; firing, disassembling, and re-assembling firearms (at that time the .45 caliber Colt pistol and the M-1 Garand rifle); and, because the UP ROTC regiment was then an artillery unit, greeting with blank cannon rounds on-campus guests like the President of the Philippines.

Never was there any lecture or orientation on the program’s role in imbuing citizens with patriotism or civic consciousness. There was instead only the constant repetition of the obvious fact that it was contributing more manpower to the country’s military establishment. It would have helped the program if the students in it had been told what it was for other than a venue for power-trippers to feel important, but that did not happen.

What passed for instilling discipline mostly consisted of cadet officers’ screaming profanities at their schoolmates, giving them demerits for crumpled uniforms, unpolished brass buckles, or long hair, making them do pushups, and, in some cases, physically abusing them by dropping eight-pound rifles butt-end first on cadet toes. Their point was crystal-clear: obey, or else be yelled at — or worse.

Like any other hierarchical system, ROTC in this feudal land provided those with low self-esteem the opportunity to exercise power over those who in the real world were their superiors. And in replication of the military culture of violence, the use of force was integral to ROTC ideology.

Some UP alumni and faculty who were detained during the martial law period also ran into some graduates of the ROTC advanced course for officers who were in units of the Philippine military in behalf of which they had apparently been spying on their professors and fellow students.

One of the consequences of the above practices was ROTC officers’ being jeered at and made fun of in the classroom, among other reasons because it seemed more than obvious that going into the military should hardly be anyone’s goal in enrolling in the University of the Philippines. Rather was it so obviously to earn a degree in the arts, the natural and social sciences, business, education, or in professions such as law and medicine.

If indeed the Marcos II administration intends to bring back the past by, among other means, making ROTC mandatory again, 21 years after it was made an NTSP elective, it could start by first instituting the needed reforms in the program to prevent or at least reduce the corruption, abuses and violence that many associate with it.

But even more crucial is the imperative of instilling among its participants a lifetime commitment to the Constitutional mandate that the military is the protector of the people and of the country’s sovereign rights, rather than their oppressor and the defender of the oligarchy that it has been for decades — and as it was brazenly so during the Marcos Sr. dictatorship.

That would make the return of ROTC a way forward rather than back. It may not exactly be the intent of its advocates, but that of encouraging the country’s young citizens into internalizing the Philippine military’s simple-minded definition of patriotism as no more than unquestioning obedience and loyalty to authority. That was what ROTC did in the past. But that is not what this rumored democracy needs in this troubled present.

Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).

Published in Business World
August 4, 2022

Featured image from Reserve Officers Training Corps – ROTC’s Facebook Page

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