Book Review: A Journey that is a Destination

"No one can tell when peace will come, but maybe, in trying to define what peace means, the Muslims and all other actors in the Mindanao Theater have embarked on a journey that is also the destination," writes Criselda Yabes in her book on military operations in Mindanao.

Peace Warriors is a welcome addition to the very scanty literature on the Philippine military, much more on the Philippine Military in Muslim Mindanao. Yabes is the author of five books, including Sarena's Story: The Loss of a Kingdom, which won the UP Centennial Literary Prize for Creative Non-Fiction. A journalism graduate of the University of the Philippines in Diliman, she worked as correspondent for the international press in Manila, covering politics and coups as well as other major events. This one is written from an extremely personal perspective by a veteran journalist who has spent an enormous amount of time with the Filipino military, and especially in Mindanao:

"The 206th Tactical Helicopter Squadron does not like the idea of putting me on the ride, and if they happen to change their minds, I have to sign a waiver; they don't want to take responsibility for a journalist," she writes. "That's understandable because many of the aircraft such as these Hueys are so outdated, their use stretched way past their lifespans – from as far back as the Vietnam War era, and so there have been accidents. Yet in the past I drew immense joy from these chopper rides on news assignments. They were the highlight of covering the military, they took you to places where judgment of a country ceased, where the flight itself was transcendence. So whatever they ask of me now as a precondition to being on the Huey's manifest is a minor inconvenience, a concession I am more than willing to give. But the excitement I once had has been replaced by paranoia."

The title itself reflects the current trend in the shift of the military mindset from military operations characterized by war fighting to civil military operations characterized by community development, partnerships and collaborations with local communities. It is a force that has to make do with equipment that may well belong on the scrap heap.

The book is the journey of a person with deep affection for the lands and peoples of Mindanao, and her journeys, which often tended to be the destination in itself, as she says. The personalized style of writing is a refreshing read of the conflict situations in Muslim Mindanao. While it missed the accounts and life of the ordinary infantrymen, it nevertheless captures stories and provides images of ordinary people where the military were present.

In an ideal world, Yabes writes, the battalions operating in Mindanao should have an LST capable of carrying 2,000 troops plus support vessels and a helicopter gunship that can interdict at sea and is designed for transport and electronic surveillance and whose operational cost alone can put the Navy in the red. But, she writes:

"In reality, the Marines do not have such toys, not all at once. The combat service and support group has had to refurbish some war vehicles that had not been running for 15 years. The camp in Buhanginan has a couple of Zodiac rubber boats and a decent sized outrigger – but it cannot see the likes of an amphibious operation on the scale of Saving Private Ryan.

Prior to my invitation to review Peace Warriors, I had already encountered books like Soldiers as Peacemakers, Peacekeepers, and Peacebuilders by then Gen. Ben D. Dolorfino (AFP) and War Wounded by Prof. Gail Tan-Ilagan of the Ateneo de Davao University. I was also fortunate to have had exposure with the Philippine Marine Corps during my fellowship with the Institute for Autonomy and Governance in 2009 during which I participated in implementing its 2nd Phase of the Security Sector Reform Program for the Philippine Marines in Zamboanga, Basilan, Sulu, and Palawan. These, plus my being a Tausug and working on conflict studies over the last eight years, have given me the lenses to both appreciate and celebrate this book.

The strength of Peace Warriors lies in how it tends to cluster around history, some of which I have only read now, of the commanders of the Philippine Marines and their current efforts to win the hearts and minds of the people on the ground. I am especially delighted in the fact that some of the people encountered and befriended by the author were people I have also worked with at one time or another. This, without any prior intentions, gave more credence to the book.

Worth noting here is an account of the Jabidah Massacre, which is seen by many historians as the catalyst of the Bangsamoro rebellion in the 1970s. This specific account provides an alternative look of how one junior military officer made a difference by providing military training and military leadership to those who survived the massacre in Corregidor. That those Muslim recruits just wanted to become soldiers of this country and be given the opportunity to prove their worth is a testament of where we have failed to look into whenever we try to analyze the conflicts in Mindanao today.

Technically, there were some oversights with local terms, phrase, and context. Nonetheless, the rich account of people and places across Mindanao and through the heartlands of Muslim Mindanao provides vivid images of people and places which are often feared but in many instances loved by the author. I am more than satisfied with how the movement of the account from the Islands of Sitangkai, to the hills of Lanao, the Iranun provinces, and Maguindanao gives us a closer look of the real situation on the ground. The truth is, finally the military has realized that fighting a good war entails winning the support of those people where they move about.

The Philippines needs more literature of this kind. Where scholarship has failed to produce a significant impact on the hearts and minds of people on the ground, maybe it is high time to emphasize the need for more writings from the heart. Where the power of intellect has been limited by hatred, prejudices, and perpetual injustices, the need to understand through establishing personal connections, hearing real stories of communities marginalized by conflict and poverty, and reaching out cannot be overstated.

In her accounts of the peace warriors making a difference in places where danger, anger, and hopelessness seem to abound, the author herself, knowingly or not, may have just become, in her own right, a Peace Warrior.

The reviewer is a member of the faculty of Ateneo de Zamboanga University