The distinction may seem elementary, but it will be critical in sorting out the complexities and tangled issues in the Mamasapano incident and its aftermath.
Regardless of our stupefaction over the shortcomings of the Senate inquiry, let us keep in mind that there is a huge difference between these two forms of violent action by a government. Great questions of law have been fought over this distinction between police and military action during the last century.
Conflict in Korea and Kosovo
The lessons from history are helpful.
In 1950, after the United States sent troops into battle for the first time since the Second World War, President Harry Truman took to calling America’s military defense of South Korea a “police action.”
In a revealing report, the New Yorker wrote: “Truman’s euphemism made a lot of people angry. It was widely derided as mealy-mouthed, ignoble, or simply false. Some on the left saw Truman’s phrase as an effort to criminalize one side of a civil conflict. Some on the right saw it as part of a sinister campaign to subsume the United States into a global superstate. And many – left, right and center – recoiled from the term as a prettying-up of the slaughter of what was, by any common sense understanding, a war, and a bloody one.”
Truman’s choice of words was none of these conspiratorial alarms. It was a product of idealism, prudence,and wishful thinking. Calling the Korean War a police action was aspirational, not descriptive.
In truth, the US fought in Korea under the flag of the United Nations, along with 20 other countries, including the Philippines. The Korean War was an old-fashioned conflict among states, a proxy war fought against the background of the global struggle between liberalism and totalitarianism.
A half century later, in Kosovo, there was another conflict that hovered between police action and war. In this one, America joined the NATO countries in launching an air war to drive Slobodan Milosevic’s forces out of Kosovo.
In truth, the Kosovo conflict had all the attributes that distinguish a police action from a traditional war. After vacillating for a decade, NATO committed itself to fighting Milosevic and Serbia on the proposition that mass slaughter was intolerable on Europe’s home ground.
To Europeans, it was necessary police action. The subsequent indictment of Milosevic by the Hague tribunal made the police model explicit.
President Clinton kept the police action narrative intact by holding back US ground troops from the conflict. Avoidance of a ground war helped to maintain the solidarity of the NATO governments. One point has become clear in retrospect: if ground troops had been needed to defeat Milosevic, they would have been used.
NATO did not suffer a single combat casualty in Kosovo.
Police power and its limits
To discuss the meaning and implications of police power, I will turn to Hendrick Hertzberg’s book, Politics: Observations and Arguments, which deftly explains the peculiar character of police power and police action in the context of real situations.
He writes: “Police power is something that is normally wielded within a state. Its effectiveness depends on monopolizing violence, but its legitimacy depends on nonviolence – on subordination to a liberal democratic political structure with enforceable rights. (Without that subordination, the police function gobbles up the state, and the state becomes a police state.) The checks on the police function are political, not military – checks and balance, not balance of power.
“The legitimacy of the police power also depends on the ability to use force precisely. In 1985, in Philadelphia, a police helicopter bombed a house occupied by an outlaw cult, and the resulting fire engulfed an entire neighborhood. Everyone recognized this as a catastrophe, deeply alien to the purposes and practices of policing.
“But the bombing of Belgrade was so accurate that it went seriously wrong only when the targeters made a mistake about an address, like a drug squad breaking down the wrong door.”
Military action is of another order.
The military are armed forces of the state that are authorized to use lethal force, and weapons, to support the interests of the state and some or all of its citizens.
The task of the military is usually defined as defense of the state and its citizens, and the prosecution of war against another state. The military may also have additional sanctioned and non-sanctioned functions within a society, including construction, emergency services, and guarding important areas.
Facts about Mamasapano incident
From the public hearings and media reports on the Mamasapano incident, we know so far the following facts:
1. Oplan Exodus was from beginning to end a police operation. The Special Action Force (SAF) is a commando unit of the Philippine National Police (PNP). It was only in the latter stage of the operation when the SAF commandos were already under heavy fire, that the military was brought in to provide assistance.
2. The SAF mission was to serve arrest warrants on two high-value targets — the Malaysian terrorist Marwan and his Filipino cohort Usman—who were wanted by US authorities and had holed up in a village in Mamasapano according to top-secret intelligence.
3. Exodus was so important that President Aquino himself was involved in funding, planning and greenlighting the operation. This involvement was established beyond doubt by the updates on the operation given him.
4. Aquino took the operation out of the PNP regular chain of command when he tapped suspended PNP director-general Alan Purisima to lead the mission.
Purisima in turn delegated his authority to lead Exodus to SAF director Getulio Napeñas.
5. On the day of the launch of Exodus, on January 25, one SAF company led the assault and they quickly took out Marwan. They were met with enemy fire and suffered some casualties. They had to withdraw.
6. A support or blocking force composed of 36 commandos, another SAF company, joined the encounter. This was met by a combined force of MILF fighters, BIFF fighters and private armed groups. The exchange of fire killed 35 commandos in a fight that lasted many hours.
7. Efforts to secure military support and reinforcementrs from military units that were stationed nearby proved fruitless. Help was slow in coming.
8. Although President Aquino was informed about the operation and the beleaguered situation of the SAF as early as five in the morning, he did absolutely nothing.
In his defense, Aquino claims that he could not act because Purisima lied to him about the situation.
Incident cast in limbo
The Mamasapano incident has been cast in limbo by the Senate, because it quickly ended its investigation after it felt that it had established the fact that President Aquino was misinformed about the incident.
The investigating committee never called for a report or asked any of its resource persons on who did the shooting that killed the commandos.
It pointedly avoided inquiring into the brutality of the killings and the video online that showed the execution of one commando, who has been identified. The identity of the killer is still not known.
For its timidity in its inquiry, its refusal to call Aquino to testify or give a statement, for its lack of investigative capability, and its haste to offer conclusions to the media, the Senate inquiry left too many things hanging, and engaged.
It will take a fuller and impartial inquiry to get at the truth of what happened in Mamasapano.
In the height of irony, on the final day of the Senate hearing, it was MILF peace panel chairman Mohagher Iqbal, and not the nation’s senators, who was calling for a thorough and impartial inquiry.
That will likely remain as a Muslim and Christian prayer to heaven. because our senators have already reached their conclusions and findings.