Revisiting the Role of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC)

01.22.2016
Security Politics Society

The question of how to best improve our national defense posture over the coming years will very likely include revisiting the question of ROTC’s place in our nation’s educational institutions, and, more broadly, the relationship between citizens and their obligations to the nation in general.

Unbeknownst to a large number of today’s Filipino youths, the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program was once an integral, universal and, indeed, mandatory component of the early adulthoods of all college-going men. Today, ROTC is just one of three tracks of the National Service Training Program (NSTP) — the civic education program, which since 2002 has been a requisite for graduation at all Filipino colleges, universities, and some vocational schools. Over the past decade and a half, young Filipinos have become increasingly removed from the concept of military service. Among the younger Filipino generations, the existence and role of the ROTC program barely register — only 14% of NSTP enrollees opt for the ROTC track.1

"Over the past decade and a half, young Filipinos have become increasingly removed from the concept of military service."

Yet, this has not always been the case. Among older generations of Filipinos, the memories of ROTC are strong and, for the most part, viewed positively and nostalgically as an important component of their most formative years. For these generations, the ROTC was not merely useful in terms of personal development, but was a crucial pillar of their national identity. Many of the ‘fighting Filipinos’ that resisted Japanese invasion and continued the struggle during the subsequent three-year occupation during the Second World War, were drawn from the ranks of the reserve force. In the post-War era, ROTC was maintained as a mandatory program — institutionalizing the belief that our democracy is best protected by citizen-soldiers. The ROTC program was lauded as instilling young Filipinos with a sense of discipline, shared identity, and love of country. On a strategic level, the pervasiveness of the program provided a strong base of trained citizen-soldiers that could be called upon in times of war or other crises.

However, more recent perspectives on the program are less rosy. In the 1990s and early 2000s, ROTC’s reputation was sullied by widespread criticism of corruption and abuses, most notably, the tragic death of Mark Chua, who died due to hazing from members of his own ROTC unit. The rest, as they say, is history: ROTC was made voluntary and has remained so — exposing ever fewer Filipinos to military service.

What institutional forces were at play and how did we get to this point where military serve is now pushed to the periphery of our society? First, let’s briefly review the basics of military organization and training, then we will consider what role our reserve forces should play in our national society.

1. Structure of Training

(Skip to Section 2 if you are familiar with military basics)

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) is composed of three service branches: the Army (PA); Navy (PN), which includes the Marine Corps; and Air Force (PAF). Military ranks break down into two categories: enlisted ranks (which are acquired directly through enlistment, without the military education process described below), and commissioned or officer ranks. Enlisted men and women are the fighting backbone of our military, while officer ranks connote varying degrees of responsibility and leadership. Across the services, personnel divide into two categories: active-duty personnel and reservists. Active duty members of the AFP are full-time soldiers. Reservists, on the other hand, typically pursue civilian lifestyles, with the understanding that they may be called upon to support the regular military — this includes assistance in humanitarian or disaster relief operations as well as active duty in the regular force to provide additional manpower when deemed necessary, such as in the case of (knock on wood) invasion.

"Reservists typically pursue civilian lifestyles, with the understanding that they may be called upon to support the regular military."

So you want to become an officer in the AFP? There are three ways a Filipino is able to earn a commission as an officer in our nation’s three military branches.

The most direct approach is to attend the prestigious Philippine Military Academy (PMA), located in Baguio. Though the PMA may trace its origins to the establishment of the Academia Militar in 1898, the PMA in its current form was officially established in 1935, upon the adoption of the National Defense Act (CA 1). The PMA is modeled closely after the storied American Military Academy at West Point. Prospective cadets apply to the PMA out of high school and, if accepted, enroll in a rigorous four-year course, which blends martial and academic disciplines. Upon graduation, PMA-ers are commissioned into the active force as the lowest ranking officer in the service branch of their choice: a 2nd Lieutenant (for the army and air force) or an Ensign (navy). The PMA enjoys a substantial level of prestige, though certain observers note that this sometimes manifests in cliquish and/or elitist attitudes among graduates. Indeed, bonds formed at the academy tend to endure through an officer’s career, and it is a well-established phenomenon that members of the same PMA class tend to dominate high-level positions in the military as well as in the Department of National Defense (DND) at around the same times.  

Filipinos who earn their bachelor’s degrees from civilian institutions and did not participate in ROTC (or completed only Basic ROTC) may earn a commissioned rank in the military by attending the Officer Candidate School (OCS), located in Capas, Tarlac. The OCS program is an intensive one-year course that focuses on tactical and strategic education. Upon graduation from the OCS, officer candidates may be tapped for active duty as a 2nd Lieutenant or Ensign, or may instead elect to return to civilian life, whilst maintaining their probationary rank as a member of the reserve force.

The final approach, and the focus of this briefing, is through completion of the ROTC program whilst attending a civilian academic institution. Two stages constitute the ROTC program: Basic ROTC during the first two years of college and Advance ROTC during the latter two years. Completion of Basic ROTC qualifies a student for the reserve force, while completion of Advance ROTC is typically required for consideration as a commissioned officer in the reserve force and, in some cases, direct appointment into the active force.

2. The History of ROTC in the Philippines

ROTC began in the Philippines in 1912, when the Philippine Constabulary (PC) initiated military instruction at the University of the Philippines (UP); the first official ROTC unit was established at UP in 1922. In 1939 then President Manuel Quezon issued Executive Order 207, which made the establishment of ROTC programs obligatory at all colleges and universities with greater than 100 students.

"...ROTC cadets (along with cadets from the PMA) formed some of the most effective guerilla units during the occupation years."

In World War II, ROTC men participated heroically in regular combat and guerilla operations, despite the fact that many of these guerilla leaders had not even completed their military education by the time the Japanese invasion began. A majority of these men had still been cadets when war came to our islands. Nevertheless, imbued with a patriotic and martial spirit, these ROTC cadets (along with cadets from the PMA) formed some of the most effective guerilla units during the occupation years. The most famous of these groups was the Hunters ROTC unit, which was organized by two PMA cadets that were too young to receive their commissions at the onset of war. Instead of returning home, they rallied other PMA and ROTC cadets and continually harassed occupying Japanese forces and supplied vital intelligence to the American military, before eventually participating in the liberation of the Philippines from 1944-1945. These were young men in their late teens and early twenties that volunteered to bear arms in defense of their country.

In 1967, then President Ferdinand Marcos issued Executive Order 59 making ROTC mandatory at all educational institutions with enrollment of at least 250 students. In 1980, Marcos promulgated Presidential Decree 1706, the National Service Law, which made national service (civic welfare service, law enforcement service, and military) mandatory for all Filipino citizens.

In 1991, the congress passed RA 7077, the Citizen Armed Forces of the Philippines Reservist Act. Sections 38 and 39 of this law mandated obligatory military education for two years (Basic ROTC) for all male college students, while an additional two years of ROTC programming (Advance ROTC) was voluntary. The underlying philosophy of these acts was a belief in the role of Filipinos to be both citizen and soldier — both the intellectual and martial guardians of the democracy in which they live.

3. ROTC Falls Out of Favor

Over the next decade, the ROTC program was viewed with increasing discontent, especially from the cadets themselves. Various abuses and corrupt practices were noted — ranging from hazing and other forms of violence, to financial extortion. These scandals exacerbated the increasingly widespread view that ROTC imposed unnecessary burdens on the time and finances of students. ROTC training typically took up all of a cadet’s Saturday; and under RA 7077, though funding for cadets during Advance ROTC was provided by the state, during Basic ROTC, the students themselves were required to shoulder the associated costs of equipment, uniforms, etc.

In 2001, slowly simmering discontent turned rapidly to national outrage when a UST student, Mark Chua, was found dead in the Pasig River — having died due to severe ROTC hazing. Evidently, the killing was prompted by Mr. Chua’s recounting of ROTC abuses to UST’s student publication. The incident captivated the national interest. In response to the public’s demand for changes to the ROTC program, in 2002 the congress adopted RA 9163, the National Service Training Program (NSTP) Act, which effectively abolished the mandatory Basic ROTC requirement.

Under the NSTP, all college students (both male and female) must, for two years, participate in one of the NSTP’s three tracks: the Literacy Training Service (LTS), the Civic Welfare Training Service (CWTS), or the ROTC.

4. The Sorry Current State of ROTC

In the years since the adoption of RA 9163, ROTC enrollment has, predictably, tanked. Before 2001, there were as many as 800,000 students enrolled in ROTC in any given year. In 2011, that number was less than a quarter of the pre-2001 level at 150,000.2 Over the same period, the number of schools supporting ROTC programs declined from around 2,000 to about 500.3 In fact, among the three NSTP programs, though ROTC is the 2nd most popular option, the program only captures 14% of NSTP enrollees, with the majority of students opting for the CWTS track.4

Figure 1: NSTP Component Graduates (2002-2012)

IMG 4786 Version 2

In 2008, wholly three quarters (75%) of the AFP’s officer corps was composed of ROTC graduates. Despite the perceived lofty position of PMA graduates, they composed just a quarter of the officer corps. Indeed, many retired and active military professionals speak of the benefits of such a composition — emphasizing the usefulness of having officers schooled in disciplines outside a purely military education. Yet, the decline of ROTC participation may not necessarily have a dramatic impact on officer corps mix. Since Advance ROTC has always been voluntary, it is likely that ambitious students pursuing Advance ROTC will continue to constitute a large proportion of the AFP’s officer corps.

More important than the effects of these developments on the officer corps though, are the effects that RA 9163 has had (and will continue to have) on our nation’s reserve force as a whole. At present, the reserve forces of the Philippines number some 120,000 men and women (about the same number as the active duty force). However, unlike the case discussed with respect to the officer corps, a large number of reservists were taken into the reserve force as a direct consequence of their mandatory participation in Basic ROTC training. An overall decline in ROTC participation therefore leads directly to an overall decline in available reserve force personnel.

5. Competing Philosophies

As we have discussed, there were a multitude of practical motivations behind the adoption of RA 9163 and behind bringing the mandatory ROTC era to a close. Instances of corruption and hazing were widespread and, by that time, widely known. Coupled with the nation’s emotional reaction to the Mark Chua case, pursuing some measure of ROTC reform was a political necessity for Congress. Yet, beyond these practical considerations, there are also larger philosophical and institutional forces at play.

There are large numbers of Filipinos that, as a matter of principle, outright object to the notion that the military should play a significant role in society. In October 2013, Kabataan Party-list Rep. Terry L. Ridon submitted a bill to the Lower House intending to abolish ROTC altogether (House Bill 3143). The bill’s explanatory argues that “the military culture propagated by the ROTC is inconsistent with academic freedom."5 Indeed, Galileo Kintanar, Ph.D, a retired AFP Brigadier General and well-respected military theorist, noted that “Philippine society has been ambivalent towards its military, unable to dispense with its protection yet not fully trusting it and therefore seeking to limit its role and powers and to isolate it from civilian life."6 One interpretation may be that the motivation to limit the reach of ROTC stems not just from concerns over practical problems within the program itself, but also from greater ideological considerations over the role of the military in Philippine society in general. The sentiment conveyed by Rep. Ridon is typically characterized as being leftist in nature and generally rejects the notion that the military should be a prominent force in civil society.

"...Marcos, who, fearful that the ROTC might turn against him, mandated that cadets used wooden guns during their training."

There is also an interpretation that speaks more to political pragmatism than leftist ideology. Kintanar theorized that in the wake of the coup d’etat attempts that plagued the Presidency of Corazon Aquino, an  “impetus developed for political leaders to tighten their grip on the military."7 Actually, this impulse for maintaining tight political control over the military can be traced back to the Martial Law reign of Marcos, who, fearful that the ROTC might turn against him, mandated that cadets used wooden guns during their training.8 The specter of an adventurist military still looms large in the minds of many politicians, and the motivations to limit ROTC may very well rest on such political considerations.

On the other end of the spectrum are those who believe that military education and service is not antithetical to democratic ideals, and should, in fact, be a core pillar of civil society. Because a majority of the most passionate advocates of this view come from military backgrounds, this view is typically considered to be conservative in nature. However, the assumption that this is purely a conservative outlook may be superficial. For example, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which is made up of some of the most liberal nations in the world, obligates its member states to promote “the integration of their armed forces with civil society as an important expression of democracy."9

"Merely painting these competing philosophies as being liberal versus conservative is to take a shallow analytical course. It would perhaps be better to frame the conversation in broader terms, considering not just our views on the role of the military in society, but also the duties of the citizen to the state."

Merely painting these competing philosophies as being liberal versus conservative is to take a shallow analytical course. It would perhaps be better to frame the conversation in broader terms, considering not just our views on the role of the military in society, but also the duties of the citizen to the state. Does one believe paying their taxes should be the extent of their obligation to the Republic? Or, does one believe that citizenship obligates Filipinos to do more: to serve directly in the country’s national service and, if need be, take up arms in her defense? Competing views on the ROTC question may therefore be interpreted as a clash between collectivist and individualist philosophies.

6. Turning to the Future

Since the passing of RA 9163 more than a decade ago, at least six bills have been proposed in Congress to amend this law. Five proposals seek to reinstate mandatory ROTC, while one (mentioned earlier) proposed abolishing it altogether. Thus far, none have been adopted. Yet, in the face of increasing tensions over the West Philippine Sea, the persisting threats posed by domestic and international terrorism, and the increasing frequency and destructive force of recent natural disasters, the importance of maintaining a robust reservist force has garnered increased attention in both government and military circles. The issue may very well begin creeping back into the public debate. In April 2015, presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte “proposed the revival of mandatory military training for male college students to augment government forces in the face of Chinese aggression in the disputed West Philippine Sea."10 In his statement, Duterte argued that “the Philippines cannot rely solely on its mutual defense treaty with the U.S,” and therefore needs to “build up a credible self-defense force."11

The question of how to best improve our national defense posture over the coming years will very likely include revisiting the question of ROTC’s place in our nation’s educational institutions, and more broadly, the relationship between citizens and their obligations to the nation in general.

 

FOOTNOTES

1

Liveta, Ronaldo A. (April 28, 2015). "NSTP-NSRC Updates and Challenges". 13th National Congress of NSTP Educators and Implementors. Philippine Society of NSTP Educators and Implementors.

2

President Benigno Aquino III. "Speech of President Aquino at the 17th national convention of the National ROTC Alumni Association, May 25, 2012". Retrieved 28 June 2013.

3

Ibid.

4

Liveta, Ronaldo A. (April 28, 2015). "NSTP-NSRC Updates and Challenges". 13th National Congress of NSTP Educators and Implementors. Philippine Society of NSTP Educators and Implementors.

5

AN ACT ABOLISHING THE RESERVE OFFICERS TRAINING CORPS AND STRENGTHENING THE SOCIAL AND CIVIC SERVICE COMPONENTS OF THE NATIONAL SERVICE TRAINING PROGRAM THROUGH THE ESTABLISHMENT OF ADDITIONAL SOCIAL AND CIVIC SERVICE PROGRAMS AVAILABLE TO STUDENTS BY AMENDING AND EXPANDING THE SCOPE OF TEPUBLIC ACT 9163 OR THE NATIONAL SERVICE TRAINING PROGRAM (NSTP) ACT OF 2001, H.B. 3143, 16th Cong. (2013).

6

Kintanar, G. C. (2004). The last coup d'état: An advocacy of reforms for a non-adventurist military. Quezon City: Truth and Justice Foundation.

Page 56

7

Kintanar, G. C. (2004). Psychology in the military. Quezon City: Truth and Justice Foundation.

Page 38
8

Avila, B. S. (2015, April 21). It is imperative to bring back the ROTC asap! Retrieved August 21, 2015, from http://www.philstar.com/opinion/2015/04/21/1446169/it-imperative-bring-back-rotc-asap

9

Kintanar, G. C. (2004). The last coup d'état: An advocacy of reforms for a non-adventurist military. Quezon City: Truth and Justice Foundation.

Page 56

10

Duterte: Revive ROTC amid China's build-up in West PH Sea. (215, April 23). Retrieved January 21, 2016, from http://www.rappler.com/nation/90877-duterte-rotc-china-build-up-west-ph-sea

11

Ibid.

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