The battle for Marawi City is degrading into a protracted stalemate between Philippine government troops and Maute terrorists holed up in buildings in the city centre. Though clearly enjoying superior firepower and logistical support, the Philippine military’s progress in retaking Marawi has tapered off. Despite sustaining heavy aerial bombardment, the enemy has proven difficult to root out.
Yet, though much of Marawi City had already been reduced to rubble, the only thing standing in the way of applying an even more effective scorched-earth strategy to crush the invaders is public relations (PR). According to a recent New York Times report…
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The Philippine military says that the militants are using mosques and madrasas as bases for fighting, including for the placement of sniper nests. It has complained that it can’t attack these buildings because they are protected as cultural monuments.
Various reports have also indicated that a significant number of civilians remain in areas where fighting is heaviest. The popular view is that these civilians are hostages being held by the enemy for use as human shields. However, there is also speculation making the rounds in social media that some of these civilians may actually be there voluntarily supporting these terrorists.
It has come to a point where the confronting question needs to be asked:
Should Marawi City be bombed to smithereens to prevent any further casualties amongst Filipino soldiers?
In short, do we have the appetite to lose more of our boys in this war just to preserve “cultural icons” and save the remaining civilians in the battle zone? These questions become more important as more Filipino soldiers die in this war. When the number of military casualties surpass the number of civilians holed up with the enemy in Marawi, what then? Are “cultural artefacts” and civilian lives of dubious allegiance more important than Filipino soldiers’ lives?
These are thorny questions considering the Philippines is a predominantly Roman Catholic country and, as such, one that regards Islamic terrorism with abject horror and a growing contempt that may eventually eat into any further appetite for humanitarian initiatives aimed at the perceived “victims” of this conflict.
Even today, Mindanao is but a distant colonial hinterland to the citizens of Imperial Manila where policy is decided and, therefore, where the most important PR battles that may infuence military decisions in the near future will be fought. The peacenik movement that is inclined towards casting doubt on the “wisdom” of military policy and routinely second-guessing the military command consists of various cliques of “influencers” generally associated with the Philippines’ “civil” society, perhaps, albeit arguably, Filipino liberals and their so-called Liberal Party. It is this clique that will likely oppose any decision to grant license to the Army to go harder on Islamic terrorism at the expense of cultural artefacts and remaining civilian lives. It does not help either that members of these cliques, as a matter of personal choice, are virulently opposed to the administration of current Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.
Yet it is important to note that the most important liberal icons in Manila are predominantly-Catholic in nature. The most prominent monument erected to that most celebrated liberal political triumph in recent Philippine history, the 1986 People Power “revolution”, is an enormous statue of the blessed Virgin Mary. At present, there are no Islamic monuments of consequence associated with this “revolution”. Indeed, it could be argued that at the height of the euphoria that immediately followed that “revolution”, Filipinos’ Muslim “brothers” in Mindanao were fully cut out of the Yellow Catholic narrative that went on to rule Filipinos’ minds for three decades.
For the imperative military decision at hand to be sufficiently contextualised, we need to look back further — back to World War II when Manila was “liberated” by American troops — to appreciate what is at stake. According to a Washington Post feature on the topic, “The American campaign to retake the city the Japanese had captured four years prior led to its virtual destruction; the old Spanish colonial heart of the capital, Intramuros, was reduced to ash and rubble.” Furthermore…
“The destruction of Manila was one of the greatest tragedies of World War II,” wrote William Manchester, an American historian and biographer of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. “Of Allied capitals in those war years, only Warsaw suffered more. Seventy percent of the utilities, 75 percent of the factories, 80 percent of the southern residential district, and 100 percent of the business district was razed.”
A feature report published by Rappler went as far as asserting that The Americans Destroyed Manila in 1945…
The immediate U S objectives in Luzon in early 1945 was to rescue the POWs in Cabanatuan and the internees at the University of Santo Tomas.
Once these were achieved, the Americans turned their attention to Manila and this time, it appeared, avoiding civilian casualties was no longer a concern. In the liberation of the internees, the Japanese custodial force of 150 were allowed to leave under a flag of truce. That was the only time the Americans attempted to negotiate with the enemy.
More to the point, the approach was effective from the point of view of those who sought to win the battle without incurring any further cost…
In the Battle of Manila, “.. which culminated in a terrible bloodbath and total devastation of the city… was the scene of the worst urban fighting in the Pacific theater,” the Americans suffered their lowest casualty ratio ever – 1,010 killed out of a total force of 35,000, or less than 3%. Parsons argues further that the high casualty figures could have been part of a deliberate pre-negotiation ploy by the Japanese to discourage an American invasion of Japan, “that the invasion of Japan could only be accomplished at the price of the greatest bloodbath of American manhood the world had ever known.”
The cost of this military triumph, as the author of the Rappler article points out, was, of course, paid for by Filipino civilian lives and the future of a city that, to this day, struggles to regain a cultural glory it once possessed.
These are the same considerations now faced by Filipinos in deciding the fate of Marawi City — and of our fighting men and women over there. More importantly, there is a bigger war at stake, how we, as a people, respond to the advance of the Islamic State into what is perceived to be the weakest link in the overall Southeast Asian effort to defeat them: the Filipino people.
benign0 is the Webmaster of GetRealPhilippines.com.