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Having recently acquired my own iPod touch, I finally found a reason to do some serious weeding of my address book. I realized that I have active mobile phone numbers of 4 army generals and numerous colonels, majors and lieutenants. Some years back, I have included notations on the units where they belong and their station to better manage this growing data. The notations have become more diverse-- J3, OG7, engineering, CRS, RCDG, EastMinCom-- indicating the many types of soldiers I have encountered in the course of my research career.
How and why I came into this research specialization was serendipitous. I picked up my interest in the military’s role in democratic transitions from my Latin American course, and decided to focus on the issue for a dissertation back when coup d’etats were a thing of the past in the Philippines. I zeroed in on counterinsurgency strategies and local civil-military engagements and hit a goldmine. I accepted back-to-back-to-back foreign-funded research projects on the military (disaster relief, overseas deployment, rebel integration, military-to-military cooperation, asymmetric warfare, women soldiers) and never looked back.
Doing research about the military in the Philippines is never for the faint hearted. There is an ongoing war against communists and Islamic separatists. While much of the violence has been scaled down and localized, a great chunk of the army is deployed on the front line at any given time. The empirics of military research demand fieldwork in places not always accessible nor safe for any non-local. There are the usual hazards of being shot at, kidnapped, or victimized by a bomb blast (improvised explosive devices were found or detonated killing people in Cotabato and Davao cities in Mindanao while I was there for fieldwork). As an institution that cut its teeth in counterinsurgency, the army is also reflexively suspicious of researchers, particularly those from my home University that have produced countless student activists-turned-rebel commanders, including the heads of the Communist Party and the Moro National Liberation Front. Plus, there is the much-lamented military bureaucracy which often requires permission to undertake research from higher authorities, necessitating cumbersome legwork and follow-ups.
In military research, force majeure events are never rare. I had to postpone my field work in Mindanao for 6 months because the army units that included rebel integree respondents were deployed chasing after rogue Islamist groups responsible for violence in 2008. I had to wait until the troops finished their operations. Another unit, which was a subject of my other research on disaster response, also got re-deployed in Mindanao for the same purpose. When a major typhoon hit our island in 2008, I had the chance to observe first hand the type of “military operations other than war” performed by the local army unit alongside American Marines with their fancy Seahawks. I camped at the airport by invitation from the local commander and did my informal interviews right there and then.
That I am a woman partly explains the kind of inside access I have with the military. The men who make up the bulk of our armed forces exhibit the kind of old-world view of and treatment of women. To many, I am non-threatening; I am not likely to question the celebrated masculinity of the institution. There is also a protective instinct towards the female. I have encountered commanders who flat out refused to send me to remote detachments for interviews (I can’t hike half-a-day up a mountain, they say) or would only do so with an armed escort. On one occasion in 2003, my escort pulled out his gun when we encountered an armed person by a road. That convinced me to refuse any offer for security from then on. Rather than me risking my life and limb to get to their remote detachments, the army respondents come to me! In great kindness, the division commanders in Mindanao have issued “special orders” for my respondents to descend to the headquarters specifically for my 2-day focus groups. I remember distinctly two male Muslim lieutenants who told me that had they been ambushed on their way to or from my focus group discussion, their deaths would be on my conscience.
In retrospect, women of high status (professors with advance degrees) CAN successfully do this kind of military research in the Philippines. I know of 3 other female professors who have done work on the Marines and on war trauma. It is a great tribute to the men in the armed forces that women like us are treated seriously. Perhaps it comes with having many women in my country who have had successful political careers, including commander-in chiefs. The status (whether you are a mayor, congressman, or a President) is more important than your being a woman.
The Visayas, the Philippines
Rosalie Arcala Hall is a Professor at the University of the Philippines Visayas and a founding member of the editorial collective at University of Venus.