Public Eye
JULY - SEPT 2003
VOL. IX   NO. 3

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THE MYTH OF GRINGO HONASAN
The Soldier as Messiah

Gringo Honasan has propagated the myth of the warrior-hero and used his mystique to stoke the rebelliousness in the barracks.

by Alfred McCoy


Senator Gregorio 'Gringo' Honasan went into hiding after being accused of being the ringleader of the July 27 mutiny that took place at the Oakwood Hotel in Makati. This was not the first time that Honasan had been accused of conspiring to overthrow the government; neither was it the first time he had gone into hiding. Honasan's success in recruiting young, idealistic officers to his coup plots is legendary. This excerpt from U.S. scholar Alfred W. McCoy's book, Closer than Brothers: Manhood At the Philippine Military Academy, explains Honasan's mystique and his ability to inspire rebellion within the ranks of the armed forces. While the charges of military corruption put forth by the current batch of military rebels have real basis, they may not have been the sole cause of the mutiny. Then, as now, Honasan's magnetism and his ability to agitate in the barracks seem to have been a major factor in getting young officers to take up arms against the government they had sworn to protect.

Sen. Gringo Honasan at the height of the junior officers' mutiny in Oakwood. [photo courtesy of Malaya]

Sen. Gringo Honasan at the height of the junior officers' mutiny in Oakwood. [photo courtesy of Malaya]
DURING HIS 20 years in Malacañang Palace, Marcos had used state propaganda to portray himself as the greatest war hero and the reincarnation of ancient Malay warriors, effectively playing upon the nation's need for heroism to assuage centuries of colonial subjugation. With the full resources of state power, he created a political space for a myth of the leader as warrior hero. When Marcos's face faded from television screens during people power, his aura dissolved but the mythic frame remained. Indeed, his dramatic defeat inspired new, competing visions, secular and religious. Viewed in the frame of Marcos's own mythology, he, the ancient warrior, had fallen to Gregorio 'Gringo' Honasan, the modern commando, in epic combat on EDSA. Seeking, like Marcos had once done, to replace democracy with martial rule, Honasan would use such mythology to reorient reality in ways that would allow him to suspend, even transcend, the legal foundations of legitimacy. While the Marcos aura drew upon folklore and nationalist history of the 1930s, Honasan's would use Filipino and foreign film, the metatexts of his own age.

To win these laurels for their hero, the RAM colonels were sedulous in their courtship of the media. After people power, they were omnipresent in public forums and private gatherings, cultivating editors and reporters for laudatory copy. Significantly, the Davide Commission found that they benefited from "media adulation after the EDSA revolt, painting Honasan and his group as larger-than-life heroes, thereby muting the unseemly aspects of their careers."

Some coverage strained the limits of the English language for hyperbole. "Colonel 'Gringo' Honasan was the most publicized and popular 'plotter' of the three-day people's revolt which toppled the seemingly invincible Ferdinand Marcos, " read a feature in the popular weekly Mr. & Ms. Some copy crackled with a suffused sexuality. " When he opened an art exhibit recently at the University of the Philippines, " wrote reporter Eric Caruncho in Mr. & Ms., "he was literally mobbed by young coeds asking for autographs and dying for a closer look at an authentic hero." In a colorful profile, one reporter explained the origins of Honasan's nickname by quoting his sister: "He is like Clint Eastwood in that film The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. He just sits there and bang!"

This coverage was calculated. In constructing their "Gringo" collage, RAM's psy-war experts seemed to splice together fragments from cinematic images, indigenous and imported, that filled Manila's movie screens —the Filipino "action genre" of gunman-heroes who take up arm's against injustice; the early Clint Eastwood persona as cool Western killer of quiet moral authority; and Hollywood's Rambo rebel as high-tech death delivery system. During people power, Honasan wore a flak jacket covered with a brace of automatic pistols, ammo belts, and an Uzi submachine gun —a human weapon encrusted in armaments. Afterward, he displayed a menagerie signifying command over nature —python about the neck, tank of pet piranhas outside the office. All these fragments merged into a media bricolage: karate black belt, quick-draw champion, academy baron, Mindanao war hero, coup commander. So constructed, Gringo radiated an aura of power as destroyer of a corrupt regime, progenitor of a new social order.

While much of "Gringo" persona was propaganda, the colonel's leadership abilities were real. After Edsa, his mystique would resuscitate a dying rebellion time and again — persuading unlikely units to rebel and convincing brother officers to sacrifice careers for a hopeless cause. The saga of captain Felix 'Boy' Turingan, one of Honasan's more unlikely conquests, illustrates the quality of his charisma. As a career computer expert in the navy, Turingan worked with Honasan at the Defense Ministry and, like others there, joined both RAM and its revolt against Marcos. Then in a decision that mystified brother officers, he followed Honasan as his deputy through several doomed coups and into the rebel underground, sacrificing career and pension. Honasan's seniority could have not inspired such subordination since, as a member of PMA's Class of 1965, Turingan stood sixty years above him in the hierarchy.

Nor was Turingan a born follower. Like Honasan, he had been the "baron," or first captain, in his academy class. How can we explain such uncommon devotion to a junior officer?

In an interview six months after the people power uprising, Turingan replied to bland questions with matter-of- fact answers, which, when closely examined, reveal something of Honasan's extraordinary capacity for dominance.

TURINGAN: In fact, during the [people power] revolution we heard that [Lieutenant Colonel Jake] Malajacan and [Captain Rick] Morales were already killed by [General] Ver.

QUESTION: What was your reaction to that?

TURINGAN: We were of course mad. But we decided not to tell Honasan about it because he might react differently to Red [Kapunan]. He might turn violent. Greg Honasan is capable of becoming utterly violent if he senses something like that. He could be insanely violent…

QUESTION: Greg is wired.

TURINGAN: Oh yes, definitely….he is like that. Enormous energy. You know he lost twenty pounds in the four days [of the uprising]

QUESTION: Twenty pounds! He is very fit anyway.

TURIANGAN: Yes, he is very fit...you know the one he put on?

QUESTION: The flak jacket?

TURINGAN: Yeah, the flak jacket with all the arms and everything? He was carrying about seventy pounds. He had an M-14 [points to shoulder], an Uzi [circular motion about neck], a 9mm [indicates pistol holster on chest left], eight magazines for the Uzi [sweeping motion with hand across torso], eight magazines for the M-14[indicates other side of the waist, a bolo knife [chopping motion to back behind right shoulder, two grenades [touches chest left],and so many other things. Radio [points to right shoulder again]. He was carrying 70 pounds.

A comparison with a photograph of Honasan shows that Turingan's memory was exceptionally accurate; pistol chest left, radio at chest right, two ammo belts on waist, M-14 rifle over shoulder, and Uzi around neck. Instead of eight Uzi magazines in the ammo pouch, however, I count only six —a small error considering that it had been 29 weeks since the event. It was as if Honasan's "Gringo" persona had imprinted itself into Turingan's consciousness.

But the Gringo image also carried embedded within it the seed of its own subversion: the issue of human rights. Sensitive to allegations about torture, RAM tried to preempt the issue in the months following Marcos flight. "We were aware of human rights violations, but we were not the ones committing them." Said Honasan in an unprompted denial in his interview for Mr. & Ms.: "We tried to influence the situation by developing close contact with other operating units. Some we were able to influence, but others …" Similarly, in an interview with Bryan Johnson in July 1986, Honasan projected threat while protecting his flank. Wrote Johnson: "Together they [RAM] had killed dozens of men, 'but honorably, professionally, on the field of battle, in line with a job description which requires us to both kill, and die, on command,' as the defiant Gringo Honasan later put it."

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