There is a scene in the classic movie ‘A Few Good Men’ where Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Jessup talks about the importance of chain of command in the military.
“We follow orders, son. We follow orders or people die. It’s that simple. Are we clear?” Nicholson’s character asks.
If you would have given the character more time, he may have gone on about the need to be decisive, where every second counts on a battlefield and making tough decisions can save lives and alter the course of a battle.
It is so important that it is taught as a course at the West Point Military Academy in the United States.
You would expect then, for a government led by military men like Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha, Deputy Prime Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan, Minister of the Interior General Anupong Paochinda, and Deputy Minister of Defense General Chaichan Changmongkol to be more decisive when combating a national crisis like the coronavirus outbreak.
But they haven’t.
The government, if anything, has been indecisive, uncommunicative, and has made decisions that have at times been contradictory and confusing.
The government has refused, so far, to close borders and put the lives of their own people ahead of business interests and appeasing the Chinese government.
If the rumors that a state-of-emergency being declared on Tuesday are true, many people in Thailand will ask why it took so long.
Both Generals Prayut and Prawit have at times, since they took power in a military putsch, claimed that the armed forces of Thailand are necessary to safeguard the sovereignty of the nation and the life and livelihood of the people.
When they overthrew a democratically elected government in May of 2014, they said that the armed forces were obligated to step in because they could not stand by and watch the country descend into chaos.
But now that Thailand is actually facing a real and protracted crisis, one where tens of thousands may be infected and thousands may die, where is the decisiveness necessary to combat the real and ever-growing threat of coronavirus?
So feeble and timorous has the response been to the crisis that Bill Heinecke, a longtime conservative voice in Thai society and a hotelier to boot, has written an open letter asking the government to further shut down the country.
Open letter from Bill Heinecke, Minor International to General Prayut, Prime Minister of Thailand.— Richard Barrow in Thailand 🇹🇭 🇬🇧 (@RichardBarrow) March 23, 2020
👉 Subject: Support for Further Strong Measures in Response to COVID-19 Crisis#ไวรัสโคโรน่า #coronavirus #COVID19 #Thailand pic.twitter.com/nxNXESlzv4
But the milquetoast nature of Generals Prawit and Prayut should come as no surprise to longtime observers of Thailand’s military culture. The army is an organization that feeds on the veneer of its higher calling while operating as a political business, one that expedites power grabs but shuns consequential decisions.
The privilege which the military sees itself is also unfounded.
The line in the national anthem goes ไทยนี้รักสงบ แต่ถึงรบไม่ขลาด (Thailand loves peace, but if we fight we will never lose).
But the military in its current form has not won a battle since 1940.
Of course, that is not how the army sees itself. The military, in their minds, have won many battles in the last 40 odd years.
There was the battle at Rajprasong in 2010 against red-shirt protesters and a loosely organized militia, there was the battle on Rajdamnoern against the middle-class protesters in 1992. How could one forget the past ‘victories’ against the students that fled to the jungle in the 80s or the student protesters at Thammasat in ’76?
It seems the only target the Thai army fires its weapons upon is its own citizens.
Is it any wonder then that when the enemy shoots back, the army retreats into indecisiveness and disorganization. And believe me, this virus will be shooting back.
Time for unity; good luck finding it
What Thailand needs now is unity and solidarity. You won’t get it from this government.
When given the opportunity to calm the nation in a televised address last week, General Prayut instead delivered a five-minute, rambling incoherent speech, that ended with the now-viral phrase, Thailand Must Win.
With this outbreak, as in battle, decisiveness at key moments save lives and can lead to victory. It is a lesson learned and taught by all the great military leaders of the past from Sun Tzu to Caesar, Napoleon to Charlamagne.
And if one studies military history, the leaders that do not lead, that cannot make decisions, must be relieved of command for the sake of the army and the country.
General Prayut and his supporters once argued that his military qualifications make him the ideal man to lead the country through a period of crisis.
Now, facing a real crisis and not a Suthep Thaugsuban-manufactured one, if General Prayut refuses to lead decisively, he must be relieved of command.