Penman No. 295: Writers in Wartime

 

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Penman for Monday, March 26, 2018

 

 

I WAS busy a couple of weeks ago going through my library to see which books I could donate to a sale being conducted by our students to benefit worthwhile projects. I happily gave away about a hundred books and will be ready and willing to unload even more next time. But what inevitably happens when you sort out your effects like this is that long-forgotten objects turn up in the pile.

One such item that emerged from this recent overhaul was a thin journal of no more than 70 pages, the December 1943 issue of Philippine Review, published by the Manila Sinbun-sya and edited by Vicente Albano Pacis, with Angel C. Anden and Jose Luna Castro as associate editors. A little research shows that the Review didn’t last very long—it ran from March 1943 and closed down in December 1944. But during that brief lifetime, it managed to publish such later luminaries as Nick Joaquin, and apparently enjoyed quite a reputation (it was also edited for some time by Francisco “Mang Kiko” Icasiano, whose musings “From My Nipa Hut” graced the prewar Sunday Tribune Magazine).

Indeed, this issue of December 1943 contained not only short stories by Ligaya Victorio Reyes and Estrella Alfon Rivera, essays by Camilo Osias, Luis Montilla, and Federico Mangahas, and a translation of Mi Ultimo Adios by Juan Collas, but also a short commentary on the language of the Constitution by a 22-year-old Jovito R. Salonga, who had just been released from prison for his work in the underground.

It’s a fascinating window on literature in a time of war, what the politics of the moment can do to writers, and what coping strategies they employ. (My thoughts strayed quickly to a recent discussion online about Filipino writers and politics in these times of tokhang.) The issue opens with paid advertisements—mostly from Japanese companies like the Yokohama Specie Bank’s local branch—hailing “The Second Anniversary of the Outbreak of the Greater East Asia War” while at the same time greeting readers a “Merry Christmas!”

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The Reyes and Alfon stories (“Christmas Visit” and “Jingle Bells”) speak of love and loss, acknowledging the sudden shift in the meaning of Christmas from that December of just two years ago to this one; both stories end with their protagonists weeping uncontrollably. The Reyes story can’t help falling back on old tropes, referring to “Gary Cooper.” So for the fictionists, at least, the transition remains sharp and painful, with metaphors to imply the darkening of the times.

Most of the essayists seem to have no such qualms. In his essay on “A Program of Enlightenment,” Camilo Osias (yes, he of the Philippine Readers series, and future Senate President) argues for a new culture “for all Filipinos under an independent Philippines,” one “characterized by a sound eclecticism in the choice of its elements—by the same careful eclecticism which the Japanese have observed in their cultural borrowings…. The cultural activities to be carried out shall emphasize the precedence of State, national, or social interests over those of the individual.”

For his part, the scholar Luis Montilla writes on the theme of “Rizal as an Orientalist,” and suggests that Rizal would have been sympathetic to Japanese motives had he been alive, even implying that this could be because Rizal was partly Japanese. In his footnotes, he quotes Austin Craig’s statement in 1940 that “I am putting the finishing touches to my Rizal genealogy, now being able to show Japanese blood as well as two Spanish and five Chinese ancestors. I have church or court certificates proving everything.”

Montilla concludes: “Having had his attention directed early to the abuses, calumnies, and indignities heaped unjustly upon his people by the white race, Rizal had to be, and was, the embodiment of a true Oriental…. Now, the duly authorized representatives of the great Japanese Empire have repeatedly assured the Filipinos that Japan has come to these shores not to subjugate the natives of the country, much less to absorb them, but to guide them in their regeneration as true Filipinos, and that when they… shall have been so rejuvenated as to be, as a nation, worthy of membership in the family of Oriental nations, they will regain their long lost independence (and fully realize) the supreme efforts put up by Rizal as an Oriental to help educate and re-Orientalize his people for their preservation and dignification as a race….”

Was I reading a display of what might be called cultural collaboration? Not knowing these writers and the circumstances under which they worked, I have to withhold my judgment, keeping in mind as well that there was good reason for many Filipinos—after centuries of white-man rule—to accept the invading Japanese as liberators. But I felt much educated by these articles, which also reminded me of how our printed words define us, rightly or wrongly, long after we’re gone. They just might turn up in a dusty corner of someone’s bookshelf.

Penman No. 265: Photography as Propaganda

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Penman for Monday, August 21, 2017

 

I HAVE a cabinet in my home office where I keep shelves of my most valued books—first editions, signed copies, antiquarian volumes, and such. One shelf is occupied by a special mini-collection of books from the turn of the 20th century, from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, most of them having to do with what we’ve come to call the Philippine-American War. Bearing titles like War in the Philippines and Life of Dewey, Under MacArthur in Luzon, and An Army Boy in the Philippines, the books purport to chronicle—“celebrate” might be the better term—the occupation of the Philippines by the United States from 1898 onward.

I picked up many of these books more than 20 years ago when I was a graduate student in the American Midwest and on the prowl for Philippine-related material in used bookstores and flea markets. When eBay came along, I found many more, and was pleased to secure a few, often for less than $20 plus shipping.

While old, these books weren’t necessarily rare, because they must have been printed in the high tens or hundreds of thousands as a form of patriotic propaganda that straddled journalism and popular entertainment. Often written in a triumphal tone and exulting in the victory of America—then a rising naval and imperial power—over decrepit Spain, they blended into travelogues exploring the US’ new possessions—Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Philippines—turning a military project into a story of adventure in exotic lands.

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These stories—and their accompanying illustrations—were very much on my mind last week when Beng and I attended a fascinating lecture at Ateneo de Manila University by an expert who had made that dark period (which few Americans and, sadly, just as few Filipinos seem to remember) part of her academic specialty. Dr. Nerissa Balce was in Manila to read from and talk about her book Body Parts of Empire: Visual Abjection, Filipino Images, and the American Archive (AdMU Press, 2017; U of Michigan Press, 2016), and we thought it was a good opportunity to catch up with and learn from an old friend (she married my Trivial Pursuit antagonist, the poet Fidelito Cortes).

After working as a journalist in Manila, Nerissa went to the University of California-Berkeley for a PhD in Ethnic Studies, took a postdoc at the University of Oregon, and taught at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst before joining the State University of New York-Stony Brook’s Department of Asian and Asian American Studies.

Through photographs and a refreshingly lucid lecture shorn of much of the academic jargon that often renders these presentations impenetrable to many listeners—even fellow professors like me—Nerissa showed how American photographers who were (to use a later term) embedded with the US military forces used their work to celebrate but then also obliquely if unintentionally criticize the violence of a colonial war. Photographs, she would argue in her book, have a life of their own, once taken and published; they may have been originally meant to depict the power of one side over another, and the abject position of the presumptive loser in the conflict, but seen or used a different way, they can convey other messages, like the subject’s insistent humanity or resistance.

I’d seen many such images in my books from that war; one of them—F. Tennyson Neely’s Fighting in the Philippines—typically portrays American soldiers towering angularly over the slack corpses of Filipino “insurgents” (as our fighters would be referred to for the longest time) as Filipino gravediggers prepare to bury their compatriots. This was what Washington wanted the American public to see: visual proof of American power and dominance. It must have been effective propaganda, especially when accompanied by narratives explaining America’s “civilizing” mission.

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But, as Nerissa and other scholars point out, the very same photographs proved useful to those opposed to America’s imperial expansion. The Anti-Imperialist League published a collection of antiwar poems using a picture of a corpse-filled trench as its frontispiece. “The different political uses for the same photograph suggest the paradoxical power of the photographic image, and how photographs can celebrate as well as expose the violence of colonialism and war.” She goes beyond the battlefield to discuss how the empire shaped our image, and how that image, in a way, shaped the empire. Pictures of native women doing embroidery suggested a colony stabilizing into happy domesticity under a benign regime.

I’m not a historian, but if you want a reasonably reliable account of that period, read Brian McAllister Linn’s The Philippine War 1899-1902 (The University Press of Kansas, 2000); to see how that war was waged on the cultural front, Balce’s book makes a great companion piece. In this present time when, more than ever, pictures speak louder than words, and dead men’s bodies have begun to pile up again, we’d have to wonder what new empire is growing out of the shadows.

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[Photo from philstar.com]

 

Penman No. 199: A Bell from Bauang

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Penman for Monday, April 25, 2016

 

 

SANTIAGO “SONNY” Busa is one of the most remarkable people I’ve met. I was introduced to him when I spent some time in Washington, DC on a fellowship a couple of years ago, and from the very first time we sat down for a chat in the backyard of his home in the DC suburb of Annandale, Virginia, we hit it off. He possesses a hilarious, self-deprecating wit, is fascinated by history, and speaks, among other languages, Spanish, Ethiopian and Chinese. Ironically, though born in Eastern Samar—he was practically just a baby when his family moved to the US—Sonny doesn’t speak Filipino (or, we keep joking, pretends not to, so he can listen in on what everyone is saying).

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A retired diplomat who served as consul general at the American embassy in Manila, among other postings some years ago, Sonny had also been a US Army Ranger and parachutist, and taught International Relations at his alma mater, West Point. For all that, he’s a flaming liberal (like me), doesn’t believe in keeping an armory or packing a .45 to feel masculine or secure, and devotes much of his time to promoting the Philippines and Philippine concerns in America along with his lovely wife Ceres. Last year, he was a key figure in the commemoration of the Bataan Death March in New Mexico, where 5,000 soldiers and civilians marched across the desert for more than 26 miles—and they’ve been doing this for 27 years now!

But Sonny’s recent messages gave me a special reason to smile. He’s been a staunch advocate for the return of the three bells taken as war trophies by American troops from Balangiga, Samar in 1901—two bells remain in a “Trophy Park” in a military base in Wyoming, and another is in a military museum in South Korea. Despite the strenuous efforts of both Filipino and American activists to have those bells returned, it hasn’t happened yet.

As it turns out, the Balangiga bells weren’t alone. In 1899, during the Philippine-American War (which the Americans insisted on calling an “insurgency” for the longest time), a Lieutenant Tom Berry took a bell from the Church of St. Peter and Paul in Bauang, La Union and shipped it to America, where it languished for over three decades in some Army warehouse. In 1933, the same soldier—now General Berry, the superintendent of West Point—had the bell taken out of storage to be displayed at the Catholic chapel of the academy.

Last January, acting on an inquiry from Fr. Ronald Raymund Chan of the Diocese of San Fernando, Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen, Jr.—the current superintendent of West Point and a friend of Sonny’s—wrote Fr. Chan back to say that “The bell currently displayed on the grounds of our Catholic Chapel here is apparently the bell in question. According to our own records, the markings on the bell itself matches all the descriptions you provided. While we have been honored to guard and display this bell for the past several decades, we would be glad to return the bell to its rightful home. We are currently in the process of making arrangements for the return of the bell to your Parish.”

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Aside presumably from Fr. Chan and the people of Bauang, no one was happier about this outcome than Sonny Busa, who had married Ceres in that chapel in 1977 in a military wedding, and had looked with fondness at the bell every time he visited the academy. He alerted me and some friends about the San Pedro bell last February, but asked us to keep quiet about it for the meanwhile until the return arrangements were finalized, fearing that Americans opposed to the return of any war booty—especially the Balangiga bells—would torpedo the move.

Last month, on the 29th, the send-off finally took place at West Point, with Sonny Busa, Philippine Consul General in New York Mario de Leon, and prominent members of the Filipino community in attendance. Another good friend of Sonny and mine, the Filipino-American historian Sharon Delmendo, stood as both proud witness and photographer. Another special participant was Filipino exchange Cadet Don Dalisay—to whom I would be glad to claim a relation, because Sonny says that he’s at the top of all his classes at West Point.

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In his message to me, Sonny—who had been put in charge of the turnover ceremony—emphasized that Gen. Caslen had “ordered the bell returned to La Union because it belongs in its rightful home. West Point above all stands for high morals in all that it does and teaches and keeping looted war booty is not part of its ethic. The people of La Union are hyper-excited and have already built a display stand. Once the bell arrives it will be big news in the whole of the Philippines as you can imagine.”

That truly is wonderful news, Sonny, and many thanks from your kababayans for your tireless efforts to help right the wrongs of the past and to remind us of our precious heritage.

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But sadly—as I write this on the eve of one of the most important and contentious elections of our modern history—I fear that too many of us have forgotten how valuable our democracy is, and what artifacts like the San Pedro bell stand for. At war with ourselves and with foreign invaders long gone, we seem far too willing to squander our votes on mindless whimsy and puerile petulance.

I so desperately pray we can prove ourselves deserving of that bell, Sonny. How hollow its ring would be otherwise—a death knell for sanity and decency, rather than the vibrant peal of freedom.

(Photos by Sharon Delmendo and Sonny Busa)