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)