Nick Joaquin once mused that the dominant hue of fin de siecle was red. Red for passion, patriotism/nationalism (Love in other words) and blood. The blood of martyrs and men who sacrificed all for Filipinas. For him, the idea of fin de siecle (so connected to decadence in Paris) in the Philippines was truly passion and…loss.
February 1899 saw the start of the Philippine-American War (War mind…not insurrection). A war that would see at a minimum 200,000 Filipino civilians dead, along with 20,000 Filipino combatants (not to mention the loss of life on the American side). What started out with a $20 million ‘purchase’ from Spain of an colony battling for its independence, became a long drawn war between a new colonial power and a nominally free nation; a war that would end up costing the United States more in life and money than the Spanish-American ‘War’.
The first shots of the Philippine-American War were fired on February 4, 1899; with the Battle for Manila raging from the 4th to the 5th. What came next was a long-drawn out and bloody affair that lasted for years in the provinces (you know, because they were organized, under Aguinaldo and the Philippine Republics accepted leadership); and did not end with the capture of Aguinaldo in 1902. The resistance devolved from there, lasting into the 1910s, even in the 1920s in some places. They lasted in the form of guerilla warfare. We forget, but the Mindanao resistance was some of the fiercest around (the US army had to adopt the single action Colt 45 because of the much needed stopping power to halt tribesmen). And let’s not forget the lengths that the US army went to quell organized and armed resistance: water torture, starvation, slash and burn techniques, mass murder and ultimately targeting civilian population centers to dissuade support of their countrymen. What started in February with the first Battle for Manila ended with hundreds of thousands of Filipinos dead, tortured and damaged. Resistance did not really relent in the country side though, even after formal hostilities ended and the Philippines was under US control. Pockets of religious-based and millennial (millenarianist) resistance were found well into the American era.
1945 saw the start of the 2nd Battle for Manila, this time though the US was coming to the rescue of their abandoned territory. For three years the Japanese had brutally occupied the Philippines; to the toll of approximately one million deaths throughout the country. Cities were decimated, and while it has become popular to blame the US retaking of places like Manila for all destruction that was found, upon review it appears that much of the damage pre-dated US military moves. Cities in the South found themselves brutally overtaken by ‘benevolent’ Japanese forces. In a pathetic connection to the Philippine-American War, an aged General Ricarte acting as something of a show pony for the Japanese. A way to say: "Look we’re liberating you from foreign influence!" The exchange of one colonial power with a brutal occupying power is not liberation.
What came next, from February 3 to March 4 is one of the bloodiest episodes of urban fighting in the Pacific Theater, and World War II. More damage was done and more people were killed than almost any city. Our losses in life and property rivaled those found in Warsaw, Tokyo and even Hiroshima.
Over 100,000 Filipino civilians murdered, brutally. It was not by bombs falling, but at the hands of angry and scared Japanese soldiers; soldiers who believed in the rightness of their cause and the indestructibility of their nation. Faced with the specter of defeat the took out their aggressions in February on a trapped Philippine population. The stories are not well known, but they are there to be found. Whole families murdered, babies speared for sport, women raped on the streets. And homes set on fire with people trapped inside; only to be shot when they tried to flee death by burning. By the end of February, the Pearl of the Orient was no more. And a shell-shocked and decimated people who, aside from a select few disreputable collaborators, had never given up and never stopped fighting, were free. There was something to save, to rescue, because Filipinos never gave up.
Fast forward to 1986, our country found itself again under a repressive regime fighting for freedom. This time though it was not a foreign colonial power, but our own. Lead by a man and his wife who sold themselves as saviors of a country, instead becoming one of the most corrupt duos in human history. The blood spilled though was not to be found in February 1986. That came before, that came during over a decade of systematic dismantling of democratic structures; of plundering and theft; of salvaging and kidnappings and outright government-sanctioned murder and terrorism.
In February 1986, we saw something the world had never seen before: A people rising up, peacefully, powerfully and undeniably to retake their independence. That was People Power in it’s purest sense. No violence, no desecration and destruction, looting or thievery in the streets. A people took back what was rightfully theirs. Millions of Filipinos were in the streets. And all the failures that have come since, all the backsliding, compromises and self-inflicted wounds, cannot obscure that one seminal moment. No matter how much we’ve tried. In 1986, People Power resonated throughout the world. And there was…hope and love in the streets and throughout the country that day.
The power of February is found in the Filipinos love of country. This is truly the month of patriotism, of nationalism, of love of Filipinas. In 1899 we went to war for our independence; in 1945 we survived and fought an occupying force; and in 1986 we peacefully took back what was ours. There is a redemptive power to be found in love.
February is a month of sacrifice, heartache, pain, love, and resistance in our history. One day, we’ll harness that spirit to rebuild our country. One day soon, I pray.
In the meantime, it’s time to reflect on what came before, what we continue to love, and what we can do for Filipinas tomorrow.