Monday, February 09, 2009

Lessons from history

History is meaningless unless we learn from it. It becomes a mere written record of the past, like an old book gathering dust on the shelf. Teaching family history helps a child understand who he or she is, and this applies to almost everything. History’s importance seems self-evident.

But today, when change is happening almost at a rate faster than we can comprehend, we have chosen to define ourselves in terms of where we are going, not where we have come from. In a sense, modern-day society has turned its back on the past. History doesn’t seem to matter anymore.

The African historian Runoko Rashidi has spoken about the importance of history to African liberation in terms of using history as a “springboard for struggle.” He talks of history as “a light that illuminates the past and a key that unlocks the door to the future.” To him, this is a fundamental step in the process of the African liberation. Rashidi is fond of quoting an African proverb that goes: “Until the lion has his historian, the hunter will always be a hero.”

According to David Brion Davis, Sterling Professor Emeritus at Yale University, an understanding of history or the forces and events that made us what we are, is a prerequisite for all human freedom. Davis was concerned with “the erosion of interest in history – the view expressed by even some leading teachers and intellectuals that we should ‘let bygones be bygones,’ ‘free’ ourselves from the boring and oppressive past, and concentrate on a fresh and better future.” Thus, to understand the enslavement of blacks in America, Davis stressed the need to recognize “the full horror of a social evil to which mankind has been blind for centuries.”

Just as it was important to join in the euphoria of the recent inauguration of the first African-American to the presidency of the United States, it is equally vital that this be understood in the context of the historical struggle of black America for emancipation and equality. This month being Black History Month, we see substantial progress achieved across America in appreciating the celebration and expanding the consciousness of African Americans about the importance of black history.

History really does matter. History shapes our view of the present, and helps determine what answers we offer for existing problems.

Let us take us Filipinos, for example. Most of us who were born after the Second World War, including the younger generation, were deeply influenced by American culture and by anything foreign which we were taught as superior. Colonial mentality, having been embedded in our minds through education and our exposure to American media and culture, has also destroyed our national identity. To produce a new breed of Filipinos who have a strong sense of nationalism in their hearts and minds, we need to search for our lost past in the study of history. Our historical search should go beyond dates, persons, places and events, and should be based on a deep understanding of what they had meant to us, not to our colonizers while they were in control of our country.

Our history tells us the story of our nation, emphasizing the most salient features of our national experience that shape our understanding of national values and a commitment to preserve our nation. Perhaps, like African Americans, we also need to set aside a month to celebrate our own heritage and examine those values our ancestors fought for to form our own distinct identity.

The Battle of Mactan, for instance, tells us of the valour of Lapu-lapu and his men in resisting the Spanish invaders led by Magellan who boasted to teach the natives a lesson. Because of Lapu-lapu’s victory, this incident needs to be celebrated as a historic milestone as it symbolizes our struggle to be free from foreign power.

In 1901 during the Filipino-American War, close to 3,000 (Filipino nationalist historians estimate it to be about 50,000) Filipinos in Samar were massacred by American troops in retaliation for the deaths of more than forty American soldiers killed in a surprise guerrilla attack in the town of Balangiga. Filipinos regarded the attack on the American troops as one of their bravest acts in the war while the Americans described it as its worst defeat since the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The ensuing response by American soldiers was a manifestation of human cruelty and injustice. General Jacob Smith ordered his men to take no prisoners, and to make the interior of Samar a howling wilderness; as a result, it earned him the sobriquet “Howling Wilderness Smith.” General Smith ordered everyone ten years old and over killed who were capable of bearing arms against the United States.

The Balangiga Massacre exemplifies the brutality of war, and is a tragic and controversial incident in the annals of Philippine history. Demands for the return of the bells of the church of Balangiga, taken by the Americans as war trophies, remain an outstanding issue related to the war. One church bell remains in the possession of the 9th Infantry Regiment in South Korea, while the remaining two others are on display at the F.E. Warren Air Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Two more war-time incidents in Philippine history are worth mentioning. These are the Fall of Bataan and the Death March, both of which happened during the Japanese occupation of the country. The Fall of Bataan, which has been a subject of Hollywood war movies, represents the largest surrender in American and Filipino military history. To Japan, the capture of the Philippines was crucial to its effort to control the Southwest Pacific, seize the resource-rich Dutch East Indies, and protect its Southeast Asia flank.

On the other hand, the Death March is a glaring testament to Japanese war crime and atrocity, where more than 75,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war after the fall of Bataan were forced to march a distance of sixty miles to their new prison camps. Some prisoners were beheaded, others had their throats cut, and many more shot by the Japanese. Those who fell on the wayside were driven over by Japanese trucks. Marching for five to six days without food and water, only 54,000 prisoners reached their destination.

Probably the greatest Filipino historic event that left a significant mark in world history was the People Power Revolution of February 1986, a nonviolent and prayerful mass street demonstrations in Manila that led to the ouster of the 20-year authoritarian regime of Ferdinand Marcos. It made headlines around the world as “the revolution that surprised the world”. The majority of the demonstrations took place at EDSA (Epifanio delos Santos Avenue) in Quezon City and involved over 200,000 civilians as well as several political, military, and religious figures.

One lesson we need to learn from studying history is to be critical of the historical events we read, particularly those written from the point of view of our colonizers. Accounts of the Fall of Bataan and the Death March occupy much of our country’s history during the Second World War, yet not much has been written about the exploits of Filipino resistance fighters, which included the peasants of Central Luzon or those in the Visayas and Mindanao regions. Many Philippine historians seem to downgrade the significance of American defeat during the war, while glossing over the valiant efforts of our soldiers and guerrillas which actually helped end the war and pave for the return of the American army on Philippine soil. Instead of depicting the Fall of Bataan as a major military loss, this event was even romanticized in movies. One wonders if this American military setback would have been regarded with great shame and grief had the Americans lost the war in the Pacific.

The brutality of war is a valuable lesson we learned from the Death March. In time of war, humanity is often lost, and all the rules of engagement and ways to treat prisoners humanely are ignored. What happened in World War II is repeated in every combat, in every hostility. Iraq and Guantanamo are disgraceful examples of how the U.S. military has stooped down so low in the treatment of war prisoners.

Manila’s People Power Revolution was only as good as it lasted. It helped drive out the dictator but failed to change the social structures that nurtured such abuse of power. Every time the country is faced with a crisis, the strong appeal of another people power revolution lingers. The lesson we have learned from history is that while it captivated the news around the world, what remains beyond the coverage is just a flicker of hope that someday real revolutionary change would happen.

In Toronto, and perhaps in all places where Filipinos have migrated in search of a better life, we need to celebrate Philippine history just like our African American peers so we can fully understand and appreciate who we once were, and what kind of people we have become at present. Filipino community organizations should include in their yearly programs a month where we can go back in the past through open forums, lectures, video presentations, and cultural and theatrical productions so we can celebrate our heritage, and learn important lessons from Philippine history.

Our past is a laboratory of human experience which, if we study well and so acquire useful habits of mind, can gain us relevant skills and an enhanced capacity for informed citizenship, critical thinking, and social awareness.

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