F. Sionil José and the Cadet Corps AFP

More than 10 years ago last month, the Philippine Military Academy marked the 110th anniversary of the Battle of Tirad Pass, by inviting F. Sionil José, National Artist for Literature, to deliver the first of a series of lectures on the life of Gen. Gregorio del Pilar. The last few lines of his talk were met with a standing ovation from the Corps.

Some excerpts from the lecture:

“Let me salute you for you are truly anointed. You are also distinguished from the elites of the armed forces of other countries, particularly those in South America. In those countries, military leaders usually come from the upper classes. Like me, many of you come from the masa and I pray that you do not forget where you come from. The other reason I honor you is you have a chosen a vocation which demands supreme service and sacrifice. Soldiering is like writing, teaching, the priesthood, medicine. But what gives a soldier nobility is this—only he is pledged to die for his country.

“You are all aware of the puny tradition to which you now belong, a tradition that requires patient and enduring nurturing. Our army is young like our country. Through our tribal past, we have had courageous warriors: Lapulapu, Palaris, Dagohoy, Diego Silang. It was not until 1896 that our armed forces got organized and since then—Tirad Pass and Bataan.

“That first revolutionary army in 1896 was led by officers from the principalia—cultured ilustrados some of whom studied in Europe but were never really schooled for military leadership. General Artemio Ricarte was a teacher, General Manuel Tinio like General Emilio Aguinaldo, was a landlord. Andres Bonifacio who founded the Katipunan, was middle class. They knew how superior the Americans were to the Spaniards, not because they witnessed the destruction of the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay, but because they saw their resources, their equipment. They understood how the war would eventually be waged—not by conventional means, but by guerillas…”

In the flight to the north, “the Aguinaldo party had already crossed Tirad, but knowing that the Texas rangers, 500 of them, were so close, General del Pilar decided to go back with sixty of his men to delay their advance … American accounts of that battle that early December morning, extolled the courage of the Filipino soldier; in fact, in so many of their reports on the Philippine-American War are many passages praising such bravery. As with Thermopylae in Ancient Greece, Tirad Pass reminds us of our capacity for sacrifice—the ultimate logic of nationalism itself.

“We all know what afflicts our country today, the appalling poverty which demeans all of us—the result of our soaring population, corruption in government, the profligacy of our leaders, and so many cultural faults inherent in a feudal and agrarian society. But what aggravates this poverty most is the obscene irresponsibility of our elites, our Spanish mestizos, our Filipino-Chinese and our treasonous indios who send their money abroad, practicing as they do the immoral function of colonialism-exploitation…

“Listen, nationalism is more than the flag, more than the sunset of Manila Bay, the white sands of our beaches. Nationalism is us—the people, the very poor united by a sense of community, a commitment not to the welfare of China or Spain but to Filipinas. The archenemy of nationalism is colonialism, foreign and domestic, and we are poor because we are colonized by our own elites.

“What does this old man see as the role of the military? First and foremost, the army must hold this country together—prevent anarchy if it implodes, and be on the side of a truly nationalist leader if a revolution does come. Above all, it must be intact, united, and support a Magsaysay if someone like him may come again. I am sure he is waiting in the wings for a new generation is coming up to undo the havoc my generation wrought on this unhappy land. It is such an awful cliché but it is also so true—my hope, our fondest hope, is in you who are so bright and so young.”

* * * 

From time to time, the master craftsman, aware of my limitations, would send me short notes of appreciation meant more to encourage. These and similar messages from other kind souls have kept me going, all reminders of the presence of a Compassionate One in our lives.

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