BOOK REVIEW OF DANTE SIMBULAN’S WHOSE SIDE ARE WE ON?: Memoirs of a PMAer. (Quezon City: CenPeg & the Center for the Study of Social Change, 2016)
Reviewed by Dr. Jaime Veneracion, former Chair, History Department, University of the Philippines during the Central Luzon booklaunch at the Holy Angel University, Angeles City, Pampanga. Sponsored by the Center for Kapampangan Studies (CKS). Oct. 25, 2016.
When we were students, Prof. Teodoro A. Agoncillo would remind us that in a range of one to ten, memoirs should be considered in the second range in terms of relativity, behind its cousins such as diaries and letters. At that time, we were analyzing the memoirs of General Emilio Aguinaldo whose testimony on the Bonifacio and Luna killings served as their litmus test and subjected to various conflicting accounts by some of his men. As a recently published memoir of the enforcer of Martial Law in the early 1970’s, now a centenarian senator would show, the testimony on what made Marcos justify martial law put some cloud of doubt on his whole opus. Thus, the proviso of Prof. Agoncillo on how to test the reliability of sources especially of a Memoir, usually written years after many of the events being remembered, rests on HONESTY. Honesty can be tested by putting the memoir against other memoirs or by documents still available to the reader.
Although I am a friend of Dante C.Simbulan, I can only affirm what his memoirs says through what is known as resonance. A document is honest when it resonates to you personally. Did the contents of Dante Simbulan’s memoirs resonate to what I knew as a near-contemporary?
This one word, a favorite of postmodern writers, has this dictionary (Merriam-Webster) meaning: RESONATE, “…to continue to produce a loud, clear, deep sound for a long time; to have particular meaning or importance for someone…to affect or appeal to someone in a personal way.” As a reviewer, I can only say that there are many things in this book that resonates with my own experience.
- a) Early Childhood.
He said his contact with peasants in his barrio as a small kid exposed him early to social awareness. But having patrons from some rich landlords with some of their children for playmates, I thought Dante was even more lucky than us. Having been born to a purely tenant farmer family to the biggest Church landed estate or Hacienda de Buenavista, I can vouch for this feeling especially when we transferred to the urban schools where we were described as “taga-bukid”. My parents would likewise recall how an abusive encargado of the hacienda would come unannounced during harvest time, at night, together with his band and terrorized their own parents by gathering them and did violence on persons they just picked out from the crowd.
- b) Japanese Occupation.
I think the description of the Huk-USAFFE relations as recounted by Dante (intended to provide context to his experience during the war) needs a more nuanced appreciation of the historical facts. For this, we can read the Jesus Lava ‘Memoirs of a Communist’ where the author described his experiences with the various groups fighting the Japanese. After all, one such leader of the USAFFE was the labor leader and later, a fellow partisan, Amado V. Hernandez. The USAFFE had special meaning to our family because our ancestral house was the headquarters of the food brigade bringing rich and stuffs to the Sierra Madre. My mother had the recollection of the Japanese Occupation as a time of plenty as there were so many willing to do the planting and harvesting in a collective way. The evacuees from the city and the Bataan escapees converged and transformed the barrio into a happy place where there were no Japanese, the men wooed the women and the girls and had harana and dances during some occasions. The Buenavista Regiment, some of whom came from our barrio fought in Imugan, Nueva Vizcaya near Dalton Pass in pursuit of Yamashita. At least six of them, some relatives of my father, never returned.
- c) College.
Dante’s early struggle to decide what course of life he had to take resonate as well in my own early career, making some serious thought about the PMA as a possibility. To acquire free board and lodging, I attempted to enter the varsity gymnastic team with no success because as Prof.Evangelista our coach had said, my physique should be in the Filipiniana Dance Troupe. But the teacher in charge was a very strict woman by the name of Lydia Buendia, who counted as absence a five-minute tardiness in the practice sessions. Finally, my friend Clodualdo Francisco convinced me to try the COCC (Cadet Officers’ Candidate Course) program preparatory to a career in advanced ROTC leading to an enrollment at the PMA later. Our COCC was a mini version of what Dante Simbulan described in his book about the hazing at the PMA. But more than the hazing was the immoral behavior of the upperclassmen who asked us to do some personal errands for them such as buying and delivering flowers to their girlfriends, or as one officer asked to buy a Mickey Spillane novel to complete his collection of that spy series. Another classmate who was an upperclassman asked me to write his term paper. These practices led me to abandon any ambition for the honorable career although my friend Clod Francisco, when he pursued his PMA career graduated as baron of the graduating class (perhaps in 1965 or 1966).
But the real deal in resonance was when I read in Dante Simbulan’s memoirs their experience as OJT with the 7th BCT (Battalion Constabulary Team), or Nenita Unit, ‘Markang Bungo’ , with Lt. Col. Napoleon Valeriano. My wife comes from Plaridel, Bulacan which was the location of Camp Oliveros and the Airport which served as the HQ of the 7th BCT. The shocking show of impunity, the butchering of Huk suspects detained at the camp during the so-called welcome party for the PMA graduating cadets was so shocking, yet it was not part of our local narrative. In fact, I have researched and published a local history of Plaridel. In the Lumang Bayan Plaridel where Camp Oliveros was located, what they know was that the 7th BCT used the airport to land smuggled “blue seal” cigarettes in connivance with local politicians. The BCT made possible the rise of local strongmen such as the one in Plaridel who ruled the town with his private army for 21 years.
- d) BCT experience.
Dante Simbulan’s assignment as commander of a BCT unit fascinated me and brought memories of my experience as a grade school kid when our barrio lived in terror for the visits of the BCT. Our town of San Ildefonso was just at the edge of the Candaba swamps which was the area of Dante’s military operations. I remember how at one instance when my younger brother and I were picking locusts and grasshoppers for food in the open fields, we were caught in the middle of a Constabulary-Huk encounter. The small band of Huk guerrillas were able to proceed and hide among the bamboo thickets along the river. After which, the mopping up BCT troops shouted at the inhabitants to make themselves visible within their view, asking everyone to stand at the open fields as the Constabulary would shoot at anyone hiding among the bushes and bamboo thickets.
When Dante Simbulan mentioned Rafael Ileto in one context, it made me remember town mate Reynaldo C. Ileto, the famous international scholar, his son. But more than this famous town mate, the Iletos brought memories of the uncle, Jaime Ileto, who was our mayor during the time when Ramon Magsaysay became defense secretary and late president of the republic. Not included in Dante’s memoirs was this aspect of military operations. For the mayor’s army called Civilian Guards were dreaded by small pupils like myself even more than the BCT, whenever they descended upon our barrio. I remember one time when upon reaching the school grounds, the Civilian Guards fired widely their garands and carbines to signal the call for a barrio meeting among the residents, oblivious of the chilling effect the firing had produced among the children.
WHAT NEEDS IMPROVEMENT.
If I may suggest, the book of Dante can be improved through the nuanced understanding of the historical background upon which he situated his personal experiences. I thought the USAFFE-Huk relations ca be one of such contexts. Perhaps in general, we can talk of Tulisaffe in some situations but in order to see the more nuanced estimate of the situation, we can read other memoirs, among them Jesus Lava’s ‘Memoirs of a Communist.’ Lava had some good relations with guerrillas especially in Southern Tagalog where he met Amado Hernandez, a labor leader and one of the USAFFE. Even in Bulacan where the BMA of Alejo Santos operated, he had some good word on the leadership whom he considered patriots, in spite of what happened later, with the emergence of abusive local politicians – strongmen – who became the heads of the dreaded Civilian Guards cum private armies. The USAFFE was particularly important to my parents because our ancestral house was the headquarters of the food base of the guerrillas fighting the Japanese.
The Buenavista Regiment to which my father belonged had a unit from our barrio sent to Imugan, Nueva Vizcaya in pursuit of Yamashita in 1944. At least six from our barrio perished in that Battle of Bambang (Dalton Pass) and never returned, among them, relatives of my father. A casualty of the war was my Lola who was accidentally shot by a guerrilla, indeed an unexplainable loss which created rifts within the guerrillas themselves.
As I ponder on Dante Simbulan’s life, I was reading Howard Gardner’s book, THE LEADING MINDS, whose interesting thesis may be used to frame the subject memoir. Gardner says that humans had a primate heritage which they carry along even as they mature. In the world of the orangutan, the newborn already knew how to place himself in the hierarchy of power — he knew early on how to satisfy the basic needs such as the food and security of being with the mother. As he grows up, he knows his identity, in relation to the strongest and the biggest orangutan. For Gardner, this self-consciousness of the adult orangutan is equivalent to the mind of a five-year old child, a consciousness most people retain throughout life.
In making differentiation among leaders of society, this primate heritage is factored in. A leader of the nation can be successful if he understands that he addresses the mind of the five year old, meaning the least common denominator among the population. Leading an educational institution is an entirely different ball game since the community of professors and students are imbued with ideals that go beyond the SELF. It is not enough to satisfy the basic needs of food, clothing or the security inherent in belonging to a herd. For given the complex organization of an institution such as a university, people are exposed and take as modality of life, the development of a critical mind. The community is disciplined to think greater than the SELF by instilling the value of a higher order of thinking, that of the OTHER (Kapwa) which is synonymous to raising the bar of integrity, virtue, justice, in short, the belief in civilization and the sharing of a common destiny of HUMANITY.
If I were to summarize Dante Simbulan’s lasting legacy, it is this: that he had developed his sense of self quite early and had been exposed to the OTHERING of his father. Hence, at PMA, he was thinking of it as an educational institution only to discover to his dismay that what was being taught was institutionalized violence, the degradation of the person, the development of a five year old mind. PMA, instead of raising the bar in the development o a true man, was in fact the institution that reinforced what may be called the primate heritage. When Dante was exposed to a truly educational institution, he developed a higher order of thinking and the appreciation of refined values that truly reaffirmed has sense of humanity.
It is to the credit of Dante and his colleagues that he introduced the Humanities and the Social Sciences in the academic curriculum of the PMA. Although this could not have been enough, considering the fossilized values that were then prevailing, the process of transformation of the military school had began. The test was that during the closing years of the strong man’s rule, when there as a test of restraint that had become when confronted with People Power, the military did not act like robots.
Hopefully, in the era of a strong man copycat, a more humane military leadership will not follow illegal, unconstitutional orders from above. If such would happen at that point of crisis, we can only have Dante and his colleagues to thank for and remember with fondness.