Footnote to heroes
DURING NATIONAL Heroes Day last weekend, the Armed Forces of the Philippines unveiled a museum gallery dedicated to 39 soldiers who received the Medal of Valor. The gallery, said Chief of Staff Gen. Eduardo Oban Jr., was meant to immortalize the deeds of those who represented the ideals of “personal bravery at the risk of their life above and beyond the call of duty.”
“We see Manny Pacquiao on television hailed as a hero for bringing pride to our country. We give due respect to our OFWs, our bagong bayani (new heroes). We tend to forget the heroes who every day put their lives on the line in the name of the country and the people.”
One of those immortalized thus is Ferdinand Marcos.
Well, that is one reason why we tend to forget those who every day put their lives on the line for country and people. There are other reasons of course. Not least of them is that we see very little evidence of soldiers putting their lives on the line in the name of country and people, living up to personal bravery over and beyond the call of duty. What we see instead is plentiful evidence of them putting the lives of the people at risk or in misery, which they did during martial law, and at least in the case of generals living it up courtesy of income over and beyond the call of pay grade.
But more than that, it is things like turning Marcos into a hero that make us forget.
If the point is that they have to include everyone who got a Medal of Valor, they are not in the business of questioning the authenticity or fakeness of the award, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die, then that adds yet to the reasons why we fail to see them as heroes. Heroism is not just physical courage, it is also—and far more so—moral courage. It is not just the courage to stay behind and fight the enemy singlehandedly to allow others to flee to safety, it is the courage to go forward and join the nation in fighting the tyranny of lie and deception, allowing the next generations to breathe the air of truth and freedom.
Take it from the antidrug campaign: “Just say no.” That is courage. That is heroism.
Frankly, I don’t know why the other recipients of the Medal of Valor, or their kin if they are long gone, are not objecting violently to sharing the company of a bogus patriot in their own wall of remembrance. Seems like a variation of the “mistah” mentality, “Ok na rin, put him there, he’s one of us.” The way things are going, Marcos truly seems headed for the Libingan ng mga Bayani.
But that’s the mind-boggling thing of all, how Marcos was able to make the soldiers believe he was one of their own. He wasn’t a soldier, he was a lawyer.
To this day, that is how most Filipinos see Marcos, as more military than the military, as more martial than the generals, as the commander in chief to end all commanders in chief. Marcos’ transformation into the quintessential hero began with his transformation into the quintessential soldier.
That was something he cultivated from the start, creating the mythical guerrilla unit, Maharlika, which he presumably led and which accomplished all sorts of heroic deeds against the Japanese. The AFP, headed by generals who depended on political patrons for their advancement, were only too willing to buy it, and gave Marcos his Medal of Valor in 1958. The myth-making didn’t stop there, Marcos going on to become the most decorated war veteran, getting all of 27 medals. His exploits would be debunked later on. But for most of his political life, he would be a legend in his own time, a legend in his own mind.
That myth became eminently useful when he fought Diosdado Macapagal in 1965, his apparent war exploits being depicted in a movie that made him out to be bigger than FPJ, “Iginuhit ng Tadhana.” It became even more useful when he ran against Sergio Osmeña Jr. in 1969, pitting his made-up war hero image against Osmeña’s apparent collaboration with the Japanese. And it became still even more useful when he declared martial law. Who better to lead the generals than the quintessential soldier, an image Marcos embellished with a military posture, or swagger, with karate chops in the air to emphasize points when he spoke before the nation.
Yet he wasn’t a soldier, he was a lawyer. He wasn’t a hero, he was an actor. Far better than Erap in the scheme of things. That was the grandest illusion of all.
That, quite incidentally, is why I don’t think Bongbong Marcos will pose any threat of becoming president. It has little to do with this country’s memory, which the evidence suggests is mind-bogglingly short. It has a lot with his being nowhere near as shrewd as his father, quite apart from being nowhere near as ruthless as he. Marcos prepared for his presidency long before he became one and not just with logistics. He prepared for it by selling his image of a war hero, meticulously, systematically, relentlessly. To this day, the AFP continues to buy it.
The truly scary thing is not just what all this says about Marcos but about our history. How much of it is truth and how much myth? Or since truth is the hardest thing to determine, above all in history, how much of it is interpretation based on fact and how much of it is interpretation based on invention? Marcos’ shrewdness lay in intuitively understanding that history is a malleable thing, above all for a people with a short memory. If the Americans could reinvent the Japanese Occupation, or write off the resistance movement of the Huks with the myth of “I shall return” and Liberation, he could very well reinvent himself and write on his heroism all over it. Which was what he did. History hasn’t made Marcos history. It has turned him, like a zombie, into a walking dead.
A specter that haunts the land.
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