Book review: Occupation 1942-45

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Last week Dr. Benito Legarda, a meticulous historian of his chosen fields, i.e., the Manila Galleon Trade and its commercial aftermath and World War II in the Philippines, launched his grand compilation of essays on World War II in the Philippines published by Vibal Foundation as a Filipiniana Classic.

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The book titled “Occupation 1942-45” encompasses the two previous works of Dr. Legarda on World War II in the Philippines, “ Occupation ‘42” and “ Occupation: The Later Years.” It also includes additional essays.

History is always important for its influence on whoever and whatever experienced it. In the case of World War II in the Philippines it brought a disruptive change in the country that affected lives, attitudes, moral values. It changed perspectives commonly held and brought in new elements to form new views of the past and present. It was a profound experience for the Filipino people, their society and their individual lives that consciously or unconsciously affects them today.

The statistics are grim. In Bataan where the greatest battles were fought trying to head off the Japanese invaders, 85% of the troops were Filipinos. They were the ones who had the biggest casualty rates for the Death March and Camp O’Donnell. In the Battle for Manila at the end, 100,000 civilians were killed and not just in the crossfire or collateral damage but in deliberate and unspeakable ways. All in all, World War II in the Philippines caused l.l million people to die, most of them Filipinos.

Dr. Legarda writes history, in this case as a series of essays or journalistic pieces that began appearing in the Manila Meteor and later in the Philippines Free Press, both since defunct, with occasional pieces in broadsheets of today. They deal with disparate aspects of the World War II from how the Japanese Occupation affected everyday life in Manila, to the great sea battles that are an earmark of that war to providing historical explanation for the names of the islands of the South Pacific that played such prominent roles in the struggle between imperial Japan and the Allies, the contending forces of World War II. It deals with the guerrillas, the civilian population caught in war as well as the series of incidents, big or small, that took place and left a mark in the historical flow. And, very emphatically and unflinchingly, with the behavior of the occupying army both in invading the Philippines, administering it, rationalizing its actions via its Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere policy, and interacting with Filipino leadership and society. And finally, its desperate and perverted behavior at the end.

Three years of the Japanese in the Philippines brought on an overload of events in different people and different parts that may now be under the radar of our subsequent generations but if subject to even cursory investigation will bring up the consequences and effects that still exist.

Those who experienced it have very definite reactions that include ruing the destruction of our tangible heritage like the City of Manila, a planned city, and Intramuros in Manila, a historical site redolent of churches, Spanish -era buildings, a certain gentility and now a unique collection of habits and attitudes. And missing and aching for friends and family who succumbed to untimely and cruel deaths.

The beauty of the material past was trampled and it brought about a sense of insecurity and loss of confidence. Worse, the horrors of man’s inhumanity as represented and chillingly acted out by the Japanese invaders have had a searing effect on our racial memory.

Yet many of us seem to be ignorant or indifferent of that part of our history (as with many other parts, a modern trend seemingly in today’s present with regard to the past) and carry on without addressing the issues that still hang about.

In the case of World War II in the Philippines aside from the dynamics of world history which we seem to have never bothered to know or if we did, we have set aside, there is the important question of how to deal with the horrors that were visited on us by the invaders.

Dr. Legarda touches on this dilemma time and time again in his essays. We are a Christian country where the forgiveness of sins is a basic tenet of our religious beliefs. But having said that, sins must be amended, penitence must be manifested and penance acted upon as Christianity teaches.

While the Japanese government has made some attempts through war reparations and lately general expressions of regret for their World War II role, these are confined to the world outside of itself, outside its own way of viewing history, of teaching it to its young and to its general public. Comparisons are always odious but sometimes they must be made and in the case of the sins of World War II, Germany has made its amends and accepted responsibility nationally.

On both sides of World War II, it is the enigma of what memory is or should be and what role should it play in our actions, philosophically and realistically that has to be dealt with.
The modern answer has been to move forward, leave the past behind, forget its unpleasantness if not hideousness.

But that would be a betrayal of those who suffered, of our own experience and finally of who we are. We are what we have experienced and reacted. Our history is us. It has to be accepted and dealt with. And the first thing is to know it.

That is why this book is important and essential to our understanding of what World War II was to the Philippines and Filipinos.

As for the matter of forgivenenss or moving on or forgetting, that too must be confronted. Forgiveness is like love an act of the will, not of emotions or inclinations. As such it has to be rational and find its necessary basis which would be a sincere apology, a true and meaningful show of remorse and some kind of penitence.

The Emperor and Empress of Japan in their last visit expressed concern and the need for reflection on the part of their people for the consequences of World War II which they started. We accept this with utmost respect knowing the circumstances of the Japanese royal family at that point in history. Various Japanese ambassadors of late have apologized. These expressions of remorse would be most welcome if accompanied by some compassion for true and until now suffering victims as for example, the so-called comfort women who have not been shown any of these. They still stand and wait.

I loaned “Occupation 1942-45” to my youngest son for him to know history that has touched us directly and why his grandfather, baby uncle and cousins of generations back died untimely deaths. It should be an exercise and reflection of experience and identity.

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