Belmont Club

A trace of memory

Napoleon Bonaparte once said that “history is a set of lies agreed upon.” Perhaps another, but subtly different way to express this ambiguity is to conclude that history is a narrative where all the accusations are true. Nowhere is this better illustrated than the record of torture during the Marcos regime. The academic Alfred McCoy estimates that the number of summary executions under Marcos fell somewhere between the numbers of “desaparecidos” in Argentina and Brazil. He has no estimate for the number of people tortured and only a sketchy idea of the torture infrastructure itself. Most of his attention is concentrated on the activities of Colonel Rolando Abadilla and Rodolfo Aguinaldo, I think in part because M2 (Abadilla’s outfit which McCoy calls MISG) was responsible for interrogating many in the Left who were picked up in Manila and his sources naturally focused on that. Off McCoy’s radar are the provincial interrogators and the chain of command above Abadilla, which is linked, I think, to the ultimate question of who killed Ninoy Aquino. But despite any quibbles I might have with McCoy, it’s fairly well established that people were tortured and killed under Marcos and I knew some of them personally.

But even as that was happening, I was also aware that the Communist Party, by far the largest force in the underground, was also engaged in deadly purges. I sheltered some who survived, two of them in my first and smallest safe house; a closet really, in the district of Sampaloc.  Though I didn’t know the scale of it then, they were apparently just the tip of the iceberg. A handy introduction into the parallel murder campaign of Jose Maria Sison can be gathered from this video. While it may be objected that the video is produced from the point of view of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, it must be fairly admitted that the charges leveled against the Communist Party are substantially true. In fact the widow of the former chief of its guerilla army filed a case against Supremo Sison for the murder of her husband. And I am informed, on good authority, that the Roman Catholic Church is compiling a better list of those killed by both sides.

Even after the fall of Marcos, the purge-killings by the Communists continued. The husband of a lady who now lives in Massachusetts, for example, was blinded and slowly cut to pieces in the mountain provinces for what reason I wot not, before he was killed. The Red hit squads grew increasingly bold and were openly going into meetings at which Sison’s communist rivals were speaking to mark them for subsequent liquidation.

It’s an eerie feeling to read about killings in the rival historical accounts — by the left and the right — and to realize that you recognize more than a few names. It also underscores the absence of a first rate history of the period; one that is desperately needed to save the narrative of that time from being retold in posterish and partisan colors. For the underground was not a monolithic thing. Like its French Resistance counterpart, it was divided into factions, who agreed only on the nature of the principal enemy — Marcos at the time — and disagreed on almost everything else.

But to return to Napoleon’s views on history: the story of murder and torture in the Philippines between 1972 and 1990 is not so much a problem of fictions but of simultaneous and parallel truths. Both the Communists and Marcos killed their enemies ruthlessly; they employed torture without a second thought. In a word they waged war the way insurgencies and counterinsurgencies have always waged them: with no quarter asked and none given.

As one might well imagine how the blacks and whites turned into shades of gray. It was a world in which one might take the “moral” decision to withhold participation in an anti-government activity because it would expose your people to capture and suffering; and also a world where a moral man might take gun in hand to take out an informer himself rather than fob the job off on someone else. You saved and destroyed; evaded and took responsibility. It was a universe in which courage was often expended in the service of farce. I knew an operative who was ordered to rescue the secret files of “higher organs” from a compromised safe house and salvaged them to find they were boxes of  Penthouse Magazine. I had the great good fortune, in this topsy-turvey world,  of never having had to take a life. Of all the blessings that God ever gave me, and I use the word unashamedly, it was to have been spared the necessity of having to do that that I value the most. In the movies you always know who the good guys and the bad guys are. But in the world of grays there are only degrees of probability.

I sometimes wonder, standing before the cheap cenotaph to the underground casualties on the corner of Quezon Boulevard and the EDSA, and looking at the names on dirty concrete, whether I’ll ever see any of them again: Sonny, Rey, Manny or Caloy, to name a few. In idle moments, you wonder whether past some bar the two guys I sheltered from a purge will greet me on some celestial cloudbank with a story I only half-remember. At times I’ve asked myself, if I didn’t find the money for the guy who went up to mountain province to start his agricultural project, whether he would be alive today and living in Massachusetts. At least his widow got his clothes back.

We live I think, at the price of guilt. And without introducing terms like damnation and redemption into the world we are left, like a weak system of mathematics, with only undecidable propositions. Perhaps faith is the art of tentative answers. What did you back then daddy? Well son, darned if I know.  And maybe danged if we ever knew. But we did it anyway.

In Belmont, Mass

Rooming in Belmont, Mass