Aguinaldo’s and Luna’s bigger context

For this piece, I yield my space to Tommy Matic IV who has been passionately involved in various conversations ensuing from the film Heneral Luna. This is an attempt for people to understand the most difficult context within which General Emilio Aguinaldo and General Antonio Luna operated in, and thus, appreciate them more as Filipino heroes both.

“The movie Heneral Luna has sparked a lot of conversation. As a relatively young nation, we should be concerned with our history.

The problem is less with the film as with the hoary old myths and politicized messages that it brings out as witnessed by a plethora of conversations and comments on Facebook. The film insinuates that Emilio Aguinaldo is to blame for Luna’s murder, something that has never been proven beyond reasonable doubt, and, it seems, without fully considering the actual situation that these historical characters had to deal with.

It is easy for our generation of Filipinos to take freedom for granted. It is also easy to judge the heroes of our past by the standards of the present, with the arrogance of hindsight, an ignorance for real historical conditions, and an unrealistic demand that heroes act ‘heroically’ as if in a fairy tale and never do evil, never make mistakes. Heroes in the Filipino mindset are virtually demi-gods.

I will explore briefly the historical situation and provide some factors that viewers can consider while watching Heneral Luna.

When Aguinaldo and his Hong Kong Junta returned, they found a people ready and hungry for freedom. As news of Aguinaldo’s return spread, municipio after municipio overthrew their Spanish colonizers. With the exception of Baler and Manila, virtually all the archipelago was free for the first time in three-hundred odd years.

While this was what the Filipino patriots had long desired, it was clear that freedom was as vulnerable as a candle in the wind, and the storm of colonialism was starting to howl. This was an era when almost all the world was under colonial rule, save for some.

After Dewey defeated the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay, the Great Powers sent in their warships, ostensibly to protect their interests in Manila but before long it was clear that Germany had less than amicable designs.

As Spain lost its grasp on the Philippines, it was of great interest among the Great Powers which one of them would ‘take over’. The idea of the locals ruling themselves was not only unimaginable but anathema to the white colonial mindset. After all, if a bunch of brown skinned upstarts in the South China Sea start ruling themselves, what will the Malays, Indians, Indonesians, etc. think? The Philippines lay astride the main British trade route and was a gateway to the China Trade, something that Germany desperately needed. This is the political backdrop for the British flotilla siding with Dewey’s American squadron against the Germans in what almost was Manila Bay part II.

Aguinaldo and Apolinario Mabini knew the necessity not only for American patronage and protection, but for at least one Great Power to officially recognize them as a sovereign nation. Recognition would not happen without respect which could only come  with two important things—a functioning government and an army. The Philippines had to show the Great Powers that it was worthy of recognition as a sovereign nation and ready to fight and die if this was challenged.

Aguinaldo needed an army and this was a major problem. The revolutionary forces had an army but it was not a professional one. The Philippines had no long-standing heritage of standing militia forces trained in contemporary firearms and commanded by native leadership. Spain ruled  through divide and conquer, using loyal tribes from one region to suppress revolts in another.

The Revolutionary forces in both 1896 and 1898 were little more than warlord-style ‘armies’ with self-proclaimed officers that had little to do with actual military hierarchy. They faced severe disadvantages against a better-equipped contemporary professional army.

An established Filipino militia would have provided training and instilled discipline in their ranks. And, perhaps more importantly, it would have acquainted the revolutionary leaders with military hierarchy—respecting the rank not the man, and forged a sense of loyalty to the ideal of the military tradition instead of a particular person.

The Spanish colonial army in the Philippines was the only professional force in 1898. They established fixed garrison  regiments for local protection backed up by regiments of the paramilitary Guardia Civil composed of native conscripts but commanded by Spaniards.

These were the backbone of the Spanish colonial army fighting the Revolutionaries in 1896. By 1898, demoralization and desertion had all but broken the ranks of these native units in Spanish service. Some companies deserted to the Revolutionary forces en masse. If Aguinaldo could harness these veteran troops, he could stand a far better chance of presenting not only a professional army to the Great Powers but, if necessary, fighting them off.

Enter Antonio Luna. The Luna brothers were among the local elites, studied in Europe, and Antonio had done some military studies. He was seen by Aguinaldo as his ace in the hole who could transform his rag-tag motley crew into a professional and respectable army.  Luna also brought with him many former officers of the Spanish colonial army. While they were a welcome addition, one can only imagine what the Filipino rank and file, particularly those from Cavite (who had seen their friends and family killed by Spanish bullets), thought, especially when Luna’s recruits were given ranks above them.

Luna set about reorganizing and professionalizing the Revolutionary Army.

Meanwhile, Aguinaldo set about organizing his government, showing the Americans that they had a flag and a national anthem, putting these symbols of state on display in a grand political theater in Malolos, while pinning his hopes on the envoys sent out to the Treaty of Paris and capitals of the Great Powers to lobby for the recognition of Philippine sovereignty.

It was the failure (understandable in the socio-political climate of 1898/99) of the Filipino diplomatic efforts, the sale of the Philippines by Spain to America at the Treaty of Paris, and McKinley’s Benevolent Assimilation proclamation that ultimately put an end to Filipino hopes of independence. Aguinaldo, hoping that the Treaty of Paris would not be ratified by the United States Congress, refused to move against the Americans even as more provocations were being reported day by day.

They needed time but fighting erupted on Feb. 4, 1899. Aguinaldo tried to parlay with American general Otis, but the latter, who probably planned to incite the whole thing all along, replied that the fighting “must now go on to its grim end.”

The US Army that the Filipino Revolutionaries fought in 1899 was perhaps the most experienced fighting force in the world against mobile guerrilla groups. Their regulars were professionally trained and well equipped. Their volunteers were rough, tough frontiersmen who grew up hunting and accustomed to harsh living. Their officers and commanders fought in the American Civil War and the subsequent Indian Wars. Finally, they had Colonel Frederick Funston, one of the most ruthless and daring officers of the era, to pose a mortal threat to the Filipino guerrillas in 1899.

The outbreak of war would show how impossibly monumental a task was given to Luna. The revolutionary forces were still operating with a warlord mindset, refusing to take orders or recognize the authority of any but El Presidente. This was less the fault of Aguinaldo as it was a consequence of the warlord mentality of being separate but equal commanders with a leader as the only arbiter and supreme commander over them.”

This was the bigger context of Aguinaldo and Luna—heroes both.


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