Philippine history is rife with betrayals, infightings, and sheer mediocrity from elite political leaders but still we celebrate the life of revolutionaries who have fought against superior politico-military power from enemies and treachery from supposed comrades. The list of heroes, known or unknown, betrayed by their countrymen is very long. The most prominent ones that come to mind are Andres Bonifacio and Ninoy Aquino–icons immortalized in the pantheon of greatness.
However, General Antonio Luna, a revolutionary yet unknown to many, is not your usual hero. He neither is a romanticized plebian like Bonifacio or a bombastic yet astute politician like Ninoy. He is known in history as the rugged, hot-tempered, arrogant young gun from Tondo with seemingly no redeeming qualities in his demeanor. Yet, he was praised by America as the only general the Philippines had. His military strategy—the Luna Defense—was copied in Sierra Maestra in Cuba and in the hinterlands of Vietnam to topple imperialist United States in their respective lands.
In Jerold Tarrog’s Heneral Luna, the biopic of the general is spot on, albeit partially fictionalized to ease Luna’s complicated life. John Arcilla’s antihero portrayal of Luna is accurate given the general’s propensity to mince no words in the face of mediocrity and cowardice. In the film, Luna is indeed a mad genius whose military expertise was way ahead of time, making him and his ragtag army outshine the American army and the Filipino elite. Despite his unquestionable credentials, the film exposes chinks in Luna’s armor—that his greatest weakness is his very strength, that his superior intellect and unstoppable resolve courted the envy of the wavering principalia class.
Luna was rightfully portrayed in the film as a visionary. He was scientific and strategic in his military approach. He was not just a loudmouth who simply imposed iron discipline by being legalistic about wartime laws. He knew he was surrounded by snakes from everywhere and he had to think of creative means to defeat the colonialists. He wrote journals and poems, trained a special unit of snipers, organized a military school for lieutenants, made tactical advances and retreats, drew maps and formations, deployed medics to aid the wounded, recruited scribes to document the war, and built political mass movements in support of the revolutionary army. His innovations were unprecedented, earning the praise of his men and allies in the cabinet.
Despite monumental heaps of praises for Luna, he simply lived in the wrong society. A banana republic since day one, the Philippines had long been plundered by a selfish, regionalistic elite whose only interest is business. Their followers in the army asserted autonomy contrary to Luna’s highly centralized operations. These undisciplined and uncommitted traitors, who would rather stay in their comfort zones, can never fit Luna’s style. With these hyenas, Luna inevitably did fall into the hands of his countrymen.
Indeed, the Philippines was not ready for a Luna to lead its liberation. Corruption, atomization, and mediocrity are attendant results of a society built without a vision of development. The Philippines’ place as gateway to exploit the vast Asian market made our country mere foot stool for imperialist nations. No wonder why in this day and age, the Philippines cannot stand on its own in the political skirmishes of the United States and China. It is of no surprise that political dynasties, poverty, and red tape are prevalent. Our economy thrives on remittances and rent. The State cannot feed its people for shunning industrial and agricultural development. The State has no social vision as it would rather be co-opted to its creditors for artificial growth instead of developing the economy for social services. Our problems are deeply rooted in history and colonial/elite rule has not done anything to change our lives for the better.
With such undisciplined elite comes a likewise undisciplined mass of people who hustle their way for their daily survival. While our country needs a visionary like Luna, Philippine society in general frowns on brilliant minds because of our stunted culture. We as a people would rather continue our routines instead of daring to build something new and radical. And the daring among us gets killed.
Luna’s fall 116 years ago was not only a personal tragedy, it was a social malaise. It reminds us that we need not rely on a single strongman for our liberation. It is only us who can liberate ourselves.