Luna’s death was also the Republic’s

I had been anticipating Heneral Luna‘s showing since I first learned about its production last year. After having finally seen it last week, I can say that it was worth the wait. Not only did the film do justice to the complex character that was General Antonio Luna, it also offered a very incisive commentary on the nascent First Republic– one that, sadly, remains relevant to this day.

One of the things I liked about Heneral Luna was that it did not present a mythologized version of the General. For all his genius and patriotism, Luna was also arrogant and arguably short-sighted. He talked a lot about instilling discipline, yet he was trigger-happy. He was, for instance, not above sending a young foot soldier out to risk his life just to spite, not even to kill, an American officer. The beauty in this kind of portrayal is that it drives home an important point: That you can be a hero without being perfect. That the inner patriot in you can sometimes come out of your hubris and megalomania.

Now, it has to be pointed out– and this is something that the film-makers themselves admit– that Heneral Luna is a work of art more than a historical piece. The movie was based on historical facts, but these were simplified and sometimes embellished. It’s easy to think of Luna as a brilliant tactician and selfless patriot who wanted nothing but to unify the Filipinos against the American invaders. Alas, history is much more complex.

That General Luna was an innocent victim of deadly intrigue concocted by President Aguinaldo’s envious allies, for example, is a compelling case to make, but it is not an unassailable one. John Nery, for instance, shares interesting letters written by Apolinario Mabini that attempted to contextualize the General’s assassination. Said Mabini: “What there was to it was that Luna, as Undersecretary of War and ad interim Secretary in the absence of Don Mariano Trias, using as a pretext the tendency shown earlier by the present Cabinet to look for a settlement with the Americans on the basis of autonomy like that of Canada, moved the Department to Bayambang and there he ran matters all by himself completely disregarding ‘Puno’ [Aguinaldo] and his colleagues in the Government.”

Mabini would later on write a scathing indictment of Aguinaldo (read his memoirs, The Philippine Revolution, here) but in these letters his views of Luna were less favorable. “Impartial persons see in Luna dangerous tendencies, because, while he wanted to impose obedience on everyone by force, he did not like to obey anyone; and he did whatever he fancied without consulting anybody,” Mabini wrote.

This does not mean that General Luna’s assassination was justified. It only means that it is possible that the General could have really been, indeed, a threat to the Aguinaldo government. In the face of such a threat, what should a fledgling government facing a very critical struggle do? We have the benefit of hindsight; President Aguinaldo, a very insecure politician, did not.

Still, Heneral Luna‘s embellishment of historical facts highlighted a bigger historical truth: That, unfortunately, Aguinaldo was ultimately unfit to lead the fledgling nation. While the First Republic demanded a confident statesman, Aguinaldo was, at most, a parochial kingpin. The President was unable to resist the temptation of choosing his personal political fortunes over the nation’s interest. He also failed to see the bigger picture. Mabini was right; by allowing Luna to be killed, Aguinaldo doomed the Revolution.

Luna was a world-class genius who knew what it takes to win a war, but he was more than that. He established a military academy, formed an elite band of soldiers, mobilized rural folk to build the Luna Defense Line, conceptualized a brilliant strategy designed to outlast the United States in a prolonged war, and tried to centralize the Republican Army command. These modernizing reforms should not be seen as merely martial; they were also socio-polticial.

The First Republic was established in a society where sense of nationhood was weak and the family was the highest social institution. This explains deserters who did not fully understand what they were fighting for, personal armies that were loyal to their generals and not to the flag, and governments that were being established on other islands. Under this atmosphere, the new Philippine state had to not only assert itself as a viable political association, but also to dislodge the family as the foremost social institution. This required cultivating a brand of nationalism that transcends regional boundaries.

By insisting on military discipline that cuts across lines of personal, familial, and regional loyalties, Luna was unwittingly helping the state assert itself. His methods were harsh but they were, to a huge extent, a litmus test for the viability of the First Republic. If the Filipinos were ready for Luna, then they were ready to be a unified nation. In a way, Luna’s reforms complemented Mabini’s attempts to give political meaning to the Declaration of Independence. Both patriots tried to fend off the likes of Pedro Paterno and Felipe Buencamino, who represented a gentry that was more interested in advancing the interest of their families than that of the young Republic.

Thus we understand the extent of Aguinaldo’s folly. By allowing those who had been castigated by Luna for infractions to be the General’s own assassins, Aguinaldo destroyed discipline in the army. By reinstating Cavinteno officers who had been dismissed by Luna for insubordination, Aguinaldo prevented nationalism’s triumph over regionalism. By sidelining Mabini and having Luna killed, Aguinaldo undermined the First Republic’s promise. Indeed, my guess is that even if Aguinaldo’s regime had won against American imperialism, it would still have been rocked by serious challenges to its legitimacy, making the unification of the entire archipelago unlikely.

Many years later, the nation and the state are still unable to fully assert themselves over the family and the province. The elite remains largely disinterested in nation-building, and personal and familial ties remain the primary basis of social mobility. To be sure, we as a nation are slowly changing for the better. But, if at the end of the day the Philippines is still described by the likes of Alfred McCoy as nothing more than an “anarchy of families,” we have those who killed Luna to blame.