28 October 2012

The Devil's Causeway (Matthew Westfall)

The Devil's Causeway: The True Story of America's First Prisoners of War in the Philippines, and the Heroic Expedition Sent to Their Rescue, by Matthew Westfall (Lyons Press, 2012)

In 1896, the Philippine Revolution against the Spanish who occupied and governed the Philippine Islands for more than 300 years broke out. The Katipunan, a clandestine organization bent on toppling the colonial government, was discovered, and this commenced a series of bloody confrontations between Spain and the freedom fighters.

Two years later, the Empire of Spain was threatened by another interest. The Americans intervened in the Spanish government in Cuba and later defeated the Spanish armada both in Santiago de Cuba and Manila Bay. By June 1898, the Philippine revolutionary force proclaimed the country's independence from Spain. Its leader, Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo, became the first president.

The Spanish surrendered and ceded its territories to the American victors through the Treaty of Paris in December 1898. The Philippines was effectively sold to the American government who did not recognize the sovereignty of the islands. The Filipino freedom fighters woke up to find their territory annexed to a new imperialist government, once again threatened to become colonial subjects to a new master. Those who previously resisted the Spanish rule also opposed the new government which appeared to be bent on implementing its own program of expansionism. A new war ensued in 1899. The turn of the century saw the turn of another chapter of history book, still tainted with tears and blood.

This historical gloss, familiar to students of Philippine history, was unfortunately simplified and incomplete, like all versions of history. Nonetheless, it was a necessary background to understand The Devil's Causeway by Matthew Westfall. The book filled in some gaps in the Philippine-American War, and provided new facts and perspectives while recounting an untold story of combat and rescue. The details of the incident would have been forgotten, but thanks to Westfall, a spotlight was now trained on a 110-year old encounter whose significance was not lost on modern conflicts and use of force.

In a Spanish church in Baler in the eastern coast of Luzon Island, some Spanish soldiers were trapped by the Filipino Army of Liberation. The siege lasted for all of several months, prompting an attempt of the Americans in Manila to rescue the soldiers of their former enemies. A battleship, the USS Yorktown, was sent to Baler. Following the ill-advised command of an American officer, a gunner boat from the ship entered a river and was ambushed by Filipino soldiers. A couple of soldiers were killed. Some were mortally wounded. The commander and the rest of his sailors were held captives. The dead were buried on the spot while one of the critically wounded was buried alive by order of a cruel Filipino commander.

The rescue of Lt. James C. Gillmore Jr. (the officer) and his men was a run to the hostile mountain passes of Sierra Madre and the Cordilleras. The pursuit was more like a cat-and-mouse game. Every attempt by the Americans to corner the mobile Filipino soldiers to get to the prisoners was rebuffed. The prisoners of war were dragged deeper and deeper into the forest interior of Luzon, battling not only war wounds and fatigue but deadly tropical diseases, not to mention being exposed to the territories of notorious headhunting tribes.

Their advance brought them to steeper and rougher trails. In places, the prisoners had to crawl hand over hand, helping each other over the large boulders.... Gillmore later recalled, "The penalty of a single misstep [would have been] to dash to death into the rapids perhaps a hundred feet below." They had entered, he colorfully described, "a veritable devil's causeway." Just before dusk, they reached the head of the dark canyon and camped for the night, "more dead than alive."

Westfall spent considerable time researching the primary materials for this book from various libraries in the US, the Philippines, and Spain, sometimes even taking the trouble to have the Spanish documents translated. The credibility of his historical narrative was due in part to his use of first-hand accounts by participants in the conflict.

A remarkable quality of his version of events was its objective presentation. One could sense the writer's attempt to tell a balanced view of events by considering both the military objectives of American and Filipino officers. Westfall, a filmmaker on the side, had the instinct of a storyteller to tell a compelling drama. He assembled a narrative that appeared at times like a detailed treatment for a period war movie. He knew when to fade out from his immediate narrative to set out the larger historical contexts and when to point out the far-ranging implications of seemingly small but ultimately decisive political and military decisions.

The use of vintage photographs was also rather effective. His motivation to pursue the story itself, Westfall admitted, was inspired by his discovery of a photograph of the then-nameless rescued American soldiers, whose stories he vowed to research and write. Appearing on the book's front cover, the photograph was one of its kind. At the time it was taken, the folding pocket Kodak camera was just introduced.

The photograph was moreover a fitting emblem of the book's photomontage style. The filmic editing of multiple narrative strands was appropriate as Westfall was able to zoom in and out of the viewpoints of a large set of characters, panning from one location to the next without loss of continuity. It would have been easy for The Devil's Causeway to be overwhelmed by details, but the details were used ingeniously to produce a singular photograph of a protracted war.

It was finally refreshing to read a historical narrative with a post-nationalist perspective centered on actions and motivations. By taking advantage of a novelistic framework, The Devil's Causeway was not weighed down by nationalistic ideologies that were sometimes detrimental to a holistic appreciation of history. It was also crucial that the writer knew who was "the center of gravity" of the war; and for this narrative, he had himself chosen a young American soldier as the conscience of his story. The latter was the boy Venville whose story of disappearance became a sub-plot from which the book gained some of its emotional tug.

In his epilogue, Westfall was able to tally up the "cost of conquest", which might as well be the cost of arrogance. The cost was no less than the life and health of many soldiers on both sides. (It was disheartening to learn how unfairly the American government treated its own veterans of the Philippine-American War by refusing to assist them as they age and battle health problems, most likely caused by their war experience, at home. It was now no longer surprising to me why the Filipino war veterans who fought side by side with the Americans against the Japanese in the Second World War were up to now denied just recognition and compensation for their efforts.)

This history book that reads like an adventure novel was a riveting look at the earliest American "adventure" in the Philippines. Westfall prefaced the chapters in the book with excerpts from Joseph Conrad's contemporaneous Heart of Darkness (1899), making clear his position on the vagaries of imperialistic war. Time and again, a nation's soldiers fought and waged war in the name of the flag – the flag which was the easiest way for the war machine to solicit blind obedience. As Harry Wilmans exclaimed in Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology (1916):

With bullying, hatred, degradation among us,
And days of loathing and nights of fear
To the hour of the charge through the steaming swamp,
Following the flag,
Till I fell with a scream, shot through the guts.
Now there’s a flag over me in Spoon River!
A flag! A flag!

I received an advance reading copy of this book through Goodreads.

1 comment:

  1. Nice read! Got to grab that book! Check out interesting historical tidbits at http://istoryadista.blogspot.com