Today in Filipino History: The Battle of Tirad Pass

TODAY IN FILIPINO HISTORY — 2 December 1899: The Battle of Tirad Pass took place, almost wiping out all the troops under General Gregorio del Pilar who himself perished in the said battle. Eight out of sixty Filipinos survived the ordeal while only two out of more than three hundred US WASP invaders were killed in the lopsided battle.

GREGORIO DEL PILAR

One of General Goyo’s men saw him killed instantly by a sniper’s bullet — but that was due to his carelessness!

“If the ancient Greeks had their valiant King Leonidas and the Battle of Thermopylae, Filipinos have their General Gregorio del Pilar and the Battle of Tirad Pass,” wrote historian Jesús C. Guzon in the book “Eminent Filipinos” published by the National Historical Commission (now the National Historical Commission of the Philippines) in 1965. But with regard to his comparison of King Leonidas to the boy general, National Artist for Literature and historian extraordinaire Nick Joaquín wrote the following in his controversial “A Question of Heroes“:

“The wrong thing to do about Tirad Pass is invoke Leonidas and Thermopylae, because we would be invoking to our hurt another people fatally flawed with the inability to unite and organize. Besides, the parallel with Leonidas, king of the Spartans, is neither exact nor flattering: it was not Aguinaldo who fell at Tirad. Moreover, the annals of war show that in mountain warfare, especially in actions on a mountain pass, the advantage is with the defender, not the invader, and victory must be expected from the defender.”

Nick went on by citing several other historic mountain battles that happened in other parts of the globe. And he showed that in all those mountain battles, it was the defenders who always won. There was this particular case, for instance, that happened in World War II when the British took two years to dislodge the Japanese army from the mountains of Burma.

“But Tirad Pass was taken in six hours.

“There were, you will say, only 60 men to defend it. Precisely. And that was the stupidity. Our improvidence always forces us in the end to improvise, when it’s too late even to improvise. We will not plan ahead, we will just muddle through, and then at the last hour we send men to die for our blunders, our lack of foresight. If there were any justice, it’s Aguinaldo, it’s Mabini, who should have perished on Tirad. But so that Aguinaldo can flee in futile flight, 60 men are sent to pay with their lives for the monstrous botch he has made of the Revolution. And now we read Tirad as a symbol of heroism, not stupidity.

“A few more Tirads and we’ll be the most heroic people in extinction.”

PASO DE TIRAD

Tirad Pass: Thermopylae it is not.

And according to the diary of Telésforo Carrasco, a Spaniard enlisted in President Emilio Aguinaldo’s runaway army, the boy general, who in stories was said to have died heroically and fighting to the last bullet, died due to his own carelessness:

“At dawn we saw the enemy climbing the slope and moments later the firing began in the first entrenchment, which was under Lieutenant Braulio. At around nine in the morning two Igorots climbed to the peak and told the general that the Americans had suffered losses at the first entrenchment and could not advance. Heartened by the news, the general decided that we were to descend in his company and take part in the combat.

“This we did and an hour later found ourselves where nine soldiers were defending the left flank of the mountain in the second entrenchment. Hardly had we got there when we saw the Americans climbing up, only fifteen meters away, whereupon the soldiers started firing again.

“The general could not see the enemy because of the cogon grass and he ordered a halt to the firing. At that moment I was handling him a carbine and warning him that the Americans were directing their fire at him and that he should crouch down because his life was in danger — and that moment he was hit by a bullet in the neck that caused instant death.”

But this stupidity described by Nick was just the tip of the iceberg. He went on to say that Goyo del Pilar was actually one of Aguinaldo’s high-ranking hatchetmen. Murdered under General Goyo’s helm were the allies of the fallen General Antonio Luna such as the Bernal Brothers (Manuel and José). And some of Luna’s staff were harassed, tortured, and ordered arrested.

I wonder most of the time what the word heroism really means in this country. Marami tayong mga bayani na hindí namán dapat tinítiñgalà. What should be the attributes of a true national hero? But to be fair, while it can be said that Goyo del Pilar started out as villainous —if the hatchetman tag was indeed true—, we might as well still regard him as a hero for standing his ground against the US WASP invaders, even if the circumstances surrounding his death and his army’s loss were limned with “stupidity” (to borrow Nick’s description).

As an ardent observer of Filipino History, there is one shocking fact that I have learned: countless villains in this country are regarded as heroes, and the integrity of the true heroes of the nation is perpetually besmirched. This will not stop until we have freed ourselves from the fetters of neocolonialism and the blind Hispanophobic rage that we have against our glorious past.

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How to understand Joaquín’s “A Question Of Heroes”

As a supplement to Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral, a movie based on Gregorio del Pilar’s life and death, Esquire published a few days ago suggested reference books to give the curious moviegoer more information about the historical epic film’s background.

So if you’d like to appreciate the film better from a historical standpoint, consider partaking of the research that its writers did. Jerrold Tarog, who directed the film and co-wrote it with Rody Vera, has prepared a list of books worth reading—before or after seeing the film—to get a better sense of everything that Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral has on its mind.

I haven’t seen the movie yet. But I’m glad that the filmmakers did consult Telesforo Carrasco’s diary which was translated to English by Nick Joaquín from the Spanish original (Carrasco was a Spaniard). According to Director Tarog himself, Carrasco’s diary “provided a more believable version” of the Battle of Tirad Pass. And speaking of the 1976 National Artist for Literature, the director and his team also consulted the famed writer’s A Question of Heroes: Essays in Criticism on Ten Key Figures of Philippine History, the same book that they used as one of the reference materials for their 2015 blockbuster Heneral Luna. Says Esquire about the book:

Here, writer and historian Nick Joaquín poses unprecedented questions about some of our country’s well-known heroes (including Gregorio del Pilar) as a way of providing a fresh perspective on history. This was also one of the materials that Tarog referred to as he made Heneral Luna. Today, he has only this to say: “This book keeps getting me into trouble.”

La imagen puede contener: 4 personas

Because it really is troubling, especially to those who have been accustomed to immaculate Filipino heroes. In this book, first published in 1977, Joaquín bravely raised questions which were then almost unthought of: how “Filipino” was Fr. José Burgos? what was the real motive behind Andrés Bonifacio’s killing? why did José Rizal opted for a half-breed instead of a “pure Filipino” to be the protagonist of his novels?

And in relation to Tarog’s film: should Gregorio del Pilar be considered a hero considering his tainted record?

When I first read A Question of Heroes years ago, my perception of our national heroes changed, particularly of General del Pilar. He wasn’t that blameless, after all. He too had blood on his hands. I have since not forgotten that part on how he, on orders from above, had liquidated the followers of General Antonio Luna, particularly the Bernal brothers (Manuel and José).

This is not to say that del Pilar should immediately be painted as a villain. He wasn’t. The point here is to show that our national heroes are not demigods to be worshiped blindly. They were as human as you and me. However, lest this blogpost becomes a commentary or a book review on A Question of Heroes, I’d rather let readers find out for themselves more about those examined heroes by grabbing hold of that precious book, perhaps the only book that stands out from Esquire’s list (my opinion, of course).

But just a word of advise: since A Question of Heroes is actually a collection of historical essays, the best way to unlock its “hidden knowledge” is by reading all of them consecutively, not randomly. If you do this, I’d be very surprised if you don’t end up wasted with hopeful tears of nationalistic rage upon reading the very powerful but poignant final paragraph of the book (in the chapter “When Stopped The Revolution?”), for that final paragraph serves as the grand concert to the book’s preceding chapters of dress rehearsals, rehearsals that are meant to prep up the dazed and confused Filipino mind on what should be done to better the status quo.

By following that reading process, one will realize that General del Pilar is but part of a chain, a sad chain of events that up to now has not yet been given a happy conclusion. It is a chain that has yet to be completed.

Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral is now showing in cinemas nationwide.