Thursday, February 5, 2015

'Thanatopsis' on the Mamasapano cornfield

Philippine Daily Inquirer/OPINION/by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo

Last Saturday morning, a group of us from the Office of Women and Gender Concerns (OWGC) of the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines went to Camp Bagong Diwa where 42 of the “Fallen 44” of the Philippine National Police-Special Action Force temporarily lay in state. We brought personalized sympathy cards for the bereaved families, each card with the slain soldier’s official photograph downloaded from the Internet. It was the OWGC’s small way of comforting the grieving.

It was the second and last day of the wake in the camp but, alas, early that morning most of the dead had been taken away by their families. Sympathizers, many of them civilians, were still coming in. The bodies of the troopers slain in battle last Jan. 25 in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, were to be brought to their respective hometowns, there to be further honored and then laid to rest.

One of the bodies still in the camp was that of Insp. Rennie Tayrus, who had led 72 men in the battle to capture two international terrorists who were reportedly hiding in the lair of their armed sympathizers. That battle lasted some 10 hours and left 44 SAF troopers, more than a dozen members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, and several civilians dead.

Postbattle analysts are now hard put to describe what it was—a misencounter, an encounter, a massacre, etc.—even while the road toward peace is being laid out.

Through the glass panel on Tayrus’ coffin, one could see only a white, silken cloth that covered the upper part of his body. His mother, who was a picture of composure, said her son’s face was badly disfigured. He was identified only through the big mole on the bridge of his nose. On her son’s framed photograph that was on his coffin she pointed to that identifying mole. “Guwapo,” I told her. Handsome.

“Yes, guwapo,” she calmly agreed. “He is my only son. The only boy among seven girls.” I did not know what to say. There were other people who wanted to offer condolences, so I stepped aside. It was not the time to conduct an interview; I did not go there for that. I learned that Tayrus’ body would be flown back to Mindanao the next day.

I went home conjuring up images of the last moments of the fighters from both sides as they faced the volley of fire—what they thought, how they felt. I imagined those who survived and watched their comrades breathe their last. There were a few PNP bigwigs at the tail end of the wake, among them Chief Supt. Noli TaliƱo who was answering questions from TV reporters. I spotted an American in police uniform with its sleeve bearing the name San Francisco Police. Here to condole and express solidarity, I was told by a fellow journalist.

So much trashing, lashing and bashing continue on social media. Anger, more than grief, loudly expressed in strong words. The volley of criticism is understandable, perhaps even deserved, by the objects of loathing. But some of the rudeness is something else; they diminish the weight of the righteous anger.

I only wish that after all the bitterness had been poured out, the ground on which the blood of the 64 or so dead in that senseless clash would yield flower and fruit. Truth and justice first, then lasting peace and genuine understanding. Mercy and compassion, too, as Pope Francis so eloquently stressed exactly a week before brother faced brother in that cornfield in Mamasapano and fought to the death.

I have been browsing through my books and searching online on the subject of war trauma. I stumbled on war poetry that were written in bygone eras and about more recent wars (in Vietnam, Afghanistan, etc.), some by war survivors themselves. Visit “The War Poetry Website.”

I found these quotes from French dramatist Jean Giraudoux thought-provoking: “As soon as war is declared, it will be impossible to hold the poets back. Rhyme is still the most effective drum.” And: “In wartime a man is called a hero. It doesn’t make him any braver, and he runs for his life. But at least it’s a hero who is running away.”

A good number of books, essays and treatises on Homer’s “The Iliad” and Achilles’ utterances on war have been written, analyzed and applied to modern-day conflicts.

The war poem that came to mind (I had memorized it in my youth) was Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” It leapt out of the pages during the recent Crimea-Russia conflict because the poem was about the British soldiers who bravely rode to face cannons in the Crimean War in the 1800s. I thought of the SAF troopers in Mamasapano.

“Forward, the Light Brigade!/Was there a man dismay’d? Not tho’ the soldier knew/Some had blunder’d;/Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why,/Theirs but to do and die; Into the valley of Death/Rode the six hundred. “Cannon to the right of them,/Cannon to the left of them,/Cannon in front of them/Volley’d and thunder’d;/Storm’d at with shot and shell,/Boldly they rode and well,/Into the jaws of Death,/Into the mouth of Hell/Rode the six hundred.”

But poignant is American poet William Cullen Bryant’s “Thanatopsis” or reflections on death. If they could read, how comforting for those who fought and fell: “Yet not to thine eternal resting-place/Shalt thou retire alone, nor couldst thou wish/Couch more magnificent. Thou shalt lie down/With patriarchs of the infant world—with kings,/The powerful of the earth—the wise, the good,/Fair forms, and hoary seers of ages past,/All in one mighty sepulchre…”

I just played Gabriel Faure’s classic “Requiem: In Paradisum” (on YouTube), which was used as a soundtrack in “The Thin Red Line,” one of the best antiwar movies ever. I soaked in the music and offered prayers. #