Tag Archives: world war II

War is Failure: An Interview with a Veteran for Peace Part II

15 Nov

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The second part of my interview with Graham Horne of Veterans for Peace is available here.

In this instalment Graham talks about combat stress, the relationship between the military and the education system and how the new Cold War might go hot.

 

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Myths of the MacArthur Suite

17 Apr

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When the tour guide throws open the doors to the Douglas MacArthur Suite, I’m fairly sure what to expect. The American general it’s named after was known for astutely managing his public image, concealing his weird private foibles and rebuilding his hero’s reputation after professional fiascos. Likewise, the Suite he lived in for six years has been impeccably restored to a supposedly Edenic moment in Philippine history, before World War II levelled Manila, before the Japanese destroyed the entirety of the Suite just to get back at MacArthur and before the country fell under the hammer of martial law. Although there’s nothing original about the mahogany chaise longues, the slightly musty sampaguita scent or the gently sparkling brass chandeliers, the impression of 1935 is persuasive and beautiful enough.

What is the most iconic image of World War II? Britons might think of Herbert Mason’s photo of Blitz-era St Paul’s Cathedral framed by thick black bomb smoke, yet somehow undamaged and bathed in a heavenly light. Russians would likely recall the hunched silhouette of a Red Army soldier waving the Hammer and Sickle from the roof of the Reichstag, the tower blocks in the background shelled down to their rafters. Americans would nominate either the US Marines hoisting the Stars and Stripes into the gloomy skies of Iwo Jima or the picture I spot on the wall on the MacArthur Suite’s sitting room.

It’s a spontaneous snap of the General strutting ashore at Leyte Island in October 1944, at the start of the American liberation of the Philippines. He is fulfilling the highly quoted promise — ‘I shall return’ — he made to the Filipino people two years before, when his spirited and tactically adept resistance to the Japanese failed and he was forced to flee to Australia.

Although the claims in the preceding paragraph are widely believed to be true, they are largely false. The tour guide tells me that the photo was far from unplanned. ‘It took them three attempts to get it right,’ she says in a lilting accent that mixes American stressed vowels with rolling Spanish “rs”. ‘The first time, the General believed that he did not look good. The second time, he tripped and fell in the water. The third time, it was a success.’ Moreover, as Professor Vicente Villan of the University of the Philippines has discovered, by the time MacArthur arrived at Leyte on that “historic” day, indigenous guerrillas had already driven the Japanese out of the island. MacArthur chose this particular beach precisely because he knew it was safe and secure. He could step Christ-like from water to land and play the courageous saviour, but without actually having to save anyone or be in any way courageous.

As we turn to a glass cabinet displaying the “Decorations & Medals of General of the Army Douglas MacArthur”, I’m reminded that he made some disastrous military decisions, especially during the early phases of the war. The historian James Hamilton-Paterson observes that, in his capacity as Supreme Commander of the United States Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE), MacArthur ignored a ten-hour invasion warning, failed to provide his troops with basic rations and clothing, and relied on an outdated war plan that resulted in the surrender of 76,000 Filipinos and Americans at Bataan in April 1942. Yet none of this ever came back to haunt him. On the contrary, as Hamilton-Paterson puts it, “Douglas MacArthur’s most remarkable achievement was to turn this whole unpropitious series of events into a mammoth public relations triumph such that he ended the war a national hero, receiving the Congressional Medal of Honour for his defence of Bataan and Corregidor.”

When the tour guide tells me these ‘are not real medals’, my heart skips a beat as, for a moment, I entertain the notion that MacArthur’s entire war record is bogus. Then she justifies her allegation: ‘What we are seeing here are just facsimiles. The actual medals are inside the General’s tomb at Norfolk, Virginia.’

MacArthur’s weakness for whitewashing his career went hand-in-hand with an inflated sense of self-importance. When he accepted the role of Military Advisor to the Philippine Army in 1935, he demanded to be put up at the 100,000-square-foot Malacañang Palace. ‘This was not possible,’ says my guide. ‘The Palace is special for Filipinos. Only our governors and presidents had ever lived there before.’ MacArthur’s second choice was the whole of the fifth floor of the deluxe Manila Hotel. When the government complained that the bill would be too high it was agreed that, alongside his military duties, MacArthur would be made General Manager of the Hotel. Somehow MacArthur was able to finagle exactly the same salary as the then President of the Philippines, Manuel Quezon.

I glance back at that photo of MacArthur wading ashore. It reeks of theatrical self-consciousness. Like a Hollywood stereotype of a military leader, the powerful curve of his chin advances out beyond ritzy sunglasses and taut, stoic lips. The uniform unbuttoned at the neck denotes both rebel individualism and Lotharian glamour. As his torpedo-like legs crash through the sea, his beefy hands are clamped to the waist of his billowing khakis. The body language says: “Nothing will stop me.” In Ermita, F Sionil José’s superlative novel of post-war Manila, a chauffeur names his newborn son MacArthur in the hope that “the General’s good looks, his noble visage and everything worth emulating about the Liberator of the Philippines would somehow be transmitted to the baby.” That this oft-photographed flabby and sour-faced old man could be popularly regarded as good-looking is a testament to the power of propaganda to generate intense affection for the MacArthur myth amongst Filipinos and Americans alike.

A textbook narcissist, MacArthur needed such hagiography to buttress his somewhat rickety ego. During bouts of depression, he would call prostitutes up to the Suite, but instead of having sex with them he demanded they tell him repeatedly what a wonderful human being he was. He often threatened to commit suicide, only changing his mind after sufficient amounts of flattery from colleagues. In Michael Schaller’s biography MacArthur: The Far Eastern General, MacArthur aide T.J. Davis tells of how, during one train journey in the US, he finally got sick of the General’s histrionics.

‘As we pass over the Tennessee River bridge,’ MacArthur said in a maudlin tone, ‘I intend to jump from the train. This is where my life ends, Davis.’

‘Happy landing,’ replied Davis wryly.

MacArthur got the message and never again talked about killing himself.

According to the diplomacy scholar Laura A. Belmonte, MacArthur’s behaviour was partly a response to his domineering mother Pinky’s yearning that he be a “glorious Apollo, Roland and George Washington all in one”. As his fame grew during World War II, this yearning behind closed doors became a very public expectation. This only upped the pressure on his fragile sense of self.

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            We peek into the guest bedroom which, either by accident or design, contains many shades of the colour brown. The 1970s-style zigzag carpet is ecru, the teak bedside table seal-brown. The centrepiece is an elegant bed made from nara wood, the swirling grains of its four posters starkly sepia next to the fulgent white pineapple-skin duvet.

‘You know that Bill Clinton stayed here?’ says the guide. ‘And before you ask, no he did not bring Monica with him.’

Clinton wasn’t the first philanderer to stay here. One of the other contributing factors to MacArthur’s depression was his catastrophic affair with the Scottish-Filipina actress Isabel Rosario Cooper, who was 26 years his junior. MacArthur made every effort to hide her from public view and — perhaps more importantly for him — from his mother, first in Manila and then in an apartment in Washington, DC. After two reporters on The Washington Post wrote an uncomplimentary profile of MacArthur accusing him of being “narrow-minded, opinionated, vain, egotistical, and dismissive of civilian authority”, the General sued for defamation. However, the reporters got wind of Cooper’s existence, tracked her down and persuaded her to stand as a witness for the defence. Terrified of a career-ruining scandal, MacArthur quickly dropped the suit and paid $150,000 to Cooper to keep quiet and get out of his life.

        In MacArthur’s study are a number of personal affects that epitomise both the man and the myth. Predictably, neither the trademark corncob pipe nor the statesman-like marble-topped desk are original. The brass gilded chair is, however, and dates back to 1939.

‘Sir Tom, do you want to sit down where the great man used to sit down?’ asks the tour guide.

‘Are you sure?’ I frown. ‘I probably weigh more than MacArthur and I don’t want to go down in history as the visitor who broke the only authentic item in his Suite.’

‘Please don’t worry sir, we have had many thousands of visitors sit there, some of them even bigger than you.’

I ease myself down into the chair. It feels as sturdy as a gun emplacement. If there’s a secret centre to the MacArthur Suite, an axis around which everything else revolves, then this chair is it. From here, I feel I can start to understand Douglas P. MacArthur’s life and its close connection with the wider story of Manila, the Philippines and the United States. I look out the north window over Manila Bay. In 1900, just as Douglas’s father Arthur MacArthur Jr. was being sworn in as Governor-General of the US-occupied Philippines, the American architect Daniel Burnham was busy re-designing Manila Bay for the twentieth century. His stated aim was to sanitise, modernise and morally improve the area by building new parks, streets, railways, waterways and a lavish Classical Revival hotel – the hotel I am sitting in right now – overlooking the bay.

But, like MacArthur’s own life story, there were flaws and feints in this narrative of uplift. First of all, Burnham’s civilising mission was seen by many Filipinos as an attempt to conceal the United States’ profoundly uncivilised behaviour in their homeland. While the US was plotting to seize the Spanish Empire’s possessions in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines, a nationalist revolution had broken out near Manila. Washington struck a deal with the Katipunan, the revolutionary movement, whereby the US would grant full independence to the Philippines in return for the Katipunan’s assistance in defeating the Spanish. In a scoundrelly move, Washington reneged on the deal and decided that it wanted to rule the archipelago directly as the new imperial overlord. Almost as humiliating for Filipino patriots had been Spain’s decision to sell the Philippines to the US for a paltry $20 million. Furthermore, while mild-mannered American gentlemen were strolling around Manila Bay pontificating about Greco-Roman columns, across the rest of the archipelago the US Army was involved in a counter-insurgency operation that, by 1910, would kill twenty per cent of the population, including thousands of innocent women and children. For the cultural theorist David Brody, the ultimate physical expression of the myth of American benevolence is the Burnham Memorial in Baguio City, a hill station near Manila. The inscription on his bust moralises about “love, amity and mutual respect” which, for Brody, “mitigates a tumultuous history that included the bloodshed, loss and cultural trauma that accompanied the Philippine-American War.”

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Moreover, few of Burnham’s ‘City Beautiful’ plans ever got beyond the stage of blabber about progress and civic harmony. Rather than founding an urban utopia, he was more successful in stamping US cultural superiority over Manila. As Burnham was drawing up plans for the Manila Hotel as an outpost of Western metropolitan luxury amid the colonial boondocks, the young Douglas MacArthur was fast becoming the personification of the abusive and exploitative relationship between the US and the Philippines. After graduating from West Point in 1903, MacArthur joined the 3rd Engineer Battalion in the Philippines, where his father had just been put in charge of the Department of the Pacific. MacArthur was sent out into the jungle to conduct surveys and build bridges as part of the efforts to cement US military authority. During his tour he made contacts within the new American business elite and invested in such lucrative operations as the Benguet gold mines. As Deanna Springola, author of the Power Elite Playbook has observed, during the early 1900s, the US Congress “passed tariff acts allowing free US entry of all Philippine products; this would make the Philippines dependent on the US.”

On the marble-topped desk is a reminder of MacArthur’s other significant encounter during his early visits to the Philippines. It’s a photo of him shaking hands with a slight, nervous-looking man in a cream suit. This is Manuel Roxas, MacArthur’s close friend, military aide and, later on, political crony. The official history goes something like this: after World War II the Philippines lay in ruins and the US government tasked Roxas and MacArthur with disbursing $2 billion in aid. The enlightened Filipino humanitarian and the Hollywood hero of the Pacific spent the money on reconstructing the nation, raising living standards for all. However, James Hamilton-Paterson’s account is closer to the truth:

[In 1945] … MacArthur was given a free hand to arrange

his former fiefdom according to his taste. His personal

support was crucial to getting his old friend Roxas approved

by Washington and elected. So also was his capricious

withholding of US aid for the reconstruction of the Philippines

after the election, thereby making the aid virtually contingent

on Roxas becoming President. Thereafter, the $2 billion in aid

was fought over by various groups of vultures who had good

links with the new ruling elite of MacArthur and Roxas. Only

very little of this fabulous sum (at mid-1940s value, too) actually

went into rebuilding the Philippines’ shattered infrastructure

and economy.

 

There was understandable public outrage. Backed by the Office of Strategic Services and later the CIA, MacArthur and Roxas ruthlessly crushed dissent in the media, the intelligentsia and the rural poor. In some ways, such gangsterish autocracy blazed the trail for future US interventions throughout the Cold War, from Iran to Vietnam, Chile to Nicaragua. In 1946, the Hukbalahap guerrillas (nicknamed the Huks), who had boldly resisted the Japanese during the war, tried and failed to overthrow the central government in Manila.

I rise from MacArthur’s chair and shuffle closer to the window. Down on Bonifacio Drive — named after Andres Bonifacio, a founder member of the Katipunan — a homeless boy, barefoot and caked in tar-black dirt, is holding a frail and quivering hand up to passing cars. It’s a grievous reminder that the injustices that shocked the Huks into rising against the MacArthur consensus persist today. Costing $3,300 a night, the MacArthur Suite in 2014 is just as alien to the experience of the 30 million or so Filipinos who live on less than $1 a day as it would have been to the pickpockets and panhandlers of MacArthur’s time. 76% of the Philippine economy is still owned by an oligarchy that can trace its roots back to either Spanish or American colonisation. The Philippines remains in the grip of “dollar imperialism”, as proven by the ubiquity of Coca-Cola, McDonalds, basketball, and rock and hip-hop music. Having just become the country’s number one trading partner, Japan is now arguably exerting more influence over the Philippines than at any time since the war. The Huks have metamorphosed into the Maoist New People’s Army, which struggles — often violently — on behalf of landless peasants and urban squatters.

I sit back in the chair where, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, General MacArthur did much of his thinking about war, history, politics and business. If this mythical figure were somehow to be resurrected and to find himself in this chair again, would his thoughts about the contemporary Philippines be all that different?

(Originally published in The London Magazine Dec 2014-Jan 2015)

 

 

Corregidor: Isle of War and Beauty

5 Feb

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As the ferry pulls in to a pine-fringed cove of ivory-coloured sand, I find it hard to imagine Corregidor Island as the scene of some of the fiercest fighting in the Pacific theatre of World War II. A strategic outpost guarding Manila from sea invasion since the 1500s, Corregidor was attacked from the opposite direction by the Japanese in early 1942. General Douglas Macarthur, commander of the US Army Forces in the Far East, was forced to flee the island by PT boat to Australia, famously vowing ‘I shall return’. In two days, a 75,000-strong Japanese army fought their way past 45 pieces of heavy artillery and overwhelmed 13,000 US and Filipino soldiers. Three years later, MacArthur made good on his promise and liberated the island in a daring air and sea assault that turned out to be even bloodier than the first Battle of Corregidor. The US victory was to prove decisive in ending the war in Asia.

When we reach land, I’m ushered into a charmingly retro tour bus that resembles a wartime tram and away we go into the depths of the jungle. We pass the grey, spectral ruins of barracks and mess halls, some held up by shaky foundations either damaged by shelling or worn thin by age. As we drive, our tour guide holds up a selection of items he’s found strewn around Corregidor, amongst them a Japanese bayonet, a Coca-Cola bottle from 1912 and US and Filipino currency dating back 150 years.

We stop at Battery Way, an emplacement of mortars that still have bullet holes in them, despite a thick and recently applied coat of paint. Our guide tells me to look down the barrel of one of the guns. I do so and see a bomb nestling in the base. ‘That’s still live,’ says the guide, ‘but it is probably harmless.’ I back away with a fake smile.

A delicious lunch of pork adobo and pancit canton (flour noodles with vegetables and seafood) is served on the Spanish-style veranda of the Corregidor Inn. It’s possible to stay the night at the Inn and use it as a base for activities such as kayaking, ziplining and all-terrain vehicle driving.

Our next stop is the moving Pacific War Memorial and its 40 foot-tall abstract sculpture representing the eternal flame. The rotunda features stone-etched memorials to those who died in every conflict the Philippines has been involved in, including the often under-reported Spanish-American War of 1898 when the US wrested control of the archipelago from the Spanish Empire.

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For many, Corregidor’s piéce de resistance is the Malinta Tunnel complex, that in its heyday housed a field hospital, an electric tram system, shops, storerooms and General MacArthur’s  operational headquarters. The American and Filipino garrison made its last stand against the Japanese inside Malinta and just a few months before that Manuel Quezon was sworn in here for his second term as President of the semi-autonomous Philippine Commonwealth. Although a close friend of MacArthur’s and a supporter of the US presence in his country, Quezon is reported to have exploded with anger after listening to a speech by President Roosevelt about the war in Europe and shouted, ‘How typical of America to writhe in anguish at the fate of a distant cousin, Europe, while a daughter, the Philippines, is being raped in the back room!’

With the aid of torches, we make our way through the curve-arched main tunnel and peer into alcoves containing life-size metal models of soldiers, engineers, doctors, nurses, MacArthur himself and his second-in-command General Jonathan Wainwright. Normally there’s an audiovisual presentation detailing the history of Malinta, but for technical reasons it isn’t available right now.

I am suitably sobered as we emerge from the tunnel and ride the tour bus back to the ferry port. All in all, Corregidor is a captivating insight into a momentous event in history and a poignant tribute to the thousands of young men who died in the most destructive war of all time.

Press contacts: Chit Afuang (chit@itsmorefuninthephilippines.co.uk)

Sun Cruises (suncruises@magsaysay.com.ph)

(Originally published in Globetrotter, January 2015)

Manila(s) and I (originally published in Ariadne’s Thread)

9 Sep

I was four when Granddad first told me about Manila. He’d been in a permanent sulk since leaving the Navy, so I was surprised to hear him speak about the place with such affection. “Took shore leave there. Back in ’41. Beautiful. Bloody modern. Elevators that went ‘whoosh’. But also pretty. Palm trees. Mangoes.” Granddad always spoke in these telegram-like sentences, as if giving orders.

Over the next few months, he’d describe how Manila had been beautified by the American architect Daniel Burnham. Its tangled streets had been widened into modern, acacia-shaded thoroughfares. Its inner city rivers were pure and clear. Lush meadows had been grown between apartment blocks and bustling vaudeville theatres. Granddad claimed Manila was cleaner and greener than anywhere in Britain at that time. Years later, I found a quote from the historian Gerald Astor that backed him up: ‘Everyone appeared placid and fearless on the profusely tree-lined streets and boulevards.’

For an officer of the Royal Navy, Manila’s pleasures were varied and affordable. Granddad enjoyed the Manila Hotel, another Burnham brainchild. Surrounded by its own custom-built park, this 500-room Art Deco spectacle boasted champagne suites and string quartets, seashell chandeliers and celebrity guests. One evening, Granddad thought he spotted the imposing whiskers of Mr Ernest Hemingway. Granddad was too shy to approach him.

Granddad bought silk suits from Chinese tailors in Intramuros, the walled city built in the late sixteenth century as the capital of the Spanish Empire in Asia. He bought cheap china to take home to my grandmother. He joined the queue of vintage cars outside a legendary café selling bibingka (rice and coconut cake) so tasty that it took several hours to prepare. He sat on the azoteas of colonial bars filling his belly with ice-cold tuba (coconut wine) and his pipe with fine local tobacco. He may also have filled his pipe with marijuana – a popular poison of that time and place – but if he had he made no mention of it.

The Army and Navy Club in Luneta Park was the place to go for pink gins, high-stakes poker games and beautiful local women. Granddad said he resisted the latter temptation. Not that the four-year-old me understood such adult things. At the club on Sundays you could play polo, golf and tennis with the British and American officers. To cool off in the evening, members would swim in the translucent waters of Manila Bay, the flower-crested island of Corregidor gleaming in the distance.

For Granddad, Manila was the happy zoo of humanity; a million different people from a million different places. Much like Enoch Powell and those imperialists who loved India but didn’t want Indians coming to Britain, Granddad marvelled over the diversity of pre-war Manila, but was later to scowl at the multiculturalism that reshaped Britain after World War II. He joked with the fast-talking Indian-Filipino traders descended from Sepoys who’d deserted during the British occupation in the 1760s. He was impressed with the erudite mestizos who belonged to the oldest and wealthiest Spanish families. He chatted with the captains of boats containing tribespeople with tattoo-covered bodies and heads flattened by skull moulding. Granddad’s memories must have been selective; I learned later that, in this de facto US colony, many locals would have been segregated from white foreigners like him.

After these nostalgic memories, there was always a point when the happiness would fall from Granddad’s eyes. He’d sneer in such a way as to bare his teeth and flare his nostrils. I’d get a bit scared.

“All went to shit in Manila,” he’d growl, indifferent to my young ears. “Japs invaded after Pearl Harbor. Wrested it from the Yanks. Place got hairier than bugger’s carpets.” Many years later, I discovered that ‘bugger’s carpets’ was 1940s slang for sideburns. “Made a bloody hash of it,” Granddad would continue. “Bloody animals. Lot of ‘em. Killed most of the men. Raped most of the women. Bloody hash.” Granddad usually left the room at this point.

These stories have stayed with me. They mark the moment I first became interested in Manila. I wanted to find out more about the Japanese invasion and why Granddad was quite so angry about it. Aged ten, I began collecting stories from veterans. I had a great uncle who’d been taken POW at Singapore and dumped in Bilibad Prison, Manila. But when I asked him for his story, he slowly replied, “I’m sorry, Tom, I just can’t go back there.”

To Granddad’s chagrin, my parents sent me to a progressive middle school run by ex-hippies who sang Bob Dylan’s anti-war songs in assembly. In my second year, I researched World War II in the Pacific and started to understand what had caused Granddad and my uncle such distress. The school books stated that the Japanese, as part of their master plan for world domination, had surprise-attacked the American forces based in the Philippines. One of my hippie teachers pointed out that, in fact, the United States had been an imperial force too, hence its presence in the Philippines in the first place. Manila changed hands twice during the war and, by the end of it, was the second most devastated city in the world after Warsaw. I found an old book of war photography from the Battle of Manila, 1945, when the Allies finally liberated Southeast Asia. The scratchy monochrome of the pictures was frank and disturbing.

A shell-shocked GI, pupils dilated behind wide-lens glasses, staggering zombie-like through rubble, holding a wounded little Filipina in his arms.

Another GI kneeling to fire a flamethrower, the outline of a Japanese just visible within the cloud of fire. The GI’s mate looking on coolly, foot resting on a shell case.

Filipino civilians executed by fleeing Japanese, face-down, limbs and backs curved into the pliable postures of rag dolls.

More corpses: Japanese commandos strewn around a bullet-holed truck. One leaning against an oil drum, arm reaching desperately for help that isn’t there. Another, barefoot and on his back, wearing a death grin, floating in a lake of oil-black blood.

One side of the Old Congress Building pristine, the other side smashed and crumbling like the facial droop of a stroke victim.

Finally, an aerial shot of the city after the Japanese surrender; eerie, blank, nothing left but ash and foundations. Indistinguishable from post-A-bomb Hiroshima.

These pictures jarred with the exotic images of pre-war Manila I had in my head. Some were so shocking that I had to force myself to look at them, telling myself that this was what Granddad’s angst had been about and that this was reality, this was important to know.

 

When I started A-Level History, I became obsessed by Southeast Asian liberation movements of the Cold War period. This was the influence of my parents and my progressive schooling and palpably not the influence of Granddad, the ultimate Little Englander. I came to admire figures such as Ho Chi Minh, who led the struggle for Vietnamese independence, routing first the Japanese and then the French. Later on, his socialist model of development outraged the United States, which was busy forcing its own free market system upon the world. It’s little-known that, like Fidel Castro, Ho had begun his political career as a fan of the United States; the original constitution of the Republic of Vietnam quoted the US Constitution extensively. Ho never wanted a confrontation with the Americans, but the Americans saw him as an evil commie tyrant who had to be stopped. They failed, of course, and Ho stands out in history as the only military leader ever to have defeated the United States in open warfare, even though he didn’t quite live to see the last GIs flee from Saigon in 1973.

I also learned about the Huks, the Filipino communist guerrillas who, like the Vietminh, had bravely repelled the Japanese. After the war, they took on the corrupt, US-backed administration of President Ramon Magsaysay. In protest at the Spanish-era encomienda system which kept the rural poor in a state of feudal subservience to wealthy landowners, the Huks kidnapped and assassinated politicians, robbed banks and planted bombs in both Manila and in small villages across the archipelago. Their insurrection was ultimately defeated by political concessions as much as military might.

I started arguing the Marxist-Leninist case in seminars, my peers looking on in puzzlement. I took to wearing a hammer and sickle badge I’d bought during a college trip to the Czech Republic. The man who sold it to me had said there were millions of these badges now lying unwanted in warehouses all over the old Eastern bloc; this being but eight years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Suffice to say, I never wore the badge when visiting my Granddad in his enormous house in Guildford. I suspect it would have sent him to a slightly early grave.

Amongst my fellow students, a different narrative emerged about the Philippines. The country had been re-branded to them as a vital stop on the new Grand Tour of Southeast Asia. It was a place of hedonism and adventure, a land of smiles and beautiful people. Stuffing their backpacks with copies of The Beach, Western kids flew thousands of miles to experience ‘cultural otherness’. This tended to involve heavy drinking and almost getting seduced by a misleadingly attractive female impersonator.

But when I came to ask backpackers about the Philippines, it turned out that most hadn’t actually been there. They said it was too far – a whole four hour plane ride! – from Peninsular Southeast Asia. The few who had visited bypassed Manila for pleasure spots such as Boracay Island, which they hailed as “like something out of The Beach.”

I started to look for modern novels set in Manila. Having set The Beach in Thailand, Alex Garland turned his attention to Manila in The Tesseract. While there’s no denying the narrative velocity and Faulknerian structuring of this brainy thriller, it offered me no real insight into the history or culture of the city. Like a shanty town built from salvaged materials, Garland’s Manila is a rickety composite of American movie tropes.

The lonely, blood-stained, roach-infested hotel at the start of The Tesseract recalls everyone from James M Cain to the Coen Brothers. The moustachioed, matchstick-chewing mobster Don Pepe is straight out of a Spaghetti Western. The references to Spanish-named locations (‘Sierra Madre’) evoke cowboys, Indians and Mexican bandits. Moments of slapstick violence such as the bungled shooting of a cat could have been lifted from a film by another of Garland’s contemporaries, Quentin Tarantino. Also Tarantino-esque is the book’s splicing of pop culture (junk food, comic books, videogames) with sensationalised tragedy (a baby attacked with acid, a woman driven mad with grief after losing her child to septicaemia). Perhaps Garland had read his contemporary Timothy Mo’s description of the Philippines under American rule – ‘thirty years in Hollywood’ – and took it a bit too literally. Fittingly, a movie adaptation of The Tesseract was released in 2003, and was not a success.

James Hamilton-Paterson’s Ghosts of Manila is a heady brew of crime novel and reportage. It taught me about the hundred construction workers who were buried alive in the crazed rush to complete Imelda Marcos’ vanity project, the National Film Center, in 1981. ‘Men died fully conscious, up to their waists in setting cement. After three days the stench of unreachable bodies was dreadful … Pneumatic drill bits pierced the concrete and released gouts of blood.’

Both Garland’s ‘dark city’ and Hamilton-Paterson’s ‘the Khmer Rouge in Disneyland’ are takes on Dante’s ‘city-as-hell’. Their Manilas are full of atrocity, perversion, rotten luck, broken dreams and psychotic criminals. These Manilas have been forsaken by God Himself and their denizens have turned to the supernatural, swearing they have seen vampires and horned devils. But while the lurid crimes in Ghosts of Manila (the illicit corpse trade, police protection of foreign paedophiles, a corrupt official giving a blind man a driving licence in return for a bottle of whisky) were drawn from real life, I was less convinced about The Tesseract. When the book tries to engage with the unique histrionics of Filipino Catholicism, it feels more like one of Martin Scorsese’s expletive-addled quests for redemption. In one unlikely sequence, a homeless boy hurls abuse at a good-natured Irish priest: ‘Jesus Christ! … I’m not asking about the mind of God or your fucking leg! I’m asking you if it sounds fair!’ One can almost hear the Brooklyn accent.

I wondered whether the unrelenting bleakness of these books was fair. Could any city anywhere really be that dangerous, disastrous and depressing? Were Granddad’s good times firmly locked in the past and was there now nothing positive to be said about modern Manila? I suspected that both Garland and Hamilton-Paterson had cherry-picked the most salacious aspects of reality for the sake of a good story.

I detected slightly more balance in Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard by Timothy Mo. While vice and chicanery are rife in the fictional, Manila-esque city of Gubernador de Leon, there’s also social dynamism and economic progress. Grandiose new buildings are springing up all over this go-ahead city of ‘creative entrepreneurial spontaneity’. Anything the West can do, the East can do, so Mo implies when he compares a local mining company to the McDonald’s empire. Furthermore, the poor are feeling the benefits of growth; some are ‘snowily dressed cashiers looking like starlets on $2 a day’.

Whereas Garland and Hamilton-Paterson only hint that Manila’s problems are connected to the wider world, Mo is more emphatic. In one scene, a Japanese businessman scolds the Philippines’ reputation for corruption before having to be reminded that companies from his own country are complicit in that very same corruption.

Unlike the other two writers who view Manila as a victim of ‘Pepsicolonisation’, Mo argues that US influence is waning (‘watch out America!’) and Manilans are now looking to China and Japan for their cultural cues. Gubernador de Leon is quickly establishing an identity and has a future on the world stage, providing issues such as power cuts (the ‘brownout’ of the title) can be resolved.

By contrast, Garland’s Manila is ultimately chaotic and unknowable, summed up by the guiding metaphor of the whole novel: ‘A tesseract is a four-dimensional object – a hypercube – unravelled …’ We can see the thing unravelled, but not the thing itself.’ The fractured chronology of the story, the ever-shifting narrative eye and the catalogue of unexplained motives and events all contribute to this profound sense of discord.

These novels, Granddad’s memories, history books, photographs – these were all versions of Manila, different ‘Manilas’, if you like. There were contradictions between them and I wasn’t sure which one I could fully believe. There was only one way to settle it: I would have to find my own Manila. To do that required visceral contact; I would need to go and see the city for myself. Perhaps this way I would also discover whether my Manila had inherited anything from Granddad’s.