Friday 6 May 2022

Moro Warrior, guest post from Thomas McKenna

Thomas McKenna is a social anthropologist based in San Francisco.  He has been conducting ethnographic research in the southern Philippines since 1985. 

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor the Japanese invaded the Philippines. On May 6, 1942, U.S. Lieutenant General Jonathan Wainwright surrendered U.S. troops in the Philippines to the Japanese. Published to coincide with the 80th anniversary of that event, Moro Warrior combines indigenous and military history, anthropology and biography, to tell the remarkable but forgotten story of the Philippine Muslim (Moro) resistance fighters of World War II. Bridging continents and cultures, it is a story of sadness and loss, but also one filled with humor, camaraderie, romance, and adventure. It is not aimed at academics, but at general readers, in particular history and military history buffs. 

So, over to Thomas…

The first time I arrived in Manila, in April 1985, it seemed a depleted and dispirited city enduring what would be the last year of the Marcos dictatorship. Since the airport assassination of former senator Ninoy Aquino in August 1983, international tourists had disappeared, the economy was in shambles, and strikes and protests were a daily occurrence.

I was on my way to Mindanao to do ethnographic fieldwork among the Moros, the indigenous Muslim inhabitants of Mindanao. The Moros had recently fought a defensive war against the Philippine government after Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law and invaded their homeland in late 1972.  I was the first anthropologist in 12 years allowed to conduct research in a Moro community in Mindanao.  

Ten months later, everything changed in an instant for the people of the Philippines when, in a sudden rush of rotor blades, Ferdinand Marcos fled the country in a U.S. government helicopter. Nonviolent mass demonstrations had defeated the dictator and restored democracy, and in every city in the country, the next day, February 26th, 1986, was a day of jubilation. In Cotabato City, where I had been living in a Moro community, a People’s Victory rally brought thousands of people to the central plaza to celebrate. One of the featured speakers at the rally was a man whose name I had heard more than once. He was Mohammad Adil, a man in his 60s, vigorous and handsome, with salt and pepper hair brush-cut in the military style. He was 5’6,” squarely built, with a ramrod-straight back and a forceful voice that filled the large plaza and occasionally rose to a roar. As he spoke scathingly about the corruption of the Marcos regime, the crowd roared back its approval. 

I asked my friends about him and learned that he had already lived an extraordinary life. The grandson of two renowned warriors, he had acquired an American foster father and been commissioned as a teenaged officer in Douglas MacArthur’s guerrilla army. After the war, he continued in the Philippine military, patrolling the Mindanao frontier, chasing outlaws and thwarting international pirates. Then, in 1973, he reluctantly changed sides and fought against his former army comrades when Marcos attacked the Moro homeland, eventually becoming a rebel general in the Moro National Liberation Front. The more I learned about Mohammad Adil, the more I knew I had to interview him 

A few weeks later, I visited him for the first time at his home just outside the city and found a man of action who was also a natural storyteller with a marvellous memory. To supplement that memory, he had collected a trove of documents and preserved them for half a century. In the next 14 years, I made four more trips to the Philippines to visit Mohammad Adil, staying at his home and enjoying his hospitality while serving as an audience of one for a superb raconteur. His stories were charged with physical courage, violence, loyalty, and love, and it sometimes seemed as if I were listening to a twentieth-century oral epic. But as our relationship grew closer, the stories broadened and deepened and revealed him in unheroic, even unflattering, circumstances. There were stories of comic blunders and tragic missteps, disappointments, and regrets. Thanks to his self-discernment and forthrightness, the narrative of his life took on a fully three-dimensional form.

The very first story he told me was about his exploits as a teenage guerrilla officer in World War II. The next story was about how he had met his American foster father, Edward Kuder. From that first day, his stories entranced me with their richness and detail—their warriors and princesses, magic and menace. 

Most surprising were his memories of the Japanese occupation. These were his favorite stories and the ones he came back to most often; stories of his adventures, and those of other Moros, during that time. In the postwar decades, American memoirs of the guerrilla movement in Mindanao (the largest and most successful in the Philippines) rarely mentioned Moros, who, when they were portrayed at all, were usually disparaged as untrustworthy. 

Mohammad Adil’s stories painted an altogether different picture of anti-Japanese resistance in Mindanao—one in which the Moros not only played crucial roles but were, in many cases, the leading actors. His stories, and the documents that accompanied them, eventually led me to enough evidence in scattered sources to weave together, for the first time, a full depiction of the wartime contribution of the Moros, including their remarkable achievements and exceptional sacrifices.

But how best to present that history—one charged with Sufi mysticism, sword duels, youthful romance, and high adventure? Early attempts at scholarly treatments fell flat, the color and drama leeched from Mohammad Adil’s stories. A later effort to present the stories autobiographically, in his first-person voice -I had collected 100 hours of audio tape - ultimately felt forced and artificial. 

After a long hiatus, I eventually learned how to ask different questions about my characters, to write from a different place, and to produce a character-driven narrative, which was, I finally realized, what the material demanded. In what seemed a foolhardy move at the time, I left the relatively comfortable environment of academic publishing and ventured into a brave new world of literary agents and commercial publishers. I quickly collected a fistful of rejections, but also, thankfully, a good deal of encouragement and advice from agents and acquisition editors, who let me know that the work had promise, and advised me on how to improve the manuscript. 

But I had taken a very long time to complete the book and usher it into print. Too long. Sultan Mohammad Adil,who had been invested with the honorary title Sultan of Cotabato in his 70s, did not live to see Moro Warrior published. The book has thus become a belated tribute—a form of posthumous citation—to Sultan Adil and his fellow Moro guerrillas of World War II. 

Details: Moro Warrior is published in hardback, paperback and eBook by Armin Lear Press (USA) and Ateneo de Manila University Press (the Philippines). Priced in local currencies.