What it really means to celebrate Araw ng Kagitingan

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At the base of the Memorial Cross towering above the Mount Samat National Shrine are slabs and reliefs of moments of struggle in Philippine history, including the execution of Jose Rizal and the resistance of Lapu-Lapu to the Spanish invaders. What the Memorial Cross, and Araw ng Kagitingan as a whole, represent are both the linear and lateral dimensions of valor in our history. Photo from WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Editor’s note: Jose Maria Edito K. Tirol, PhD, is an assistant professor of the Department of History, Ateneo de Manila University.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Contrary to public perception, the word “valor” was not initially about courage or bravery in combat. The etymology of the word can be traced from two sources. First, there is from the 14th century Old French valor or valour, which meant “merit, moral worth, or virtue.” Alternatively, there is from the Latin valere, to “be strong” or to “be worth.” Valor being equated with courage was not actually recorded until the 1580s, from the Italian valore as derived from the original Latin.

Following this train of historical thought, when we celebrate the national holiday Araw ng Kagitingan, Day of Valor, on April 9, we are not just reminding ourselves of the acts of courage exhibited by the defenders of Bataan and Corregidor. What we are commemorating is the very moral fiber of the men who fought against the invading Japanese. We honor not just the quantitative, but the intangible virtues drawn upon in times of struggle.

The fall of Bataan

The United States Army Forces in the Far East, or USAFFE, outnumbered the Japanese who besieged them on the Bataan peninsula. That we were eventually overrun and forced to surrender was never a question of individual courage. Rather, it was the results of months of hunger, thirst, disease, and the failure of the United States to send reinforcements. In other words, although from a military standpoint, defeat was inevitable, the ability of the USAFFE to hold out beyond the expectations of both sides remains a historical achievement for the Filipino people.

There is no going around the facts of our history. Following the fall of Bataan, the subsequent surrender of Corregidor on May 6, and later by USAFFE units in the Visayas and Mindanao, organized resistance against the Japanese had to come to an end. But, as I remind my students, what had already begun as sporadic actions even before April 9 would eventually grow into the largest armed guerrilla movement in all of Southeast Asia.

The willingness, the courage, the valor of thousands of ordinary Filipinos — with or without formal training but took up arms anyway, soldiers who had not surrendered or had escaped, and civilians providing logistical, intelligence, and moral support — to find ways to continue the struggle against the occupation forces says much about what we are as a people.

What the Dambana ng Kagitingan represents

The Mount Samat National Shrine, or the Dambana ng Kagitingan, was completed in 1970, in time for the 25th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. The complex was supposed to honor the gallantry of the war dead and the surviving veterans, dedicated to the tragedies of the battlefields, the agony of the Death March, and the continuing memories and lessons that can be passed on to younger generations of Filipinos.

One interesting observation during the commemorative activities every April 9 is that the base of the Memorial Cross, the towering structure above the shrine, is actually not just about the Second World War. Rather, the base depicts slabs and reliefs of other moments of struggle in Philippine history, including the execution of Jose Rizal and the resistance of Lapu-Lapu to the Spanish invaders.

What the Memorial Cross represents therefore, and Araw ng Kagitingan as a whole, are both the linear and lateral dimensions of valor in our history.

And because history does not stop at our past, or even at our present, Araw ng Kagitingan reminds us that our valor cannot stop solely in the face of defending our shores against foreign invasion. As we have seen in many specific moments, our enemies can be found within our own nation, amongst ourselves. There is no shortage of individuals and groups with selfish interests, often conniving with foreigners with their own agendas.

‘The call to valor is for every Filipino’

Yes, April the ninth is primarily about Bataan and Corregidor, and today we remember those events that took place 76 years ago. The Day of Valor is an opportunity for Filipinos today, and for Filipinos tomorrow, to remember moments of our past, of strength and courage against overwhelming odds, and to call upon that strength once more if need be.

Thus we recall not just Bataan and Corregidor, but the revolts against Spain and the Philippine Revolution, the repelling of a Dutch fleet and Chinese pirates, the resistance against the British invaders, the Philippine-American War, the other battles of the Second World War on Philippine soil, and the heroes and victims during the martial law era.

Araw ng Kagitingan reminds us that our valor cannot stop solely in the face of defending our shores against foreign invasion. Our enemies can be found within our own nation, amongst ourselves.

These are stories not just of soldiers in combat, but of ordinary Filipinos doing extraordinary accomplishments. Yet do not forget that valor is not exhibited only in times of actual war. Sometimes, the threat is in times of peace — the struggle less obvious, the threat more insidious.

In the same way the tragedies of Bataan and Corregidor need not have occurred had we been more aware and better prepared, many of the divisive issues facing us today — the threats against our democratic institutions, national patrimony, virtues, the war against memory, our very future as a nation — tell us the urgent need for constant vigilance, courage in the face of deceit and public condemnation, and to never forget the costs of failure.

Araw ng Kagitingan can never just be about acts of courage of those who have come and fought before us. The call to valor is for every Filipino to know who we are, what we have been capable of in the past, what values we hold most dear today, and what we must do to defend them, always.