He claimed to have been the “real hero” of the Battle of Besang Pass, and, with 27 medals in his collection, the US Army’s most decorated World War II hero, thus pushing Audie Murphy out of that niche. But he was said to have spent much of the war in a hospital bed, and, according to the late Congressman Bonifacio Gillego, a former Philippine Army intelligence officer, he could only have won all the medals he claimed if he could have been in several places at the same time.
While a law student he was accused of murdering his father’s political rival. Convicted of that offense by a lower court, while representing himself he managed to win acquittal in the Supreme Court, but might have gotten away with murder not so much through his legal acumen as through his father’s and godfather’s political influence. A lawyer who sought to justify practically his every public act in legal terms, he unleashed the most lawless regime in Philippine history on a people he once said could be “great again.”
The restoration in the late 20th century of that people’s greatness, which it achieved during the Revolution of 1896, he made sure would not happen in the 1970s. He claimed he imposed martial law to reform society and save the Republic, but through that one act alone made the transformation of Philippine society through peaceful means impossible.
He affirmed the power of civilian authority over the military, but by imposing martial rule made the military an unaccountable power. The Republic he said he would save. But by amassing for himself all the powers that in a true Republic are delegated to their representatives by the sovereign people, succeeded in destroying it.
He supposedly had no vices except the lust for power, but was repeatedly linked to a number of women, some of them Caucasians for whom he seems to have had an obsession. He lived frugally, neither food nor drink apparently being of much interest to him. But he amassed one of the biggest fortunes in history while married to a woman whose name has since become synonymous with ostentation and extravagance.
Ferdinand Edralin Marcos was born on September 11, 1917, which should make that date as meaningful to Filipinos as September 11, 2001 has been to the people of the United States. Marcos became an adult during the US colonial period, when he passed the bar examinations and served in various low-end government jobs, but gained the country’s highest office in 1965, a scant two decades after the restoration of Philippine independence in 1946. Like most of his fellow politicians in the turbulent 1960s, Marcos was a true child of both US “tutelage” and its consequent impact on Philippine “self- government.”
His was the generation to whom the term “traditional politician” applied with as much validity as it did on its successor generations after 1986. To Marcos’s tactics was the term “overkill” — which described the US and Soviet capacity to destroy the world several times over with nuclear weapons — first applied in Philippine politics.
A supreme practitioner of the art of spending as much and doing everything possible to assure victory, Marcos became President in 1965 by abandoning his former political party, the Liberals, and jumping to the Nacionalista opposition, of which he became the nominee for President. Campaigning for that post he used every ploy, trick, maneuver and scheme, from producing a film on his alleged war exploits to forging backroom alliances, from exploiting his wife’s singing voice and beauty contest charm to assuming a nationalist stance by promising not to involve the Philippines in the US war in Vietnam (a pledge which once in office he promptly reneged on by sending 10,000 troops to fight for the US in that country).
Excess was the one true characteristic of his regime. By the time Marcos was overthrown in 1986, the country’s debt had swollen to over billion dollars, while his own and his family’s wealth — much of it in real estate abroad, in Swiss banks under various aliases, in jewelry and in art collections — had similarly ballooned enough to merit a listing in global records. The Philippines had morphed into one the most politically unstable countries in Asia, where per capita protein intake had fallen to the same level as that of Bangladesh’s. It had also amassed one of the vilest human rights records in history, and had so made immunity from punishment of the crimes of the powerful so widespread it eventually morphed into the culture of impunity that still haunts its people today.
Despite his claims at heroic deeds during the anti-Japanese struggle in World War II, and his posturing as the savior of the Republic and of democracy in 1972, Marcos was no hero. But there are those who argue that he was at least an anti-hero — the Filipino equivalent of the romantic figure in literature, such as Goethe’s Faust, whose compact with the devil was driven by the noblest intentions, and who combined in himself the worst and the best qualities of human imperfection.
While, they argue, he did make himself absolute dictator, Marcos also built roads and bridges, while in foreign affairs he broke from the strictures of the Cold War by opening diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and its allied nations in the Eastern bloc, while restoring Philippine relations with China.
True enough — except that the roads and bridges he built were mostly in his home province, and were no less immune from the usual kickbacks and add-on expenses that until today make public works so lucrative for this country’s officials.
As for his foreign policy, it was mostly driven by fears of, among others, US disaffection with his regime (thus the “Soviet card”), as well as by the realization that the restoration of diplomatic relations with China could result in relief from the energy crisis the country was experiencing and which was threatening to destabilize the regime. Meanwhile, his emphasis on strengthening relations with the Middle East countries was part of a ploy to undermine those countries’ support for the Muslim separatist groups.
About Marcos there should be no doubt. If indeed his foreign policy could be regarded as among the positive legacies of his regime, that legacy has been drowned by the toll in blood and pain he inflicted on the Filipino people. He was neither hero nor anti-hero, but quite simply just another politician: one more trapo with the same villainous taint of authoritarianism, mendacity and greed as others before him, and who have since followed.