Two excellent Defense secretaries

BABE’S EYE VIEW FROM WASHINGTON D.C. - Babe Romualdez (The Philippine Star) - December 16, 2018 - 12:00am

The formal return of the Balangiga bells in Eastern Samar yesterday – 117 years after they were taken by American soldiers as war booty in the aftermath of the Balangiga attack on September 28, 1901 – fosters healing and brings closure to a dark chapter in our shared history with the United States.

I was pleased to join US Ambassador Sung Kim and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, together with Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea, in welcoming the bells when they arrived at Villamor Air Base last Tuesday, flown home in a US Air Force C-130 plane named “Spirit of MacArthur” that departed from Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan. US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Southeast Asia Joseph Felter and INDO-PACOM Commander Admiral Philip Davidson and Colonel Leo Leibrich of the Pentagon were also in attendance. (Photos of this historic event are featured in This Week on PeopleAsia at the Allure section of the Philippine Star today).

The efforts from numerous groups and individuals – both Filipino and American – collectively helped in bringing back the bells. Some accounts say that as early as 1935, Eugenio Daza – one of the revolutionaries who fought in Balangiga and credited for planning the attack – asked for the return of the bells to the parish church in Borongan, Samar.

In 1957, Jesuit priest Fr. Horacio dela Costa, who was also a historian, wrote to the Commander of the 13th Air Force asking for the return of the bells, pointing to their historical significance. At the time, the two bells were just languishing at the basement of a building set for demolition at Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming.

In my interviews with Pinky Webb (host of CNN’s The Source) and Karen Davila (host of ANC’s Headstart) in their respective programs, I told them the return of the bells was the result of a confluence of events over the course of many decades. There is no question however that the bells’ return has also inadvertently brought to the fore the efforts made by the two distinguished gentlemen who were largely responsible for ironing out the details of the momentous occasion – US Defense Secretary James Mattis and Defense Secretary Lorenzana.

During the 2017 ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting in Clark, one of the first things that President Duterte mentioned to Secretary Mattis was the return of the bells to the Philippines – to which the US Defense Secretary replied that he would do what he could to ensure the return of the bells.

Defense Secretary James Mattis’ word was as “good as gold” – not surprising at all since he is known as a man of his word and highly respected by people in Washington. The veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars with over four decades of military service is one of the most popular and the “most revered Marine general in at least a generation.” Known for being low-key and dubbed as “Warrior Monk” by admirers, his straightforward speech has endeared him to Marines who have made his words their maxim: “Demonstrate to the world there is ‘no better friend, no worse enemy’ than a US Marine.”

To Mattis, alliances are important, something which he underscored during his confirmation hearing when he said that “Nations with strong allies thrive, and those without them wither.”

This was the essence of his message during the official turnover ceremony last November 14 at Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, saying it was time to move on from that dark chapter in 1901. “History teaches us that nations with allies thrive. History also teaches us that all wars end. In returning the bells of Balangiga to our ally and our friend, the Philippines, we’ve picked up our generation’s responsibility to keep the respect between our peoples,” he said.

Wyoming Governor Matt Mead, who was present during the turnover, admitted that he had been against returning the bells, but deferred to the Secretary’s decision. “You have a perspective that is broader than mine. You have a history that is broader than mine,” Governor Mead said.

Just like Mattis, the Cotabato-born Del Lorenzana also served in the military, spending 29 years in the service and enjoying a reputation for being an excellent soldier. Secretary Lorenzana is also credited for helping rid Davao City of criminals, rebels and insurgents during his stint as commander of the Philippine Army’s 2nd Scout Ranger Battalion. 

A gentleman of the highest order who is also respected for his honesty and being a straight shooter, the Philippine Defense Secretary certainly knew how to navigate the intricate corridors of power in Washington, having spent more than a decade in the US, first as Defense Attaché from 2002 to 2004, after which he was appointed as Presidential Representative and head of the Office of Veterans Affairs at the Philippine Embassy in Washington, D.C. until 2016. Certainly, those years spent in Washington enabled him to develop an important web of admirers in the US.

It was certainly opportune that at this significant chapter in the shared history of the United States and the Philippines, the two men at the helm of the Defense portfolios in their respective governments happened to be James Mattis and Delfin Lorenzana. Undoubtedly, the return of the Balangiga bells marks a new era in the relationship between the two nations. As our friend Ambassador Kim said during the handover ceremony in Villamor Air Base, the return of the bells “underscores the enduring friendship between our countries, our shared values, and shared sacrifices.”

Secretary Lorenzana also said, it was a time for “new beginnings, renewed friendships, and a stronger brotherhood.”

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Email: babeseyeview@gmail.com.

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