28 June 2011


Option 10: By Sword and Fire: The Destruction of Manila in World War II by Alfonso J. Aluit
(Visit the new Giveaways page to learn how you could win this book!)

While this work is concerned with the destruction of Manila towards the end of World War II in the Pacific, it begins with a history of Manila and a reconstruction in words of its physical condition up to February 1945.

It is our aim to show insofar as is practicable what actually was destroyed, not only the physical structures and material treasures of a city 400 years old, but also the way of life, the social organisation of the people.

Only if one understood and appreciated what it was that perished would the loss truly make sense . . .

Not that I'm making excuses for myself or anything, but this book doesn't really need a Locus Focus post to sell it. I've already written about it in a TBR Tuesday post and in a Theme Thursday post--and frankly, the Locus Focus I was drafting wasn't building on Aluit's storytelling journalism as much as rephrasing everything he had said and spoiling his point by making it more obvious. And that's not what my meme is all about, is it?

Anyway, if you check out the June Giveaway post, you'll see that By Sword and Fire is already in the pool of prizes. As it deserves to be.

The following [chapter] is the story of the building of Manila into a Christian city . . . the story of Manila's Christian institutions as they had become before that fateful month of February 1945 . . .

[The Christian missionaries] not only evangelised; they civilised. . . At the beginning of the 20th century, the first American Archbishop of Manila, Mons. Jeremiah J. Harty, would declare that the religious were men "who not only had the knowledge of physics, philosophy and theology, but were also architects and builders, advancers of civilisations."

For me, this book is about identity. "You don't know who you are until you know where you came from," a friend likes to tell me at least once a year--usually as a prelude to another reminder of his Scots-Irish roots, of which he is inordinately proud. Well, By Sword and Fire tells me exactly where I came from. Still, while reading Chapter II, an exhaustive look at Manila's greatest landmarks and the religious and secular groups most active in adding their own buildings, I did not expect to find a section on the order which built the school where I was educated for thirteen years. Coming across them like that, I found myself in tears.

And this is why I suspect I'm just being indulgent
by putting this book in the giveaway pool.
Who else would want it but me?
But the review must go on . . .

WWII buffs know Manila as the second most devastated city of the war--but that measly description doesn't communicate a tenth of what that devastation meant. Piles of rubble mean nothing if you don't know what they used to be. (Towers, churches, schools, forts . . .) A heap of bricks won't break your heart if it did not love the original edifice. To paraphrase a key player in a different theatre of the same war, one bombed building is a tragedy, but a million bombed buildings are a statistic. Well, Aluit isn't going to let anyone cover pre-war Manila with statistics; in his book, he writes in detail of a million tragedies.

The first three chapters of this book are a detailed "reconstruction in words" of all the architectural ages of Manila, from its earliest days of earthwork forts and coconut trunk palisades to its modern industrial makeover over 300 years later at the hands of American business interests--all the better to show exactly what Japanese strategy and Allied bombs destroyed between them in a mere thirty days.

The next two chapters are the build up to and painstaking recreation of those thirty days, based on the firsthand accounts of eyewitnesses. I'm still in the middle of this part and am amazed at the wealth of detail. He retells the events of 4 February (for instance) from at least fourteen different perspectives, provided by people scattered all over the metro: devotees at church, internees in prisons, refugees at makeshift hospitals, employees of businesses wantonly blown up by Japanese troops, many people who don't realise they are seeing family members for the last time . . . and of course, he steps back from time to time, to remind us of the Allies who are slowly closing in.

Some of the stories make me wish that Aluit were less of a journalist and more of a storyteller--someone who serves up the facts with style instead of letting them speak for themselves. But style can also be abused and facts are too precious for that. He tells the story standing apart from it--and I admit that's exactly the right way.

The only thing which would improve this book are some maps. Right now, it has only a few pages of black-and-white photographs to underline the stories. I hope a future edition will have both good maps and more photos.

You should choose this book in the giveaway if . . . you like your history thorough, precise and unflinching (and feel slightly hurt when other people tell you they think your heavily non-fiction book collection is "boring").

Image Sources: a) By Sword and Fire: The Destruction of Manila in World War II, 3 February - 3 March 1945 by Alfonso J. Aluit, b) Immaculate Conception Cathedral, Manila, before the last days of WWII in the Pacific


Jenny said...

Wow, what can I say? I'd never thought about what a "pile of rubble" could mean to different people.

Shaz said...

I studied history at uni and it's easy to be detached from all the horrors down through the ages. B

But when it affects a place you love, even if it was a hundred years ago, it suddenly becomes personal, doesn't it?

Enbrethiliel said...


Jenny -- That is exactly the lesson I'm learning from this book, so I'm so glad it comes out in this post. Thanks for reading!

Shaz -- It definitely does!

What complicates this "matter of the heart" for me is that I didn't realise how much I loved Manila until I started reading about her.

Dauvit Balfour said...

Well, my chances of winning are mighty slim, considering I've been so scarce lately that I haven't even posted my W&Q.

Still, this is something I'd definitely like to read, especially if I ever do get to tour southeast Asia (my roommate is from Jakarta, and I have a standing offer of a tour guide, though how seriously it was made I don't know).

Growing up in the path of Sherman's march to Atlanta, I know the feeling of sorrow for things lost, and anger at the destroyer. My yankee friends don't understand it. Maybe you're right; maybe they can't.

I remember walking through Dresden back when I was in Uni, and hearing the stories of the firebombs and wondering how many ghosts were walking with me. Perhaps, if a man loves art and man and God enough, he can find some spark of empathy even for those homes that were never his.

Enbrethiliel said...


Is the sorrow for things lost ever healed in time? (Is sorrow even something that can be healed?) And can those who have never seen destruction except from the point of view of the destroyer--seen it, moreover, through the lens of expediency, which is the nearsightedness of the moment and the blurring of hindsight . . . can those with such a perspective ever break out of it? Your comment about empathy and the love of art and man and God seems to suggest they can!

PS -- There's still time to get two extra entries by voting in the last two rounds of the Faerie Tale Theatre smackdown!

PPS -- Getting a Top Commenter ranking (See sidebar!) won't hurt matters, either! ;-)