13. Fagen meets El Presidente|
Aguinaldo took another sip of tea. "There you have it, David. An ancient story of the strong imposing their will over the weak and an oppressed
people ready to die for freedom. Surely this is a tale you are familiar
with. Americans have as much blood on their hands as anyone when it
comes to the colored races."
El Presidente stood up and leaned over the little table. "David,
you too are oppressed in your own country. White people call you a sulking
brute. They burn you on their crosses and kill your children. What
future do you have in your own homeland? The doors to fulfillment and
prosperity are forever closed to you in America. Is it your destiny
to live out your life among people who despise you? Do you think America's
attitude toward the colored man will magically change for the better? Look
around you, sir. Look at the charred villages of the innocent peasants. Look
at the mass graves containing hundreds, no thousands of Filipinos. What
kind of war is it when every captain or lieutenant is also a sheriff, judge
and executioner? American soldiers enjoy killing colored people, David. Things
will not change for the better in America. They will get worse."
Aguinaldo sat down and stared across the table, his glittering eyes burning
a hole in the Negro private's heart. Fagen's head pounded from the vitality
of the man's eloquent speech. El Presidente was certainly
not like any other Filipino he'd ever met, or any American for that matter. Consumed
by the general's passionate intensity, Fagen's own thoughts were a tangled
maze of confusion and indecision.
"General I'm sorry, but you're scaring the hell out of me. You're a
man who eats supper with presidents and admirals. You're a President
yourself. You command an entire army. I'm just a private soldier. I
can't unscramble this mess we're in. Even if I knew how, nobody would
listen. What do you want from me?"
Aguinaldo reached out, refilled the teacups, and then said, "Come with
"That's right, come with us. Right now. Tonight. Join
my army. We welcome you with open arms. Come and fight with us."
Fagen couldn't believe his ears. The words burst upon him like a thunderclap. All
night he'd expected to be killed, at the very least held for ransom, and now
he was invited to join the rebel army. Shocked, he turned away from
the Filipino's penetrating gaze. "You're asking me to betray my country? To
become a deserter and a traitor?"
"One man's traitor is another man's freedom fighter, David. Think of
it this way, you have the opportunity to help a nation achieve its independence. Picture
the countless generations of children born into freedom because of your actions. What
more lofty pursuit? By helping us you help your own country too. This
war is illegal and immoral. Your great nation betrays you and all its
citizens by its involvement here in the Philippines. This will not last. Soon
America will see the error of its ways and make peace. Those responsible
for her misguided policies in Asia will be vilified. The patriotic
few who stood against the horror of this war will be hailed as heroes. Your
joining our fight for freedom will be a signal to other brave men like you
that it's possible to love your country and at the same time hate its politics. What
is your answer, David?"
Clarita joined them, smiled and then touched Fagen's cheek with her cool,
dry palm. He was afraid to look at her, afraid even to move. The only
sound the popping of green wood in the campfire. Had a soldier ever
been in a more difficult position? Say yes, and his life was changed
forever. He would embark on a future he couldn't even imagine. Say
no, and his life was changed forever anyway. How could he go on with
the sure and certain knowledge Aguinaldo was right? America had betrayed
the Filipinos. They had no business enslaving a people ten thousand
miles from their shores. As a result, untold thousands of innocent souls
had been lost, and it seemed inevitable many more would die before the bloody
Fagen's life had already been permanently altered. He'd seen enough
bloodletting to guarantee that. A soldier never really forgets the things
he sees in combat. Fagen tried to imagine himself back in the civilian
world carrying around the memories of war. He recalled what Sergeant
Rivers had said to Miss Merilee Shaw of the Anti-imperialist League. Had
he been right? Was the Army training a generation of white men to kill
the colored man at home?
What would life be like for a Negro on the streets of America when the war
was over? Would every small town police chief become the black
man's judge, jury and executioner? Mr. Ben Tillman, Senator from South
Carolina, had said just the year before there were already too many niggers
living under the American flag. Could a colored man ever achieve the
merits of first-class citizenship in a country where his protection under the
law was not assured? If Sergeant Rivers and Aguinaldo were right, things
could get worse for the Negro, a lot worse.
Fagen's thoughts shifted suddenly to Ellis Fairbanks sitting alone in the
dim light of his quarantine tent, and he yearned for his company. He
missed his cousin's guileless, trusting outlook on life and realized how much
Ellis' naive, simple-hearted acceptance of man's follies influenced the way
he perceived the world. He knew the answer to Aguinaldo's question. David
Fagen had no choice in the matter.
"I can't do it, General. America has betrayed the Filipino people,
but it hasn't broken its promise to me. I agree this war is wrong, we
shouldn't be here interfering in your lives. I hate what my country
does, but it's still my country, and I can't forsake her."
Aguinaldo looked at the man across the table, the flicker of a smile in his
eyes. "I would have been surprised if you'd answered any other way," he
said. "Men do not renounce their flag for light and transient reasons."
"What happens now?"
"We say goodbye, Private David Fagen, and hope we do not meet again until
this contentiousness between our two nations is resolved. We are soldiers,
you must do your duty, and I mine. In the meantime, my sincerest wish
is something of what we discussed here tonight will remain with you."
At that Aguinaldo stood at attention and saluted. Caught off guard,
Fagen scrambled from his chair to return the courtesy. "Go with God," the
general said, and then he turned on his heel and walked away.