The war holds your problems in grateful suspension. You almost dread the coming of peace which will once more precipitate them. For the moment, they have lost their urgency. That trouble with your family, the uncompleted novel, the hopeless passion for a girl who does not love you, which had formerly so troubled you, must now stand humbly at the door while you occupy yourself with matters more pressing, of life and death. That fine emotional balance, that delicate synchronization of all your parts, that rich fulfillment you thought was so necessary to your happiness have ceased to concern you, for the reason that happiness has become, for the duration, superfluous. No longer necessary. The war has given you a breathing spell.
The war has given me what I never had before: time to read as much as I like. I had several books I bought and never found the leisure to read. I had given them up as money lost. During the last three weeks, I was able, between alarms and all-clears, to finish reading them all. The war has been an unexpected dividend.
It has changed, though, the character of my reading. I have a collection of detective novels still unread. I used to enjoy few things more than to run through their gory pages at the end of the day. Now I cannot read them.Their dismay over the killing of one, two or three people seems to me rather petty. Now.
Now I find comfort and relish in the pages of the philosophers whose conclusions may be briefly stated:
The war has also affected our drinking habits. Those who drank as a matter of habit are drinking more than ever. They drank for relief, as a means of escape from the intolerable self. Now they drink to escape, simply, the war.
Those who drank on occasion have, on the other hand, stopped drinking altogether. They drank as others read books, listen to music, collect paintings or go to the movies, to relieve boredom. The war has taken boredom away. Bombers coming over in perfect formation, glistening with death, are the equivalent of a good stiff drink. Bombs rushing through the air overhead are an all-night revel.
At the Arcade bar a man started a collection for a soldier who had just come back to the city from Lingayen and was now in a hospital for treatment of his wounds before returning to the front.
“I want to have enough to buy him a complete suit.”
When the Japanese captured the boy, they stripped him of his clothes except his underwear, leaving him shivering in the December cold. Managing to escape from prison camp, the boy reached Manila the other day, undaunted, naked except for his undershirt and shorts.
The narrator, a Dutchman who had once been district commissioner in the Netherlands East Indies, had retained his youthful admiration for Oscar Wilde’s wit. Now he concluded his little tale:
“He kept his pants up.”
What happens to a man is his private concern. It can hardly be of interest to anyone but himself. If he has a wife and children, it touches them. Otherwise, he goes alone.
But what happens today to a man is happening, in greater or less degree, to other men all over the world. The war has descended on us all. We are its heirs, joint and solitary. It cannot be disposed of separately.
We live a common life and the fate of one becomes, in time, by a new necessity, the fate of all. The order of the day has replaced “I” –precious relic from the past– with the collective “we”. We are all, under an absolute clause, parties to the act.
At the bar I heard a man complain to another about his bad luck. He had bought several yards of Irish linen some time ago and taken them to his tailor in Intramuros to have them made into suits. The suits were finished.
“I reminded myself to pass by Intramuros on the way home in the afternoon and get the suits. I never did. It was one thing or another, the days went by and the suits remained with the tailor. Yesterday, after the bombing, I went to Intramuros. There were no longer any suits. There was no longer any tailor.”
The man he was telling the story to asked him the name of the tailor. When he gave it, the man said:
“He was my tailor, too. I had two suits with him.”
The first man said he would be damned.
“I have a drink with a stranger, tell him about the suits I lost in the raid, and what does he tell me –this perfect stranger– he had lost his, too, in the same place, with the same tailor, in the same raid!”
“We are all in the same war.”
Including the tailor.
The people are taking to the war easily. They have adjusted themselves to having to walk to work in the morning, to salary cuts, to unemployment, to the possibility of death during the day. They have few possessions, and the war finds them singularly unencumbered except for the wish to survive without loss of character, to give no way to fear.
The rich and the influential are the pitiful ones. They have so much to lose! They shake for their lives, they shake for their office, they shake for their bank accounts. They read all the literature on the established methods of avoiding death and damage by bomb, bullet, and gas. They sit in a circle all day and worry over every rumor and report of disaster. They scan every threat to their security with the passion of scholars poring over a newly recovered line from the Greek Anthology.
The war freshly illumines a paradox:
One may be casual about one’s life but rarely over one’s property.
In high good humor the people are compiling a list of dishonor. With infinite malice they treasure each new story of how their lords and masters have disgraced themselves.
A prominent politician who used to set the National Assembly on fire with his oratory, when the bombs began to fall last week in one part of the city, flung himself on the floor of his office so hard he broke an arm.
A former executive, who liked to make a show of independence of spirit and about whom I had, with the careless accuracy of journalism, written admiringly in the past, made the Manila Hotel, which has the best air-raid shelter in the city, his home, careful not to leave its premises unless absolutely necessary. He was having a drink with a woman at the hotel bar when the first bomb fell on Port Area. At the thud of the bomb, he left lady and drink at the bar and scurried for shelter. The following day, the woman was having lunch with a friend in the dining-room when the father of his province passed by. Seeing the woman he had so casually deserted the day before and seeing no way out of it, he came over and made small talk as though nothing had happened. The woman, after listening to him for a while, smiled amiably.
“Gotten over your jitters now?” she asked, shattering him.
And here’s a story:
The first time Japanese bombers came over the city, students manning a machine-gun unit on top of their college building debated among themselves where the bombs were falling.
“No, it’s Fort McKinley.”
“It’s the Nielson air-port.”
The debate went on. American officers from another unit came over and listened to the Filipino boys argue which part of their country was being bombed by the Japanese. They broke into pure laughter when a boy of 19 put an end to the fruitless debate by declaring with a grave and judicious mien:
This morning an army officer came to the office and offered two to one that Manila would never be taken.
“We have not even begun to use our army. We let the Japanese come through, then we cut them down. Down in the South we let Japanese trucks loaded with soldiers come up the road, then, from the hillside, we cut them down with machine-gun fire. You could see the trucks turn over and spill the bodies of the Japanese all over the road.”
They would never take Manila.