Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day for civilians: Honoring the innocent

(Far more civilians than soldiers or fighters have died from our invasion and occupation of Iraq.)
I would like to register two objections to Memorial Day.

First, we live in such a war culture that we have somehow come to only remember the killers and not their victims when we honor those who have died in war. It is received wisdom that on Memorial Day we revere and remember those who held guns or dropped bombs, and only if they wore a US military uniform. A rhetorical question asking if this is how we really wish to be is fatuous. We are this war culture. It has saturated us so thoroughly that even mentioning the civilians or those who wore other uniforms and who died in humankind's cruelest activity--war--is beyond the pale.

Second, the tone and tenor of this day befits a time before Gandhi figured out how to wage national defense without violence. War is now a completely unnecessary activity and richly deserves not support and honor, but consignment to the dustbin of history and replacement by an organized civil society. Those who engage in huge liberation struggle from their own unjust government or from foreign invaders can successfully use nothing but nonviolence and until that knowledge is acknowledged, we only shore up our commitment to more war when we participate in Memorial Day.

Many who truly participate in Memorial Day are focused more on remembering veterans of war, whether those veterans died during the war or not. I certainly think of my father, who served in the Philippines in World War II and who just crossed over four years ago, in this light. But I think of him every day, so I do not need Memorial Day to help me do that. Indeed, I have his photo as a 17-year-old, just graduated from high school, in his Navy uniform, about to head into the fray, and I see that photo on my bulletin board by my desk every day.

Of course, he's the same WWII navy veteran who gave me his memorabilia and told me to use it for peace somehow, so I took one of his patches ("Hell, I think it was for keeping my locker clean") and, on Fathers Day 1988, in a thunderstorm that night, I brought it plus my swedesaw to the navy's thermonuclear command facility in northern Wisconsin, and I dismantled part of it. This facility, Project ELF (Extremely Low Frequency)
consisted of a signal center fenced in and 28 miles of thick antenna strung on utility poles through the Chequamegon National Forest. It sent commands to nuclear subs by generating a signal using the native granitic bedrock, the Laurentian Shield, and the ionosphere, with a standing wave that penetrated the ocean to great depths, wherever nuclear subs might be.

So I nailed his WWII navy patch to a pole, notched it, and slogged in the dark storm to the next pole a couple of hundred feet away, and notched that one too. I went back to the first one illuminated by lightning flashes--including one that revealed a big buck deer bounding across the line in the storm, no doubt startled by the close clap of thunder. I did a small reverse cut and then put my hands on the patch and pushed, saying, "For you, Pop." I could hear the internal cracking of the pole and, in the driving rain, first that pole and then the second began to fall, then crashing to the Earth just seconds apart. A few years later, that same WWII South Pacific veteran would be the driver as two of us did a Plowshares peace action on the same antenna line, bringing down three poles and heading off to prison. My Dad drove the getaway car--not to get us away but just to get the car away. He was 70 when he did this, risking prison time for participating in this act of disarmament. So I honor that part of his memory.

A quarter century ago we did a Memorial Day in advance of the millions of civilians who were slated to die in any nuclear war. We did this in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where the navy was expanding their command facility. Then I went out and cut down one of their poles and turned myself in the next morning, earning my first peace felony.

So Memorial Day is special for me. It is a holiday, but not a US national holiday in my own private view. My nation is the Rainbow Peace Nation and so Memorial Day for me is to remember the reason to struggle against war--that it kills far more civilians than it kills armed forces--and to reinforce the past struggles that pave the way for teaching humankind another path to liberation, another way to defend everything we love.

(The US killed approximately 2.5 million Vietnamese in the criminal war for hegemony, approximately 90 percent of whom were civilians.)


jellydonut52 said...

This is a worthy cause, and, I'd be willing to take part in incorporating the remembrance of civilians into the annual tradition, or at least recognizing their deaths.

Tom H. Hastings said...

Thanks. Wouldn't it be nice to have more peace holidays all around the year? We could start with MLK Day and move all the way around to really honoring the Prince of Peace by waging that instead of war.

Terri said...

Memorial Day always brings time for reflection and heartache to me as I hear of parades and other events to honor the fallen, yet ignore the innocent. It's not the least bit surprising that this day originated near the end of the Civil War to memorialize the fallen Union soldiers only, not the Confederate soldiers. Since it's inception it has been a day tilted toward the victor and not to the victim.

Tom H. Hastings said...

Very interesting. I didn't know that the Confederate soldiers were left out, but it makes American sense. I sometimes rhetorically ask students how many walls like the one in DC we would need to similarly pay respect to the Vietnamese who died in that war. It's at least 50 such walls. By contrast, I remind them, the stelae at Okinawa scribe the names of all the dead from both sides. By making our dead, and none of the civilians, the only ones worth honoring, we set up such a cultural contamination.