I’d prefer to ignore Memorial Day; another militaristic effusion.
But it’s not so easy. My lifetime in the U.S. has been marked throughout by war, with intermittent periods of not-war between the big ones (mostly wth secret wars going on meantime). And even though I’ve been against war for most of it, that doesn’t really erase the memories, even if mine are from much physical distance from the battlefields. Or at least, the most visible ones.
Here are two collections of images from the perch at the edges of the killing fields. They embody memories fitting for the occasion.
The first is from the Iraq-Afghanistan war, seen from a highway that passes Camp Lejeune. I visited there many times while serving as Director of Quaker House in Fayetteville. Soon enough I began noticing these homemade banners, made by family members for Marines returning from combat. They were hung in public, on a fence next to NC Highway 24, which the troops passed by in the final moments before they arrived at the base gate.
The banners often hung there for weeks, til wind and weather knocked them down. To me they were an unheralded form of military folk art, testaments to the shared character of these wars, how their tentacles reached from a world away into the small, placid-looking houses behind the fence.
I began taking pictures of them, as documentation. By 2009, as my visiting subsided, I had dozens. I put them into a photo book, called “Priceless”– see it all here. Below are a few more.
Two weeks: a brief homecoming, then back across the wide ocean and the big desert for more war.
Almost all the banners were made for enlisted men of the lower ranks. They must have been so young. But not too young to be missed.
The one by an officer was among the very few that was overtly “warlike” (and religious):
Many more spoke of the urgency of clinging together to capture and preserve life.
“You and me against the world.”
“Now we can finally get hitched!”
But first . . .
And then, resuming the home work that comes with it . . .
And . . .
But behind the passion and good humor there hovered the ghosts. They didn’t cluster along the fence; I found them at that secular temple of our times, the local Wal-Mart.
I suggest sitting with this array for a moment. By 2009, when I concluded this project, more than 300 Marines from Camp Lejeune had been killed in that dismal decade’s combat. Figures for wounded weren’t readily available; but other reports suggested the ratio of wounded to dead was about sixteen to one. Plus we as a country, and of course these unnamed families, are still, endlessly, counting the cost of PTSD and other domestic fruits of these wars.
Local memorials took other forms besides the banners. I found this one the most poignant.
A memorial fleece blanket, “unbeatable” for the unbearable, at $39.95.
After that, I picked this one as a kind of favorite, at least as a goal. It remains now, as a tattered hope. Hung on that fence almost a decade ago, it still haunts: is Iraq really in our rear view mirror?
And speaking of being haunted, the second collection of images is about ghosts: the ghosts from another war, which the U.S. entered one hundred years ago last month. That war was largely sold as — remember from history class? — “The War That Will End War.”
In England, by the spring of 1917, the war had been dragging on for three years. And the government , besides heavy combat casualties, also had to contend with a vocal antiwar movement, which it took numerous steps to repress.
Among some of the most persistent resisters were young British Quakers. Historians suggest that in that war, about a third of draft age British Quaker males joined the army. But two thirds refused, and of these, more than a hundred served prison terms, in aptly named penitentiaries such as Wormwood Scrubs. They were strongly backed by London Yearly Meeting, where many young women joined their activism, along with many older Friends.
One of the older supporters was Joseph Southall, a Quaker from Birmingham.
Southall was a successful painter, but he was also a staunch pacifist. He didn’t buy the “war to end war” rubbish for a minute. In 1915, he joined with a radical Member of Parliament to produce the illustrations for a vehement antiwar pamphlet, The Ghosts of the Slain.
The booklet –see it all here– locates its message in a mythological setting (likely to evade government censorship of specific criticism of the real war)
In it, evil arms merchants, corrupt politicians and compliant church leaders combine to shove millions of young men into the abyss of war, where they kill each other off en masse.
When there’s been sufficient savagery, the politicians send diplomats out to make
“peace.” But these men in their crisply-pressed suits aren’t able to carry out their task in the usual fashion. The “ghosts of the slain” descend upon them, to demand change in what might today be called this war-system.
Further, as the compliant clergy gather for pompously pious war memorials, they face a rebellion of women, who denounce not only the preachers, but also the deity whose blessing they claim to be dispensing:
The womens’ anger is given full and eloquent play here:
In the end, the warmakers are pushed off the world stage by the triumphant figure of ‘Democracy.”
A century later, Southall’s style might seem dated or even antique, and his faith in the triumph of “Democracy” naive. His booklet, and the resistance of the young British Quakers, did not end World War One, or prevent the many which have followed.
Even so, I recall their aspirations and efforts with gratitude. After all, the diagnosis in this stylized jeremiad is not so far off: the cries for holy war still resound, the “military industrial complex” of today dwarfs the “arms merchants” of Southall’s time, and politicians continue to disappoint (to put it mildly).
So I bow to Southall and the Quaker resisters, even while staggering under the weight of the fluttering, often frantic banners of more recent, and vibrant Lejeune vintage. Maybe especially so this year.