Quaker Stories for Memorial Day

Howard Zinn was neither a Quaker nor a pacifist. But in 1976, he wrote this in his regular column for the Boston Globe:

There was a young woman in New Hampshire who refused to allow her husband, killed in Vietnam, to be given a military burial. She rejected the hollow ceremony ordered by those who sent him and 50,000 others to their deaths. Her courage should be cherished on Memorial Day. There were the B52 pilots who refused to fly those last vicious raids of Nixon’s and Kissinger’s war. Have any of the great universities, so quick to give honorary degrees to God-knows-whom, thought to honor those men at this Commencement time, on this Memorial Day?
No politician who voted funds for war, no business contractor for the military, no general who ordered young men into battle, no FBI man who spied on anti-war activities, should be invited to public ceremonies on this sacred day. Let the dead of past wars be honored. Let those who live pledge themselves never to embark on mass slaughter again.

“The shell had his number on it. The blood ran into the ground…Where his chest ought to have been they pinned the Congressional Medal, the DSC, the Medaille Militaire, the Belgian Croix de Guerre, the Italian gold medal, The Vitutea Militara sent by Queen Marie of Rumania. All the Washingtonians brought flowers .. Woodrow Wilson brought a bouquet of poppies.”
Those are the concluding lines of John Dos Passos angry novel 1919. Let us honor him on Memorial Day.
And also Thoreau, who went to jail to protest the Mexican War.
And Mark Twain, who denounced our war against the Filipinos at the turn of the century.
And I.F. Stone, who virtually alone among newspaper editors exposed the fraud and brutality of the Korean War.
Let us honor Martin Luther King, who refused the enticements of the White House, and the cautions of associates, and thundered against the war in Vietnam.
Memorial Day should be a day for putting flowers on graves and planting trees. Also, for destroying the weapons of death that endanger us more than they protect us, that waste our resources and threaten our children and grandchildren.”

Zinn’s columns had run in the Globe for two years. But, he wrote later, ” After [this one] appeared, my column was cancelled.”


KIA = Killed In Action. MIA = Missing In Action. Memorial Day is every day on this road to Camp Lejeune, the Marine base on the Atlantic coast of North Carolina.


Thee speaks this Friend’s mind, Howard Zinn.

Usually I’d prefer to ignore Memorial Day; another militaristic effusion.

But it’s not so easy. My lifetime in the U.S. began as Howard Zinn, initially  eager to join World War Two, was dropping bombs on targets in Europe. After the war, doing graduate research, he visited some of the cities he had attacked, and discovered many of his his bombs had killed civilians, as well as German soldiers hiding from the war, waiting for it to end. He became an eloquent and informed antiwar academic and writer.

Even though I rejected the military, my life (and that of my generation) 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 hereBelow are a few more.

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 and “America First!” 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.



7 thoughts on “Quaker Stories for Memorial Day”

  1. Yes, Memorial Day is day of reflection on the slipperiness of many values.
    Personally, I tend toward the “it’s a moral mistake” to enlist pole, but a Mennonite friend responded that the bulk of enlistees make that decision in quite different economic cercumsrsnces than I.
    And what about the Civil War? Thomas Nagel wrote somewhere that the fact that there is often no right choice shows the world is not merely bad – it’s evil.

    1. Nancy– Don’t know why not; but I just shared it to your page and FB said it went thru. Check again?

      1. Chuck Fager:

        I’ve been reading your blog for years, and have yet to find a facebook share button at A Friendly Letter.

        Only posts that I can share to my timeline are the ones you share to fb group ‘Quakers.’ As I did with this one.

        Please advise,
        Katie Kent

  2. Thank you for this powerful blog. I finished watching Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga last night. War is depicted as a necessary evil, but the sacrifice of thousands in a noble cause is labeled a good. I hear in my mind as I write this, the words of of my youth by Pete Seegar. “When will they ever learn?.” I agonize over the idea of what makes a “just war.” Surely, we needed to stop Hitler. Yet, those humans who seek to speak against our human impulse to fight and to destroy the other for power seem ever to be hanging on the cross. God bless you for naming all parts of memory this Memorial Day, both the sorrow of loss and the evil of our complicity.

  3. My Grandfather must have been one of the first men to die in the First World War: Mons, August 23rd 1914. His only child, my Father, was born a month later, September 23rd 1914.

  4. Jeanne Allen, Hitler is a result of World War One! The financial reparations that Germany was paying the “winners” as well as the “Great Depression” opened the door for Hitler’s election as its leader. One of purposes of war, it seems, is to plant the seeds of the “next war”.

    I was taught by a Cherokee medicine man that it takes 7 generations to heal from a war. The fight over the flying of the Confederate Flag in pubic spaces is a reminder to me that we have not yet healed from even that war.

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