Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Build Iraq War Memorial Now

The following op-ed by Michael McConnell appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Springfield, IL newspaper and today in the Dayton Daily News. The Dayton paper has almost a full page with a nice drawing of combat boots and the announcement of the opening of Eyes Wide Open in Dayton, tomorrow.

Build war memorial during war
We should remember fallen troops and civilians while there is still time to stop the violence


By Michael McConnell. Michael McConnell is regional director for the American Friends Service Committee in the Midwest

Because the Vietnam War still haunts elections, perhaps it and the current war should haunt our souls as well.

I remember listening to the nightly newscasters in 1968 dutifully reporting the daily body counts from Vietnam. Did the numbers numb the nation or provoke a generation into opposition to the war?

Body bags appeared regularly in the news. We don't see that in the current war because of Pentagon policies about photographing coffins. Did their presence in the media dull us to the humanity wrapped in plastic or spur us on to more determined efforts to stop a war that is generally seen today as a tragic mistake?

I remember Buddhist monks dousing themselves with gasoline and setting themselves on fire in a desperate effort to stop the killing. Did that ultimate sacrifice make us turn away in disgust or inspire us to greater commitment in stopping the napalming of villages?

What if the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall had been built as the war was happening, with the names of the fallen chiseled daily in its black facade and new sections added each month? Would that have hastened the end of the war as anonymous statistics took on a name and presence?

I now believe that war memorials to the combatants and civilians who die should be erected during the war, while there is still time to stop the violence. I believe this after experiencing "Eyes Wide Open: The Human Cost of the Iraq War," a traveling memorial created by the American Friends Service Committee.

The memorial quite simply consists of a pair of combat boots, each tagged with the name, rank, age and home state of a fallen U.S. soldier. Another pair of boots is added with each military death. A 24-foot wall bears the names of more than 10,000 Iraqi civilians and details on their deaths. A pile of hundreds of shoes of all sizes represents a fraction of the loss of Iraqi lives.

Visitors' reactions

But it is the interactions with the exhibit by visitors that make me realize that memorials have to be built during, not after, wars. In Taunton, Mass., the funeral of Lance Cpl. John James Van Gyzen IV, who was killed in Iraq, was happening on one side of town, while the traveling Iraq memorial was on the other side.

After the burial, his mother went to the boots, found the one with her son's name and tied his picture on with red, white and blue ribbon. She placed a rose in the boot. Then she turned to the organizer and said, "I guess I belong here."

In Amherst, Mass., the Lucey family donated their son's uniform and boots to the exhibit. Jeffrey Lucey committed suicide a few months after returning from Iraq. Last Christmas, in a fit of depression, he threw the dog tags he carried around his neck at his sister, shouting, "Your brother is a murderer." The dog tags belonged to two unarmed Iraqi soldiers he had been ordered to kill. He wore their names everywhere to pay homage to them.

I have seen relatives sit in front of the symbolic boots of their loved ones, weeping, taking photos of the boots and leaving mementos.

Invariably, as visitors view the combat boots, they remark how young the soldiers were. They say that standing in the midst of a sea of empty boots makes them visualize the faces and imagine the lives that should be there but are not.

On one occasion in Boston, a young woman knelt in front of the piles of shoes representing the slain Iraqi civilians. She sat down, removed her own shoes and placed them gently on the pile, then walked away barefoot. She said she had just heard of an Iraqi boy who had died because he could not get his insulin and wanted to place her own shoes in memory of him.

The biggest criticism leveled at the peace movement during Vietnam was that we did not welcome back the troops. They became the enemy. Not this time. More and more people understand that we can support the troops while condemning the war. Many joined the military because they faced either dead-end jobs or no jobs at all.

Most signed up in the National Guard to get money for education or extra support for their families or to help during natural disasters. The 26 suicides of those who served in Iraq show that killing other human beings was not why many joined.

More and more, the Iraq war looks like we threw a barrel of gasoline to douse a match.

This time, it is not Buddhist monks immolating themselves, it is Carlos Arredondo, 44, the father of Lance Cpl. Alexander Arredondo, his 20-year-old son who had died in August in Najaf. The elder Arredondo became so distraught upon knowing that his beloved son was dead, he went to the garage, got a can of gasoline, went to the Marine van outside and torched it and himself.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) recently said: "I'm sick and tired of reopening the wounds of the Vietnam War. As we speak, some young American is dying in Iraq. All the issues facing the nation are being lost."

The wounds of Vietnam have not been reopened; they were never closed.

Just watch the people as they pass the Vietnam memorial wall. Even the Department of Veterans Affairs puts the number of Vietnam vets suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder at 400,000. Others say 1.5 million. Whatever the number, they are four times more likely to divorce; they represent a large proportion of America's homeless and they are increasingly more likely to commit suicide as the years go by.

We are surrounded by the walking wounded of the last great U.S. imperial adventure. How long and how many will suffer from the current one?

Let politicians, media see

So let's build the granite wall in Washington, D.C., right now, close to where our elected and appointed officials pass every day. Let them and the media watch as hammer strikes chisel daily to record the next deaths. Let us chisel into stone the names of all of the victims, Iraqi and U.S. combined.

We have passed the 1,000th death of U.S. soldiers in Iraq. That puts us in danger of the number of fallen becoming a mind-numbing statistic, rather than a human tragedy.

Now is the time to join the private grief of individual military families and the public mourning of a nation. Candles should burn in every federal plaza, heads should bow, church bells should ring and minds should think about the blood spilled on both sides. The first question should then be: Is it worth it?

Private grief leads to private questions. Why was my son or daughter, husband or wife taken from me? Rosemarie Slavenas of Rockford, just one example out of a thousand, asks why her son Brian, who landed a helicopter under hostile fire saving lives, lay bleeding on the ground for half an hour?

Public grief leads to public questions. Why was Brian, a sensitive young man who told his mother, "I don't want to hurt anybody," taken from us as a nation? Why was someone who did not want to harm others taken from a city that bans the sale of guns, taken from a post-Columbine nation that worries about bullying in our schools?

Public mourning leads to political questions, such as why is this war being fought and what is the cost to this nation?

It is the 18th month of the Iraq war, and I can hear the hammer falling on the chisel for the thousandth time on the U.S. side.

Whose name will it carve? And when will the hammering stop?

Copyright © 2004, Chicago Tribune

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At 6:39 AM, Blogger Bill Adams said...

Veteran's Day is November 11th and I hope that EVERY American will be flying the flag in honor of our troops fighting in Iraq and around the world to preserve our freedoms!

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Semper Fi!

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