Mon 26 May 2014
Comments Off on War dead and the Wall
Today is the official Memorial Day, a day set aside for Americans to honor those who died while serving their country in times of war. The idea started after the American Civil War in which as many as 625,000 individuals, almost 2% of the entire population at the time, were killed. I have an ancestor who was one of the lucky ones, having served in the northern army, captured and held captive by the confederacy and then released. I inherited some of the original New York Herald Tribune newspapers he saved from that time. I also have three uncles who served in World War II, Uncle Al in the Army, Uncle Ray in the Air Force, and Uncle Andy in the Navy. All survived, although the total U.S. war dead from World War II was over 405,000. When one tallies all the U.S. war dead, starting with Revolutionary War, the figure reaches over 1,300,000, not including those who our troops killed on the “other” sides.
So there is good reason to celebrate Memorial Day, whether your ancestors, relatives and friends were killed, wounded or survived unscathed. As moral agents we should remember and honor the sacrifice so many have made, but we should never celebrate the idea of war. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” quoth the Gospel. The unspoken follow-up must be “damn the warmakers.” History suggests that the spilling of blood is in our blood, perhaps in our genes in the wrong kind of environment. The reasons for going to war are legion, but lurking in the rationales and alibis are both the quest for power and the desire for resources. The American Civil War was not fought over a difference in dialects, but for material reasons, a major material being human slaves and the cotton industry. There are times when nations get dragged into wars, World Wars I and II being prime examples. But it is obvious that there is no “war to end all wars” in sight.
Yesterday a photograph went viral. It was the new Pope Francis placing his forehead against the wall that separates Palestinians from “safe” Israelis. At a mass in Manger Square of Bethlehem, Pope Francis said:
“In this, the birthplace of the Prince of Peace, I wish to invite you, president Mahmoud Abbas, together with president Shimon Peres, to join me in heartfelt prayer to God for the gift of peace.”
It is reported that both sides pledged to support his call. But then it was not that far away on a sacred mount that the beatitude blessing peacemakers was uttered two millennia ago, clearly to many deaf ears over the succeeding centuries. After the mass the Pope faced the wall, not banging his head against it, as most Palestinians must do at least metaphorically every day, but resting in contemplation. Nor was he wailing in self-serving nostalgia for a lost temple or blaming anyone for the crucifixion of his master. But, unlike Reagan, he did not call for the wall to be taken down. The wall will remain as long as the hate and mutual distrust rule the day.
There are other walls, of course. The “Green Zone” in Baghdad is walled in. Sectarian violence serves as a figurative wall in Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is up against the wall. These are the walls that separate, that distinguish others as inferior, not the sturdy walls that hold up cathedrals, synagogues or mosques. No one can build a wall of peace out of the bones of the war dead. No true peace can come from those who wage jihad as though they have the divine right to kill fellow Muslims or anyone else. If the millions of war dead over the course of human history, indeed the millions more of those killed out of spite or hatred or greed, are to be honored, all the walls that we humans erect need to be breached. War is hell, but to hell with the walls that fuel the fires of this hell on earth.