Sunday, June 15, 2008

War? What War? Oh! THAT War!

Apologies for my abrupt and lengthy absence, but a tsunami of work and Another Large Matter crashed across my desk and washed me into faraway eldritch lands, far from consideration of these weekly musings.

Let’s take memory’s time machine back to Monday, May 26th 2008: Elizabeth and I attended the Memorial Day service at the golden grassy slope across from the Lafayette, California, BART station, an area that has been dedicated as an informal memorial to those American soldiers who have died in the Iraq War, which seems to have winked off the national radar. Amazing, considering what it’s costing now and what it will continue to cost for a long time.

(Full disclosure: I am personally connected to the matter, having married into the suburb of the family surrounding Johnson and Louise Clark, the owners of the property upon which the memorial was built by local volunteers lead by antiwar activist Jeff Heaton . . .

. . . in fact, I'll step aside so Louise Clark herself can share her part in the story of the Crosses of Lafayette:

John and I were on an "Inland Passage" cruise from Charleston to Jacksonville with our friends the Martinezes and Heatons, starting a few days before March 19, 2003.

After dinner on March 19, the Captain invited all 100 passengers to the lounge to hear a radio address by our President. It was Bush announcing that he had just started bombing the hell out of Baghdad, the beginning of five years of "Shock and Awe" for the hapless inhabitants of their sand over our oil. There was silence after the President's announcement. I stood up and protested: "The Iraqis had nothing to do with the destruction of our world trade center! We are bombing the wrong country!"

I sat down. Nothing else was said publicly, but a big burly guy walked over and snarled: "I'm a Vietnam Vet and I'm going to nail your ass." He walked away and I never saw him again. I heard no more remarks about the war or what we were doing over there for the rest of the two-week trip.

A few days after returning home, the Heaton's son, Jeff, came over. He wanted permission to erect some crosses on our visibly prominent hillside. John and I immediately agreed. Jeff constructed, painted and planted three crosses. The next day they were gone. Jeff made and installed some more. They met the same fate. Jeff gave up.

Three and a half years later with the death count was sky rocketing, Jeff came back and said he just had to start again. I suggested that this time he bring in peace groups to help. Jeff called the Mount Diablo Peace and Justice Center of the Walnut Creek, the Unitarian Church, the Rossmoor Grandparents for Peace, and the Lamorinda Peace Group. They came out in such great numbers that the vandals could not keep up. Over 100 people have helped saw, pound, paint, and plant the crosses. National media publicized the site. NPR, CNN Headline News and New York Times Sunday Edition all covered the Crosses of Lafayette. I had a phone call from a woman in Pittsburg who wanted to come help. I was giving her directions until I realized that she was calling from Pennsylvania.

(More full disclosure: I am not a pacifist, not even especially progressive in my outlook. I fully supported the Afghanistan invasion but rejected the Iraq War almost out of hand. Note that we seem to be losing both wars now. That should tell us something.)

This Memorial Day Service lasted about an hour and was attended by, according to my inexpert estimate over 100 people, plus media reps from KRON and (I believe) Telemundo. There was no counter demonstration, though we met an elderly lady, plumply wrapped in a soft brown coat and who wore eyeglasses whose frames were as black as her hair. She told us she’d lived under Nazi occupation in Greece during World War II. She expressed bewilderment over what she may have perceived as an unwillingness on the part of this crowd to take up arms against an evil force. My attention (and camera) wandered elsewhere, so when I looked for her again—maybe to persuade her that it was an issue of when to pick your fights and that maybe we'd picked a real bad one this time—she had vanished, maybe feeling intimidated and out of place.

There were speeches and there were songs. There was a handout with a list of songs to be sung (including one of the more insipid post-Beatle tunes Imagine, which, thankfully, was not given voice). My laryngitis sometimes kicks in at sing-a-longs, so I kept busy with the camera, though I still missed a shot of a trio of deer who sometimes wander among the crosses on a regular basis; Louise Clark has a huge blowup photo of them in her living room. The effect is grimly poignant. Louise was there too, her posterior, not surprisingly, still un-nailed. (Johnson, I am sad to say, was not in attendance; the World War II veteran passed away last year.)

All (non) religions are represented from Judaism to Christianity to Islam to None and other God-points between. There nothing mocking about this despite what one counter-protestor (disingenuous in his own way) has claimed on his Web site. Jeff Heaton claims he means nothing political by this and points to the removal of signs that specifically targeted President—ow my hands cramp whenever I try to type that name--as evidence of his impartiality. (And you have to wonder about a site called "Zombietime.")

Of course, this is political, as all human wars are, but I do believe what he meant to say is that the memorial is non-partisan in the sense that we’re all touched by, in a few cases, directly yoked to, this latest conflagration, no matter our party affiliations or ideological or philosophical leanings. Only deluded and slothful authoritarianists—who poll around an alarming 30%--can believe we’re gaining a damn thing out of this and none of us can call ourselves patriotic Americans and act like nothing’s happening. It’s our duty, warrior, semi-warrior and pacifist alike--to give it sober attention. We owe it to those who have been maimed and killed and those yet to be. We’re far far from out of this thing, no matter who takes the oath in January 2009.

Sometimes the silence is enough to make me shout: “Bring Back the Draft! That’ll Get Their Attention!”

On that day the sign at the top of the hill read 4084 for the total number of dead American soldiers. The Iraqi dead—estimates run to a hundred thousand—are not listed here. Crosses are still being added and the grounds kept up by a core group of volunteers, what happens there’s no more room? The numbers will still keep rising.

[Photos by author; updated 6/16/08]

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