Monday, May 27, 2013

Remembering the Dead—All of Them, Even the Ones Who Just Got in the Way

The dead of Dresden, German after the Allied firebombing of a city with virtually no military significance.

Today is, of course, Memorial Day in the United States.  The Uniform Holiday Act, passed in 1968, set 1971 as the year the Federal government would begin observing the holiday on the last Monday of May giving Americans a three day holiday weekend to start the summer season, to be balanced by a three day Labor Day weekend in September.  

Remembrance of the war dead is all well and good.  But, especially in modern wars, soldiers, sailors, and airmen are only a fraction of the victims.  Civilians, both those who just “got in the way"—collateral damage in the cold, efficient jargon of the military—and those murdered as a matter of tactics and policy dwarf the dead in uniforms.

Despite international treaties and high minded  and high flown declarations of noble intent by governments, insurgents, and other involved factions, accepted dogma of modern warfare is that civilian deaths, the more brutal and indiscriminate the better, will “demoralize” the enemy and “sap them of the will to resist.”

This is utter hogwash.  It has never been the case.  Civilian deaths simply inflame the passions of the targeted peoples, raise their determination to both resist—and if possible wreck vengeance.  It also sets up generational resentments and enmities that threaten to rekindle conflicts again and again.

Ask the “indomitable” people of London.  Or for that matter the Germans under Allied carpet bombing or the Japanese whose wood and paper cities flashed over in fire storms even before we dropped atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Although the Axis Powers were eventually overwhelmed by superior military and industrial capacity, the war was not shortened by even one day by demoralization due to civilian deaths.  Even in the case of the Atomic bomb drops—which were widely viewed and forcing the Empire of Japan to surrender before a hugely costly invasion of the Home Islands—it was not the vaporization of the population of two cities that caused the ultimate surrender, but the calculation of the General Staff that the military would be rendered useless by atomic attacks on their forces and equipment.

Modern Terrorism is the war of the weak against the strong.  And it assumes that enough mayhem will break the will of whatever presumed oppressor.  But there is no real difference between leaving a bomb in a mailbox and flattening a neighborhood with drones.  It is simply a matter of scale and technological sophistication.

All modern war is, in essence, terrorism.

In the mid 1990’s I was asked two write a poem for a Memorial Day Sunday service at the Congregational Unitarian Church in Woodstock.  I was asked to write something that memorialized ALL of the war dead.  Using the headlines of the day—a time when our nation was supposedly at peace but while much of the world was at war—this is what I came up with:

In The Century of Death

They are like that grainy photo on page six
           of a million tires burning somewhere in New Jersey.
 We shake our heads
           and click our tongues
           with disapproval and dismay,
           reflect a split second
           before we turn the page
           and hurry on to check out
                Ann Landers,
                the crossword puzzle,
                National League standings
                or the price of gold in London.
 They are the dead,
            an uncounted century
            of waste and carnage,
            stacked as carelessly and deep
            as those tires,
            alike the cast off refuse
           of industrial efficiency.

 And like those tires they earn
 a moment of our passing pity
            in the rush of our busy lives
                between work and  soccer practice,
                     haircut and committee meeting.
 Unless by accident we are near
           and a pungent change of wind
                 stings our noses and eyes with acrid smoke
                     and oily ash drifts
                     onto our own innocent cheeks.

—Patrick Murfin

Note:  This poem appeared in my Skinner House Meditation Manual, We Build Temples in the Hart, published in 2004 in Boston

1 comment:

  1. The surrender of Imperial Japan was due to the Atomic Bombs, read the words of The Gyokuon-hōsō {(玉音放送? "Jewel Voice Broadcast"], by Emperor Hirohito; "Moreover, the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should We continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.
    Such being the case, how are We to save the millions of Our subjects, or to atone Ourselves before the hallowed spirits of Our Imperial Ancestors? This is the reason why We have ordered the acceptance of the provisions of the Joint Declaration of the Powers." Also terror bombing does work, Queen Wilhelmina of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, surrendered the Dutch Forces due to the Luftwaffe terror bombing of Rotterdam in 1940. Members of the Imperial Japanese General Staff wanted fight on, attempted military coup d'état[Kyūjō Incident(August 12–15)] before the Emperor's speech could be broadcast.