Memorial Day Commemoration, Veterans for Peace, Chapter 27, Minneapolis-Saint Paul
Michael Orange, Member since 1991
For the Unknown Enemy
By William Stafford from his book, Every War Has Two Losers
This monument is for the unknown good in our enemies.
Like a picture, their life began to appear:
They gathered at home in the evening and sang.
Above their fields, they saw a new sky.
A holiday came and they carried the baby to the park for a party.
Sunlight surrounded them.
Here we glimpse what our minds long turned away from.
The great mutual blindness darkened that sunlight in the park, and the sky that was new, and the holidays.
This monument says that one afternoon, we stood here letting a part of our minds escape.
They came back, but different.
Enemy: one day we glimpsed your life.
This monument is for you.
Love your Enemy
First observed several years after the end of the Civil War, Memorial Day was originally intended to commemorate soldiers who died during that war. The observance has expanded over time to become a day for remembering all who served in the military. I want to further expand that circle of remembrance to include others who have been poisoned by war: The families and friends who share the soldiers’ sacrifices. The civilian dead, who now account for over 90% of war deaths. And the dead from our internal wars—Native Americans who sought treaty rights; women, minorities, and prisoners who sought civil rights; and workers who sought fair labor rights.
On this Memorial Day, I want to circle back to the holiday’s original intent, which was to honor both Union and Confederate soldiers. It is fitting that we are now commemorating the 150th anniversary of that horrific conflict when fellow countrymen were enemies of each other.
“Love your enemy,” is Jesus’ most challenging teaching, but what did he mean by love? In the early Greek version the Old Testament, the word is agape, which means a more general understanding of and compassion for all of humanity, without pre-conditions.
This is my story of wrestling with this teaching. I did so in stages. In Vietnam, I discovered what the Dalai Lama meant when he spoke of how our enemies can be our best teachers. When I joined the Marines at nineteen, I learned nothing about the North Vietnamese Army other than that the NVA was my sworn enemy. I was expected to hate and expected to kill. At first, I only feared my enemy, then I soon grew to respect him. Let me offer an example.
In the summer of 1969, we went up against the NVA in their strongholds in the Que Son Mountains. Before we helicoptered in, we threw everything short of nuclear weapons at the entire area for more than five hours. But the NVA didn’t retreat. Those who survived that hellish bombardment waited until the second wave of our choppers came in—my wave, and then they attacked and pinned us all down with precision fire that almost brought down our choppers. They wounded one hundred Marines and killed twenty, and we killed ten times that number of them.
I came away with respect for my enemy’s skill, determination, courage, and most importantly, his sacrifice. I even envied his clear sense of purpose as he fought in his country’s civil war. Respect was my first step towards agape; a first step towards understanding my enemy.
Years later, after studying the war and the rationales for my enemy’s motives and tactics, I did make it to the next stage of agape, the understanding stage. The enemy has been a great teacher. I’ve become a veteran for peace.
Over time, battlefield enemies can become friends. North and South united in our country, Japan and Germany are now our close allies, and Vietnam and Russia have become our trading partners. But what about current enemies? How do we foster a general understanding of and compassion for terrorists, religious fundamentalists, insurgents, Al Qaeda? How do we “take the Devil for our countryman,” as James Taylor advises in the haunting song Leon sang so beautifully? (Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=55uWEFoPI4M&feature=share)
What you choose to put into your head matters. A recent survey of attitudes about torture by the American Red Cross revealed that a majority of Americans—59% of teenagers and 51% of adults—thought torture was sometimes justified. If most of us are willing to torture a fellow human being, it’s no surprise we’re willing to wage war on countries that pose no threat to us. As my bumper sticker says, “We’re creating enemies faster than we can kill them.”
I know how terribly hard it is to progress beyond the understanding stage of agape and get to the heart of the matter—having compassion for the whole human condition, even for our enemies. But we must. Gandhi said, “It is easy enough to be friendly to one’s friends. But to befriend the one who regards himself as your enemy is the quintessence of true religion.”
William Stafford, who erected a monument to the “unknown enemy” with his words that I read before, lived in a camp with other conscientious objectors during WW II. Through his actions and his words, he affirmed that it is possible to think independently when fanatics act, and to speak of reconciliation when nations take sides. That he grieved equally for all who war touches is apparent in his poem of three lines called “Memorial.” “In Nagasaki,” he writes, “they have built a little room, dark and soundproof, where you can go in alone and close the door and cry.”
Memorial Day is a time to grapple with the imponderable atrocity that is war and, I will add, to extend compassion for all its victims—and perpetrators. It is a time to be alone, “close the door and cry.” It is a time to contemplate the central challenge of our time—perhaps all time—the teaching from that enlightened rabbi of 2,000 years ago who implored us to “love thy enemy.”