Memorial Day is a day noted for its parades honoring veterans by ennobling, glorifying (and thereby perpetuating) US war and militarism. The peace community in Rochester observes instead a solemn riverside service memorializing the thousands of victims of current US war and aggression, with each victim symbolized by a single rose tossed lovingly into the river’s flow.
Victims memorialized include the casualties of US sanctioned war and aggression, from Afghanistan and Iraq to Syria to Yemen to Somalia to South Sudan to Palestine. Also the many innocent victims of drone attacks, inhumane US immigration and incarceration policies, militarization of the police, and preventable gun violence. And the worldwide victims of catastrophic climate change, fed by US policies of denial and consumption. And an entire global population victimized by the threat of nuclear Armageddon triggered by senseless US provocations of Iran, North Korea, Russia, China.
There would not be enough roses to identify and honor even the tiniest sample of the the thousands of innocent victims lost to aggressive US policies. Such roses could easily choke the Genesee River in sorrow. Yet remembrance, however heartfelt, is still insufficient. After all, in his Gettysburg memorial address, Abraham Lincoln noted the futility of consecrating the war dead without rectifying the war’s cause: “It is for us the living to be dedicated to the unfinished work … so that these dead shall not have died in vain.” What, then, might move us toward peace, a peace threatened, most of all, by our own government’s unrelenting appetite for war?
I turn to the book of Daniel – that is, the book of Daniel Berrigan and Daniel Ellsberg, two icons whose monumental contribution to peace cannot be misconstrued.
This is the 50th anniversary of one of the most famous acts of civil disobedience in the U.S. On May 17th, 1968, a group of Catholic priests and lay people broke into a draft board office in Catonsville, Maryland—in 1968—stole 378 draft cards and burned them in the parking lot as a protest against the Vietnam War. They burned them with homemade napalm. They became known as the Catonsville Nine.
When Dan Berrigan was finally captured and in handcuffs, he had a smile on his face, the peace sign held high. He had explained their actions in a statement, “We apologize, good friends, for our fracture of good order here and for burning paper instead of babies… We have chosen to be powerless criminals in a time of criminal power, vilified as peace criminals by war criminals.”
Their examples have inspired countless peace activists, such as the imprisoned Catholic Workers and other protesters of drones and nuclear weapons right here in Upstate NY, many personally linked to the Berrigans. And those activists, too, now being arrested across the country in the Poor People’s Campaign.
But they also inspired another Daniel, Daniel Ellsberg, who worked for the Pentagon, and was one of the few who had the secret history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam locked away in his safe.
Ellsberg knew that President Nixon didn’t intend to end the Vietnam War; no, he was preparing to escalate it.
So the war was going to go on, and it was going to get larger. But Ellsberg witnessed brave activists like the Berrigans and others willing to go to prison.The question they put in his mind was, “How can I help shorten the war?”
So he released the Pentagon Papers.
The release of the secret history in the Pentagon Papers influenced people to be against the war, but many were already against the war, and that didn’t affect Nixon. He went on with the war. What Nixon responded to was his fear that Ellsberg might have documents on Nixon’s plans to enlarge the war, even use nuclear weapons. Ellsberg says it was a miraculous set of events, fueled by activists outside as well as inside government, that cost Nixon his job and made the war end-able. Ellsberg insists we set the stage for more such miracles today.
This because we’re on the verge now of a two-sided nuclear war, with North Korea and with Iran, unimaginable except to madmen.
We haven’t made threats against a nuclear state since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when we came very close to ending human civilization. Ever since, a nuclear doomsday machine
has been on hair trigger, not yet unleashed only by some kind of secular miracle. Ellsberg says we have been saved by very, very good luck, which is not so likely to continue without a major change in our policies.
So what he’s really saying is that it’s urgent to act now.
I once had the good fortune to sit with Ellsberg before his expert testimony at a trial in Tacoma WA. He said then that the Berrigans and other bold activists prompted him to blow the whistle with the Pentagon Papers. Now, again, we need to find some way with our activism to prompt other highranking folks to do the same.
His message to government insiders is to reveal the truths that they know, the dangerous truths that are being withheld by the government. A war’s worth of lives, even the future of humanity, may be at stake.
Ellsberg is certain that there are studies in the Pentagon and CIA right now showing it would be disastrous to go to war against North Korea and catastrophic to be at war with Iran. Someone must reveal those truths to Congress and the public to avert these wars, which MUST NOT happen.
But, then again, who among the current batch in the federal government would risk anything to reveal incriminating documents? And what would ever become of such evidence and those who reveal it? (Think of Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning.) And, besides, what else needs to be revealed anyway, with so much criminality already out in plain sight?
Despite all this, I welcome Ellsberg’s wisdom about the potential of courageous activism sparking insider revelations of this madness and its countless victims. Sadly, I’m not aware of much else as helpful in terms of what our activism might accomplish at this moment.
So Instead, having just attended a fine local performance of Hamlet, I end with the concluding words of Horatio, who, steeped in death all around, cries out, just as we do now, hoping that the world will listen::
And let me speak to the yet unknowing world
How these things came about. So shall you hear:
Of carnal, bloody and unnatural acts;
Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters;
Of deaths put on by cunning and forc’d cause;
And, in this upshot, purposes mistook
Fall’n on th’ inventors’ heads. All this can I Truly deliver…
Even while men’s minds are wild, lest more mischance
On plots and errors happen.