The young dead soldiers do not speak.
Nevertheless, they are heard in the still houses:
who has not heard them?
They have a silence that speaks for them at night
and when the clock counts.
They say: We were young. We have died.
They say: We have done what we could
but until it is finished it is not done.
They say: We have given our lives but until it is finished
no one can know what our lives gave.
They say: Our deaths are not ours: they are yours,
they will mean what you make them.
They say: Whether our lives and our deaths were for
peace and a new hope or for nothing we cannot say,
it is you who must say this.
We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning.
We were young, they say. We have died; remember us.
- Archibald MacLeish (SLT #583)
Some "bullet" points, in more than one sense of the word:
- 116,516 US servicemen died in World War I. The total death toll from that war was about 17 million.
- 405,399 US military personnel died in World War II. That war’s death toll reached 60 to 85 million.
- 33,686 US military died in the Korean Conflict, which claimed in all about 1.2 million lives.
- 58,209 US servicemen and women died in Vietnam, during the American portion of what is also known as the Second Indochina War. Estimates of the total death toll in that conflict range from 800,000 to 3.8 million.
- 4,404 US military died in the Iraq war from 2003 to 2011. Estimates of the total dead in that war range from 177,000 to 1.1 million.
- We lost just over a thousand in Afghanistan since 2001, in a conflict that, in all, claimed somewhere between 42,000 and 62,000 lives.
They were apples of their parents’ eyes. Someone's brother, someone's cousin, someone's nephew, and maybe someone's uncle. Someone's boyfriend. Later, some of them were someone's sister, niece, aunt, girlfriend. Increasingly, as the wars get more recent, they were someone’s spouse. They were nexus points in communities and families left torn and bereft by their loss.
And for every one of them killed, those wars also killed 100 others – allies, enemy combatants, civilians killed by war-induced epidemics, famines, atrocities, genocides. Et cetera. Let us remember them, too.
I know that our backgrounds in connection to the US military are highly varied, and our attitudes about Memorial Day are diverse. I have observed that our military dead were people who enlisted for various reasons, and they died in the service. "It’s not clear why," I've said. For some of you, perhaps, it’s very clear why. They did it to protect our freedom, to defend our way of life. For others of us, perhaps, it is equally clear that there was a very different reason. They died for corporate profits, or because a political party was looking to get into a war to solidify popular support.
Both stories are told about all six of our wars in the last century. The "defending freedom" story is always more popular. The "commercial interests" story, though, is never hard to find for those willing to look. Let's go back to the first of the six US wars in the last 100 years and consider World War I, for example. It’s a war that has a particular connection to the early years of our Community Unitarian Church at White Plains.
World War I
"The Great War" began in 1914 July when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Germany -- and later Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire -- joined on Austria-Hungary's side. Fighting against them were England, France, and Russia. The US entered the war in 1917 April, and was thus at war for only the last year and a half of World War I.
In the years preceding US entry into the war, American banks extended to France and Britain a series of loans totaling $3 billion. Had Germany won, those bonds held by American bankers would have been worthless. J. P. Morgan, England's financial agent in the US, John D. Rockefeller (who made more than $200 million on the war), and other bankers were instrumental in pushing America into the war, so they could protect their loans to Europe. This was captured in a scene from the 1981 movie, Reds, in which John Reed, played by Warren Beatty, is talking to Louise Bryant, played by Diane Keaton:
“All right, Miss Bryant, do you want an interview? Write this down. Are you naïve enough to think containing German militarism has anything to do with this war? Don't you understand that England and France own the world economy and Germany just wants a piece of it? Keep writing, Miss Bryant. Miss Bryant, can't you grasp that J. P. Morgan has lent England and France a billion dollars? And if Germany wins, he won't get it back! More coffee? America'd be entering the war to protect J. P. Morgan's money. If he loses, we'll have a depression. So the real question is, why do we have an economy where the poor have to pay so the rich won't lose money?”Why do we have an economy where the poor have to pay so the rich won't lose money? It was a good question then. It's a good question now.
The Unitarian minister, Rev. John Haynes Holmes, opposed World War I and urged his congregation in Manhattan to
“strike . . . at the things which make war— first, militarism; second, political autocracy; and third, commercialism." (“War and the Social Movement,” Survey, 1914 Sep 26, 629– 30)
“are grown from the dragon's teeth of secret diplomacy, imperialistic ambition, dynastic pride, greedy commercialism, economic exploitation at home and abroad. . . . This war is the direct result of unwarrantable, cruel, but nonetheless inevitable interferences with our commercial relations with one group of the belligerents. Our participation in the war, therefore, like the war itself, is political and economic, not ethical, in its character.”Rev. Holmes story is particularly pertinent to the Unitarian Universalist congregation at White Plains, NY. On numerous occasions Holmes traveled up from Manhattan to White Plains as a guest preacher here.
Holmes’ opposition to World War I make him a pariah to Unitarian denominational leadership, which was seeking to have him expelled from Unitarian ministry in 1918 when he saved them the trouble by resigning his denominational credentials. Holmes then urged his church to follow him in parting ways with the Unitarians, which it did in 1919, changing its name to the name it has today: Community Church of New York. For Holmes, denominationalism was divisive, while a community, based on common life, united. Holmes' described the community church as based on these principles:
- It substitutes for loyalty to the single denomination, loyalty to the social group.
- It substitutes for a private group of persons held together by common theological beliefs or viewpoints, the public group of citizens held together by common social interests.
- It substitutes for restrictions of creed, ritual, or ecclesiastical organization, the free spirit.
- It substitutes for the individual the social group, as an object of salvation.
- It substitutes for Christianity...the idea of universal religion.
- It substitutes for the theistic, the humanistic point of view,...the idea of present society as fulfilling the "Kingdom of God" -- the commonwealth of man.
- The core of its [the Community Church's] faith, as the purpose of its life, is "the Beloved Community."
Rev. Holmes many years later rejoined the Unitarian ministry. Community Church of New York returned to being Unitarian, and White Plains Community Church became Unitarian. But we carry the legacy: the word “Community” in our name, which signified an effort to transcend denomination – an effort spurred on by an anti-war minister’s finding no home in a pro-war denomination.
Two Generations Later
I grew up in a different Unitarian congregation, and a different war was going on. My grandfathers were boys, too young to fight in WWI, and I was too young to fight in Viet Nam. By 1968, when my family moved to the Altanta area and began attending the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta, being anti-war did not put one at odds with most other Unitarians. Indeed, most UUs opposed the Viet Nam war, and many of our congregations were hotbeds of anti-war activism. Many of my earliest memories as a Unitarian had to do with learning in church about why we should get out that war, and going from church with other Unitarians to demonstrate against the war.
If Memorial Day is for expressing gratitude to the soldiers who fought and died in wars because they gave their all for our freedom, some of us are really on board with that. Others of us have a hard time seeing US war-fighting as having any connection with any freedom other than the freedom of US companies to make exorbitant profits.
In the midst of whatever cynical exploitations may be at work, however, I do believe there is such a thing as a warrior spirit courageously defending of his or her people from the oppression of conquest.
* * *
This is part 1 of 2 of "War, Peace, and Remembering"
Part 2: Thank You, Warriors