Remarks at Lincoln Memorial, May 30, 2017
Washington, D.C., and much of the rest of the United States, is full of war monuments, with many more under construction and being planned. Most of them glorify wars. Many of them were erected during later wars and sought to improve the images of past wars for present purposes. Almost none of them teach any lessons from mistakes made. The very best of them mourn the loss of a tiny fraction — the U.S. fraction — of the wars’ victims.
But if you search this and other U.S. cities, you’ll have a harder time finding memorials for North American genocide or slavery or the people slaughtered in the Philippines or Laos or Cambodia or Vietnam or Iraq. You won’t find a lot of monuments around here to the Bonus Army or the Poor People’s Campaign. Where is the history of the struggles of sharecroppers or factory workers or suffragettes or environmentalists? Where are our writers and artists? Why is there not a statue of Mark Twain right here laughing his ass off at us? Where is the Three-Mile Island memorial warning us away from nuclear energy? Where are the monuments to each Soviet or U.S. person, such as Vasili Arkhipov, who held off nuclear apocalypse? Where is the great blowback memorial mourning the governments overthrown and the arming and training of fanatical killers?
While many nations erect memorials to what they do not wish to repeat as well as to what they wish to emulate, the United States focuses overwhelmingly on wars and overwhelmingly on glorifying them. And the very existence of Veterans For Peace jams that narrative and forces some people to think.
Well over 99.9% of our history is not memorialized in marble. And when we ask that it be, we’re generally laughed at. Yet if you propose to remove a monument to a Confederate general in a southern U.S. city, do you know what the most common response is? They accuse you of being against history, of wishing to erase the past. This comes out of an understanding of the past as consisting entirely of wars.
In New Orleans, they’ve just taken down their Confederate war monuments, which had been erected to advance white supremacy. In my town of Charlottesville, Virginia, the city has voted to take down a Robert E. Lee statue. But we’ve run up against a Virginia law that forbids taking down any war monument. There is no law, as far as I know, anywhere on earth that forbids taking down any peace monument. Almost as hard as finding such a law would be finding any peace monuments around here to consider taking down. I don’t count the building of our friends nearby here at the U.S. Institute of Peace, which if defunded this year will have lived out its entire existence without ever having opposed a U.S. war.
But why shouldn’t we have peace monuments? If Russia and the United States were engaged in jointly memorializing the ending of the Cold War in Washington and Moscow, would that not help hold off the new Cold War? If we were building a monument to the prevention, over the last several years, of a U.S. attack on Iran, would a future such attack be more likely or less likely? If there were a monument to the Kellogg-Briand Pact and the Outlawry movement on the Mall, wouldn’t some tourists learn of its existence and what it outlawed? Would the Geneva Conventions be dismissed as quaint if the war planners saw the Geneva Conventions Monument out their window?
Beyond the lack of monuments for peace agreements and disarmament successes, where are the monuments to the rest of human life beyond war? In a sane society, the war memorials would be one small example of many types of public memorials, and where they existed they would mourn, not glorify, and mourn all victims, not a small fraction deemed worthy of our sorrow.
The Swords to Plowshares Memorial Bell Tower is an example of what we should be doing as a society. Veterans For Peace is an example of what we should be doing as a society. Admit our mistakes. Value all lives. Improve our practices. Honor courage when it is combined with morality. And recognize veterans by creating no more veterans going forward.