Memorializing (Lent 2017)

For lent this year, I’m giving up silence.

I’ve blogged elsewhere about being written out of the pacifist camp. I first noticed some distance, however, during my second semester in seminary, when I was looked at askance for my frustration that a veterans memorial had been desecrated.

Just outside Duke Chapel, there is a war memorial to Duke alumni who were enrolled in at least two consecutive semesters and died while serving our country. It rests atop a wall built in 1993 to display the names of alumni killed in WWII. New brass panels were installed in January 2010 to list additional names, grouped by conflict;

  • The World War II panel has 244 names
  • The Korean War panel has 10 names
  • The Vietnam War panel has 19 names
  • The Iraq War panel has 2 names
  • An “Active Duty” panel has 27 names

The rededication in early 2010 “took more than three years to complete,” suggesting it began in 2006. At the ceremony, Duke alumnus Eric Shinseki remarked “Duke has many distinguished alumni, but I’d argue that the names on this memorial represent the most distinguished.”

Photo by Chris Hildreth, for Duke Magazine

In response to the Duke Magazine article “Memorializing Duke’s War Dead,” an Army Major and Duke alumnus reflected on implicit messages such overt displays convey;

the fact that the university had not updated the memorial since World War II subtly communicated to me that the university was less cognizant of the recent or ongoing contributions of Duke’s military alumni… Consider that the U.S. military personnel have been in Afghanistan for almost ten years, yet the university is just now recognizing the alumni service in that war.

Despite the criticism above, there’s actually no Afghanistan panel on the memorial. Passersby may also notice that there are no WWI names, but that’s because the university didn’t exist until after “The Great War” ended. The ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, however, is the longest war in our nation’s history, and it began five years before work to verify the names for the memorial started. It’s absence is therefore rather striking.

Others at Duke also saw subtle messages surrounding the memorial and its omissions. A tenure track professor who was present for Shinseki’s speech in 2010 wrote to me in 2015;

I am grieved that there is such a hostile environment for veterans and military personnel. When I think of the other causes and groups that get considerable support, I want to get sick. It took forever, apparently, to get the administration to approve dedicating the names of Vietnam Vets on the war memorial wall. For a variety of reasons, the military is spoken about in such dismissive and disparaging terms

The comment about Vietnam refers to the total lack of any names other than from WWII when the wall was built in 1993. For 27 years, until 2010, alumni who died in Korea (known as “The Forgotten War”) and Vietnam lacked any representation on the wall. In that same span of time, America retroactively rubber stamped Tom Brokaw’s moniker in 1998, spitting on the service of veterans of the two conflicts that followed WWII, as though their sacrifice didn’t count because they didn’t “win.” They also didn’t enjoy the wide support of the international community, but that’s another story I suppose.

During the Spring 2011 semester, the Iraq panel of the memorial was defaced. Someone had painted their tag on the panel the evening prior, a week night. For reference, defacement of property, including, conceivably, a memorial for alumni killed while serving in the military, represents what the Taskforce on Bias and Hate (which omits any mention of an entire federally protected population) would later call “A Hate and Bias Intensifier.” Defacing a memorial owned by Duke is supposed to trigger “education, dialogue, and engagement, with a particular focus on restorative measures to help the targeted… community.” (Taskforce Final Report, p.33) I was the first to report the incident, several hours into a weekday when many people would have passed by the defacement on their way to classes. No engagement occurred other than by the baseball cap-clad custodial staff who scrubbed the panel of its veneer, the effect of which is still visible six years later.

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Iraq panel has been de-glossed

As for those pacifists alarmed at my dismay, it is nonsensical to assume that lamenting the deaths of soldiers in war celebrates war or even tacitly endorses military action. Soldiers don’t always die in war, or even while wearing a uniform. Many memorials like Duke’s don’t differentiate cause of death, so an “active duty” panel may include accidents or non-combat related deaths while stateside, which are no different than the deaths of their civilian counterparts. Browbeating military memorials, or selectively memorializing some service over service per se, is particularly problematic because of the military’s one unifying factor. If there is one thing that unites officer and enlisted, Soldier and Marine, POG and grunt, it’s their conscious decision to involuntarily risk their lives. Often, they disagree with decisions to use violent force, but they honor the oaths they make and subordinate their personal desires to the demands of our union. Ours is a union, it seems, that gets to pick and choose whose and which kind of service they like or don’t like…

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Photo by Les Todd, for Duke Magazine

I spoke to the custodian of memorials not long after reporting the graffiti, who told me there were, in fact, records of alumni who had died in Afghanistan. The reason they hadn’t updated the wall? Money. To be fair, that’s the same reason many people join the military, even if thousands of them live in poverty and rely on food stamps. Duke, in the meantime, has the 15th largest endowment in the nation, worth $7.3B.

Who bears the burden of moral responsibility? You do the math.

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