By Janet Weil
“…the first memorial day was observed by formerly enslaved black people … in Charleston, South Carolina. The race course had been used as a temporary Confederate prison camp for captured Union soldiers in 1865, as well as a mass grave for Union soldiers who died there. Immediately after the cessation of hostilities, formerly enslaved people exhumed the bodies from the mass grave and reinterred them properly with individual graves. … On May 1, 1865, the Charleston newspaper reported that a crowd of up to ten thousand, mainly black residents, including 2800 children, proceeded to the location … thereby creating the first Decoration Day [commonly called Memorial Day after World War II.]”
“The seeming paradise of southern Louisiana, resulting from cosmically dynamic interactions of ocean tides, wind, and river flows, has been morbidly upset by human greed.” From “Et in Arcadia, Oil!”
“The military produces enough greenhouse gases, by itself, to place the entire globe … in the most imminent danger of extinction.”
American troops killed in Iraq since January 2009: 179; in Afghanistan since January 2009: 456.
Memories of wars and environmental devastation intertwine for me this Memorial Day, like the orange-brown and black strands sliding over the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. On this Memorial Day, here is what I do, and do NOT, remember.
President Obama: I do not remember Obama expressing his condolences to the bereaved families of the 11 men killed on the Deepwater Horizon rig, nor stating his concern for the many oil drilling “roughnecks” still working on platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, nor using this tragedy as an opportunity to seize BP’s assets to fund a transition to a non-fossil fuel economy [Editor's note: The president has expressed his condolences since the tragedy]. Nor do I remember the president talking about those killed so far this year from fossil fuel extraction — 29 in the Massey Coal “accident” in West Virginia and 11 in the BP/Transocean/Halliburton “accident” off the coast of Louisiana – using the words “my countrymen,” “victims of criminal corporate negligence,” or “our brothers” though all of those terms apply. They also apply to the American dead, both troops and military contractors, from the overseas wars – with the addition of “my countrywomen” and “my sisters.”
Congress: Many times I have heard members of Congress or their staff members talk about how the Congressperson or Senator was “against” the war (usually meaning Iraq); how s/he “honored” the service of active duty military and veterans; or, occasionally, that the funds poured out for “defense” could be better spent for needs at home. Except for Congresswoman Barbara Lee, I have yet to hear a member of Congress talk about the urgent need to repeal the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, the tool Bush used to wage a “war on terror” (really a war OF terror), which Obama continues to use, and which will be used, as I remember vividly the congresswoman saying in November 2009 in Oakland, by every succeeding president until this congressional abdication of their constitutional requirement to debate and declare war IS repealed.
Mainstream (and even some “alternative” media): As a military family member as well as a CODEPINKer, I remember giving numerous interviews to the media over the years starting with the question WHY. “Why are you protesting the US bombing of Afghanistan?” (I was one of 5 women who started the San Francisco Federal Building vigil in October 2001); “Why don’t you think that the US should remove Saddam Hussein?” or “Why are you protesting drones?” for example. I do not recall a single instance when I was asked some version of the following: why is the United States spying on, bombing, putting sanctions on, invading, occupying and/or controlling (or trying to control) the elections in: Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and/or Yemen? Could it have anything to do with the fact that these countries either produce immense quantities of oil, natural gas or valuable minerals, or are on the transit routes for these crucial commodities?
Environmental Organizations: I have been getting one after another urgent alert from environmental organizations in the 41 terrible days since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20. I remember reading about pelicans and other birds, sea turtles, formerly white sand beaches, seafood, people losing their livelihoods, and a great deal about stopping new oil exploration in Alaska. But I do not remember one word about why environmental organizations did not work to END oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico when they knew, or should have known, that it was a crucially productive, biologically diverse oceanic treasure that was/is already polluted and stressed. Zero words about the astronomically high use of fossil fuels by the US military all over the world as documented in Green Zone: The Environmental Costs of Militarism — that’s what I remember over the past decade, and this silence increasingly baffles and angers me.
My local peace and justice center: I’m on their listserv, contribute a yearly membership fee, and have gone to some presentations at their lovely suburban location. Yet for almost two years I remember scarcely a word from this center about the horrific fact that the US is engaged in two “hot” wars, with more on the horizon, and has hundreds of military bases all over the world, and drones and spy satellites all over the skies. I never remember this peace and justice center inviting speakers who are working class, under 30, Muslim, oil industry critics, or war resisters (as distinct from war analysts or journalists) to any of their events – and I remember very few people of color being so honored. Why am I still on their list? I don’t remember.
Friends and acquaintances: Over the past several years, especially since 2006, I remember many people thanking me for my antiwar and environmental activism. I don’t remember them asking me, “How can I get involved?” or “What resources do you need?” Instead of their gratitude, I would have preferred – I would still prefer –their desire and determination to join in the work.
On Memorial Day 2010, I remember Abeer Hamza, the 14-year-old stalked, raped and murdered by predatory US soldiers who also murdered her family. I remember Nadja Al-Ali, Iraqi-German author of What Kind of Liberation?, talking about Iraqi women dying from cancer after exposure to Depleted Uranium. I remember being spell-bound by charismatic Afghan parliamentarian in exile, Malalai Joya, as she told a crowd in Berkeley about “democracy-loving leaders” in her country: “We have a LOT!” she declared with eyes blazing.
I also remember, with deep regret, the many times when I should have spoken out, or spoken out more forcefully; when I should have risked arrest; when I should have gotten away from the computer or the TV and made personal connections; when I should have shown more compassion and listened more closely.
“Remember”comes from the Latin “memor”, or “mindful.” On this Memorial Day I intend to be mindful, to remember what and who has been lost forever, what is at risk, and what goes unspoken, unacknowledged, unconnected. I want to be a citizen worthy of the Americans, former enslaved men, women and children of South Carolina, who created – in a graveyard! — community, beauty and song to begin a post-war world.
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