This year, Memorial Day comes on the heels of two big anniversaries — the 70th observance of V–E Day and the 45th of the evacuation of the U.S. embassy in Vietnam.
Created after the Civil War as “Decoration Day”—for the flowers decorating graves—Memorial Day tends to evoke memories of some very specific losses and of related acts of heroism. But this year’s double anniversary also brings to mind those who fought in the 1940s but went on to form the first line of defense in the antiwar movement of the 1960s and ’70s. They were priests, poets, politicos and pranksters—all, in their own way, keeping alive the memory of those we honor on Memorial Day.
The priests included William Sloane Coffin, a former Army intelligence officer who remembered of boot camp: “Oh, it’s great stuff—almost as good as the bayonet, which is still my favorite exercise. There’s much satisfaction in a vicious thrust, jab, slash, smash. . . . How I love it.”
Another priest was Philip Berrigan, who went from being anxious to being able “to charge pillboxes, blow up machine-gun nests and fight hand-to-hand with my country’s enemy.” He survived the Battle of the Bulge, amid bombed battlefields “stacked high with charcoal logs that looked nothing at all like human beings.”
One of the poets was Kurt Vonnegut Jr., who as a prisoner at Dresden witnessed the now-controversial saturation bombing of the city: “First came the soft murmur of their dancing on the outskirts, then the grumbling of their plodding toward us, and finally the ear-splitting crashes of their heels upon us—and thence to the outskirts again. . . . Our little prison was burnt to the ground.”
The bombardiers delivering such relentless payloads included later politico Howard Zinn. Of the war, he said: “I was eager to get into combat against the Nazis. I saw the war as a noble crusade against racial superiority, militarism, fanatic nationalism, expansionism.” Many years later, Zinn met a couple from Pilsen, one of his crew’s targets: “They said, ‘When you finished, the streets were full of corpses, hundreds and hundreds of people killed in that raid.’”
Intelligence officer William Kunstler returned from years in the Pacific with memories of the “disturbing” Battle of Leyte and the Philippines’ carpet-bombed churches; those memories also included meeting a conscientious objector serving unarmed as an Army medic because of his beliefs.
To a man, the group returned home proud of their service and empowered to make a difference here at home. Most gravitated to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, with Coffin befriending the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But in 1965, when a new war was escalating in Southeast Asia, most of them questioned the need to inflict the horrors they’d seen on a new generation of draftees.