Previously by Murray Polner: Hiroshima & Nagasaki: 66 Years Later
After the carnage of World War II the members of the now defunct Victory Chapter of American Gold Star Mothers in St. Petersburg, Florida, knew better than most what is was like to lose their sons, daughters and husbands in war. "We'd rather not talk about it," said Ceil Rindfuss whose son was killed in WWII. She told the St. Petersburg Times in 1960, "It's a terrible scar that never heals. We hope there will never be another war so no other mothers will have to go through this ordeal." But as a result of the invasion of Iraq, too many now mourn family members lost to war.
Few Americans know that Mother's Day was initially suggested by two peace-minded mothers, Julia Ward Howe, a 19th century anti-slavery activist and suffragette, and Anna Reeves Jarvis, mother of eleven, who influenced Howe and had asked her fellow Appalachian townspeople, badly polarized by the Civil War, to remain neutral and help nurse the wounded troops of both sides. While neither lived to see an official Mother's Day, it was eventually designated as a national holiday by President Woodrow Wilson in 1914, a president whose armies invaded Mexico, brought the U.S. into World War I and whose administration carried out brutal punishments against opponents of the World War I and the draft, such as Eugene V. Debs. It was Wilson who once declared that, "A war of service is a thing in which it is a proud thing to die" — a sentiment by someone who had never served in the military and which reminds me of Charles Edward Montague's classic putdown of living room heroes, "War hath no fury like a non-combatant."
Though she never had children, my favorite female opponent of war and imperialism was the forgotten poet and feminist Katharine Lee Bates who wrote "America the Beautiful" as a poem in 1895, now virtually our second national anthem. My favorite Bates anti-war poem is "Glory," in which an officer heading for the front bids farewell to his tearful mother.
"Again he raged in that lurid hell Where the country he loved had thrown him. "You are promoted!" shrieked a shell. His mother would not have known him."
More recently, many may no longer remember Lenore Breslauer, a mother of two children, who helped establish Another Mother for Peace during the Vietnam War. By the end of the sixties the group had 450,000 members and sympathizers, inspired by its ingenious and telling theme: "War is not healthy for children and other living beings." Years later, the message was not lost on three mothers on Long Island, N.Y., with the first name of Carol who initiated Mothers and Others Against War in 1979 to protest against Jimmy Carter's resurrection of draft registration. They stayed on to battle against Ronald Reagan's military intervention in El Salvador and Nicaragua. What these mothers and others recognized quite clearly was that war and the draft helped kill and grievously wound hundreds of thousands of troops and millions of civilians in places like Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and who knows where else.
On this Mother's Day we could use more of the anger and dissenting spirit of countless numbers of women and mothers who have condemned male-created and dominated wars. In Russia, mothers joined together and protested using their drafted sons as cannon fodder wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya. In Argentina and Chile, mothers and grandmothers protested the murders and disappearances of their children by the neo-fascist barbarians who ran their nations in the late seventies and early eighties. And in our country the anti-war movement has often been led by women, demonstrating, in essence, against "those who think that War is a glorious golden thing…invoking Honor and Praise and Valor and Love of Country" — as a bitter Roland Leighton, a British combat soldier of WWI, wrote long ago to his fiancée, the British antiwar writer Vera Brittain.
Unhappily on this Mother's Day, peace seems further away then ever. Even so, my hope is that more and more American mothers and all other women who have remained silent will continue to work against our now and future wars and the ever-present possibility of drafting their young. Do we still need to glorify war and military service? Do we need yet another war memorial to the dead in Washington? Do we need more war widows and mothers grieving for the rest of their lives over their dead husbands and wives, children and grandchildren? Do we really need to continue disseminating the myth that an idealistic America always fights for freedom and democracy no matter the cost or cause?
On this Mother's Day, more than 4500 U.S. troops have died in Iraq and Afghanistan and many more have been wounded in body and mind in elective and ideologically inspired wars. They all had mothers.
Murray Polner [send him mail] wrote No Victory Parades: The Return of the Vietnam Veteran and most recently co-authored Disarmed and Dangerous, a biography of Dan and Phil Berrigan, and with Thomas Wood Jr. wrote and edited We Who Dared Say No To War. He served in the U.S. army.