Roger LaPorte: Unknown and Forgotten

A Symbol of War’s Flotsam for Whom There is No National or Religious Memorial Day or War Victims Day

Fifty years ago, a man named Roger LaPorte, a Catholic Christian, immolated himself at the United Nations in New York City in order to bring to light and to protest the savagery of the Vietnam War. It was a last resort, the desperate act of a young man who was trying to love his brothers and sisters in Vietnam and in the U.S. by laying down his life for them.

What brought him to the point, where he perceived that this is what he wanted to, should do, must do, will forever be unknown in this world. The moral quality of his act before God will also be forever unknown in this world. Did he intend to do God’s will as revealed by Jesus? Was he following his conscience? From whence did he derive the idea that he could be doing God’s will by killing himself to try to save the earthly life of others?

This was an event that was spiritually glamourized in a significant part of the peace movement, including the Christian peace movement, at that time, which is more than likely a piece of the puzzle of what moved Roger to immolate himself. On June 11, 1963, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, immolated himself at a Saigon intersection as a way of protesting the intolerable persecution of Buddhists in South Vietnam by its Catholic President and U.S surrogate, Ngo Dinh Diem. With specific reference to that Buddhist’s witness, an 82-year-old Jewish pacifist in Detroit on March 16, 1965, Alice Herz, and a 31 year old Quaker in Washington, DC, on November 2, 1965, Norman Morrison, followed the Buddhist monk in his choice of self-immolation as a way to try to help the people of Vietnam who for years were daily being torn to pieces by high tech and low tech U.S. military killing gadgets and personnel. Morrison, even took his one year old daughter, Emily, with him to a place outside the Pentagon about forty feet from the window of the office of the Secretary of “Defense,” Robert McNamara, handed his daughter to someone, then doused himself with kerosene, burning himself to death. His wife said that the reason he brought his daughter with him was “[S]he was a powerful symbol of the children we were killing with our bombs and napalm–who didn’t have parents to hold them in their arms.” America Invades: How W... Christopher Kelly, Stu... Best Price: $6.50 Buy New $18.80 (as of 08:20 EST - Details)

Seven days later on November 9, 1965, Roger LaPorte burned himself to death in front of the Dag Hammarskjold Library at the United Nations. He lived for a short while after and in a state of complete lucidity made what the Catholic priest who administered the Sacrament of Reconciliation to him said was “a perfect confession.” In the only public communication he left explaining his action he said, “I did this as a religious act.” There can be little doubt that this serious, informed and empathic twenty-two year old Catholic young man in 1965—when the overwhelming majority of his fellow Catholics, laity, clergy and hierarchy were in support of the war in Vietnam or just indifferent to the slaughter of Vietnamese men, women and children that was taking place under the auspices of the U.S. military, and when the most prominent and powerful Cardinal in the U.S. was aping Stephen Decatur’s words of nationalistic jingoism, “My country right or wrong,” as justification for Catholics slaughtering by the car loads Vietnamese people, 7000 miles away—found meaning, and hence some of his motivation, in the examples of the prior acts of self-immolation mentioned above.

Yet, the post-mortem histories of the aforementioned four who immolated themselves to help the people of Vietnam are quite different. Thich Quang Duc, is revered by Vietnamese Buddhists as a bodhisattva (saint), the intersection where he set himself afire has a monument and park dedicated to him and his intact heart is preserved as a relic of the spirit of compassion in a glass chalice. Alice Herz, who was also a refugee from Nazi Germany, has a plaza named after her in Berlin. Shingo Shibata, the Japanese philosopher, established the Alice Herz Peace Fund in her memory. Norman Morrison has a road named after him in the Vietnamese city of Da Nang. In Hanoi a street is named after him and the Government of Vietnam has issued a postage stamp in his honor. An HBO film about him has been made and poems and books have been written about him. Roger LaPorte’s charred dry bones lay in the ground of section 1, row 11 of Saint Alphonsus Cemetery in Tupper Lake, NY. —long dead, long gone and long forgotten.

His name is not to be found on any wall of remembrance in Washington, DC. Yet, was he not a casualty of that war? There is no state monument remembering the Lethally Wounded Non-Warriors of War. Nor, have I ever seen in any U.S. Catholic Church the slightest memento that would call to mind the non-warrior victims of U.S. wars—for the purpose of praying for them and their killers. Yet, the overwhelming majority of victims of war are not warriors but rather are non-warriors. Do not they deserve recognition and prayers and help as much as dead warriors or wounded warriors? Roger LaPorte is just another one of the billions of non-warrior victims of war lost to history.

By political and ecclesial necessity and arrangement the warriors, dead or alive, are fawned over, but the billions of non-warriors they maimed and destroyed must be kept out of sight, out of mind and out of memory, lest they reveal the immensity of the evil the honored warriors and their honorable puppet masters have done to fellow human beings, who did them no harm and who intended to do nothing harmful to them. In other words the non-warrior victims of the warrior heroes must be expunged from history, must become as if they never existed, or if they existed were of no worth. The victorious warriors and their controllers carefully manage the memory of the past, so as to assure that in the future the young will experience being used as violent and lethal warriors to be nobly heroic. The non-warrior victims of the honored and obedient warriors and their sting-pullers are consigned to historical oblivion as unworthy of being remembered, as they were unworthy to continue life. To such a community of the dead has Roger Laporte been consigned—“unwept, unhonored and unsung.”

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