By Weeden Nichols
Memorial Day has meaning to the person observing it when he puts faces to sacrifice and loss. My dear cousin, Bobby and my dear friend Don are my faces. But an even more effective way to face Memorial Day might be to try to wrap one’s mind around the thousands and millions of non-combatants who have suffered and died in wars, or as are result of wars. I am a Vietnam veteran, and so I have to confront the reality of war, but I think everyone should make the choice to do so.
On April 4, 2015, my spouse Rosalie and I made a pilgrimage – not of faith or devotion – but of sorrow. We live in Las Cruces, New Mexico. The Trinity Site, where the first nuclear weapon was tested, is north of us, outside and to the northwest of the Tularosa Basin proper (which contains most of the area of the White Sands Missile Range), on lands that were once privately-owned ranch lands. This year a one-day April “open house” became available, as well as one for October. It is a bit of a stretch to say that the site is “open” to visitors. Visitors are very closely checked, controlled, and supervised.
We set out from Las Cruces in the dark on 4 April, going by way of I-25 and US Highway 380 to the road leading south from US 380 to Stallion Range Gate. We arrived at the Stallion Gate queue at 8:20 a.m. It took us 58 minutes to move up to the gate. Our identification was checked. Outside the gate was a demonstration by the “Downwinders” – persons who had been downwind of the test and who had suffered health consequences. They were augmented by their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, relatives, and other supporters. We waved to them in a supportive fashion. Trinity Site was another 17 miles inside the range.
Parking was supervised by security personnel and volunteers. Ground Zero was a ¼ mile walk north of the parking area, enclosed inside cyclone fencing. Even though it was not cold (temperature in the 40’s Fahrenheit), the sky was mostly overcast, and a chill wind was blowing.
There were a few visitors as old as we (I am 75), and a very, very few older. Most were young. I think very few of those my age have the memories and associations I have regarding the “atom bomb,” due to the fact that I learned to read very early I was equipped only with my cane as we walked to the black obelisk marking Ground Zero; however, in a sense, I was carrying a lot of baggage. I vividly remember the Life Magazine feature in September 1945, on the effects of a nuclear weapon explosion. I was horrified and frightened by the effects of the blast and heat, and the immediate effects of the radiation. I don’t recall much in the article regarding the long-term harm to those who were not immediately affected. I am not sure at what point it dawned upon me that such weapons could be turned on us, but I do know that I spent the years from age six to age twelve in a fairly constant state of terror. I clearly remember being frightened by the sound of airplane engines at night, fearing that each airplane I heard might be delivering an “atom bomb.”
As we neared the obelisk marking Ground Zero, I tried to assess the mood of the crowd. Generally, the mood was not appropriately somber, but neither was it festive (which I would have thought deplorable). My sense of the mood of the young people was mostly an air of uncertainty. Most of the younger people were having their photographs taken, standing in front of the black obelisk or beside it. This desire for photographs of self under any and all circumstances I would take to be a sign of the times, and not something specific to the Trinity Site and its historical significance.
Interestingly, there were a number of Japanese among the crowd. I had stood under the detonation point of the Nagasaki bomb, exactly twenty years after that weapon had been delivered. A “peace park” and museum had been established there. I had been impressed by the gentle determination of the Japanese people with whom I spoke at that place on that day, that such a thing should never happen again. At the Trinity Site on 4 April, 2015, I had no sense of mood or attitude on the part of the Japanese people present. Among the Japanese present were members of what was, apparently, a documentary filming crew. The interviewer probably was a broadcast journalist. He was asking questions of Americans, apparently randomly chosen. I did not see anyone my age or older being interviewed. I wished the interviewer had singled me out. I would have said some of the things I shall have said before I finish this essay.
There may be, among the United States Armed Forces, individuals who love war and want war, or who want to kill fellow human beings, but not many. As a human being and a soldier, I neither like nor want war. However, I am aware that some wars are unavoidable. That is the reason for military service at which I arrived after a few years of service, and I am satisfied that it is the main reason why I served. (I am a Regular Army warrant officer on the retired rolls.) My desire is that international conflicts be settled by diplomacy, cooperation, enlightened self-interest, and reciprocity. Most who serve know the death, injury, suffering that war brings, in varying degrees, to everyone, worldwide. We know the economic and environmental damage war brings. As military members, we are ready to serve and are proud to serve, but we know that no one really “wins” a war.
I am not so naive as to think that nations ever really conformed to Christian “Just War” principles, or to whatever equivalents may have evolved in other religious traditions. Among the principles, explicit and implicit, are requirements that violence be a last resort, that no more force than necessary be utilized, and that non-combatants not be harmed or endangered. This means not only that urban civilian population centers may not be targeted, but that targets that may otherwise be legitimate targets must be addressed in ways that do not endanger non-combatants. Conversely, a military force at war may not, itself, use proximity to non-combatants as a cover or shield. I am sorry if the reader thinks, “That’s just war.” It isn’t, and that is not just my opinion.
Perhaps the thoughts of others who attended the Trinity Site “open house” ran in other directions, but those are the directions taken by my own thoughts. I’m glad we devoted ten hours and 375 miles on a somewhat raw April Saturday to this experience, but I never shall attend again.
On Memorial Day this year, as in other years past, I shall shine my brass and don my Army Blue dress uniform and assist at the flag raising at Veterans Park. But I will be honoring and grieving for all who have died in, or as a result of wars, not just those of our own uniformed services.
Weeden Nichols is a retired Army warrant officer, a Vietnam Veteran, and a DSA member in New Mexico.
He and his wife have been working together for peace and justice for over 50 years.
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