"In a society where it is normal for human beings to drop bombs on human targets, where it is normal to spend 50 percent of the individual's tax dollar on war, where it is normal...to have twelve times overkill capacity, Norman Morrison was not normal. He said, 'Let it stop.' "(a gravesite speech by John Roemer at the funeral of Norman Morrison quoted in Hendrickson, Paul. The Living and the Dead. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1996).
On November 2, 1965, Norman Morrison brought his daughter with him to the Pentagon. Outside the office of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Morrison set himself on fire to protest the escalating war in Vietnam. His daughter, Emily, somehow was passed to others and survived the flames. Morrison, however, died as he had lived, protesting the bombing of villages in South Vietnam, killing innocent men, women, and children.
I was part of an educational tour to Vietnam last March. We were taken to a powerful museum, known as the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. On the second floor an exhibit featured images of international solidarity with the Vietnamese people during the American war. Included there was a framed copy of an American newspaper account of Morrison’s self-immolation. Earlier, in Hue, we had seen an exhibit of the automobile used by a Buddhist Monk, Thích Quảng Đức, who killed himself in protest of the brutality of the Diem regime in South Vietnam. Presumably this act inspired Morrison’s tragic protest.
I had forgotten Morrison’s dramatic act, and the acts of several others who bravely sacrificed their bodies and lives to oppose the murderous war in Vietnam. Today, Memorial Day, 2011 I thought about Morrison, the exhibit at the Vietnamese Museum, and parallel acts of self-sacrifice.
First, on reflection, I am in awe of the courage and self-sacrifice of the acts of these brave and principled people. Yet, I wish they had not made the ultimate sacrifices they did and had put their courage and willingness to sacrifice to the long-term struggles of the peace movement to end war.
However, I believe we must “take back” Memorial Day from those who celebrate war, see sacrifice only from those who kill and die, and ignore the bravery of the men and women everywhere who fight to end war. We mourn those who were sent off to fight in ignoble wars in the name of the United States. Also we must declare Memorial Day as a day to remember all the Norman Morrison’s who have said “no” to war and empire.