At The State Capitol, Bells Toll For Peace

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Above Photo: The Swords to Plowshares Memorial Belltower. Courtesy of Roger Ehrlich

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Ninety-nine years ago, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, bells tolled around the world, and people poured into public squares to celebrate the end of what was called The War to End All Wars. For many years, Armistice Day was observed as a day to remember the dead of WWI and rededicate ourselves to never letting war happen again.

This week, aided by a grant from the N.C. Humanities Council, a bell has been tolling from the 24-foot-tall Swords to Plowshares Memorial Belltower, a touring memorial that has been erected, for the fourth consecutive year, on the lawn of our State Capitol in Raleigh. The public has been adding inscriptions to the monument to bear witness to how war has affected their lives. These silver plaques, fashioned from recycled cans and glistening in the wind, bear heart-rending inscriptions in many different languages.

The Belltower was dedicated on Memorial Day 2014 by the Eisenhower Chapter of Veterans for Peace with former N.C. State University alumni director and Air Force veteran Bob Kennel presiding. Its inspiration was the bronze door on the NCSU Belltower, which bears the inscription “And They Shall Beat Their Swords into Plowshares.” This Old Testament passage, sacred to Jews, Christians, Muslims and others, is a reminder of the original spirit of Armistice Day.

In 1953, President Eisenhower said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies … a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” But one year later, he signed a proclamation renaming Armistice Day as Veterans Day. Since WWI, with the day’s original intent forgotten, we have seen the rise of fascism in Europe, the horrors of WWII, the Korean War, Vietnam War and our endless “wars on terrorism.” The War on Poverty didn’t stand a chance.

One way to redirect resources toward peacemaking is to raise taxes on the manufacture of weapons. Two North Carolinians, U.S. House Majority Leader Claude Kitchin and Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels, led efforts during WWI to replace President Wilson’s regressive tax plan with one that included taxes on excessive war profits. Despite Kitchin’s opposition, the war profit tax was later repealed.

Sadly, Kitchin, a main opponent of U.S. entry into the European bloodbath, and Daniels, who published the precursor to the News & Observer, were also instrumental in the violent overthrow of a progressive multiracial coalition in North Carolina in 1898. The climate of racial repression then mmay have fed the nationalistic hysteria that drew us into the war.

What makes the Belltower memorial unusual, besides it’s mobility, is its dedication, “to all veterans and victims of war, regardless of race, faith, or nationality.” Conventional commemorations are not as inclusive and democratic. Instead of being invited into honest dialogue about war’s costs and causes, we are told to silently remember those who “gave their lives for our freedom.” But many lives, both military and civilian, were taken involuntarily. My grandfathers, British and Austrian, fought on opposite sides in WWI. Did they each believe they were fighting for freedom?

On the west side of the Capitol, around the corner from where we have set up our Belltower, stands a controversial memorial “To Our Confederate Dead.” I agree they should be remembered. But, like most war memorials, it was erected by a powerful few with only partial remembrance of who sacrificed, or got sacrificed, in that war. What about the thousands of North Carolinians, white and black, who fought for the Union? The civilians who were killed or died of wartime deprivations? The mothers and fathers and children? Or those never able to recover from physical and psychological wounds and those who took their own lives? Their stories, too, deserve to be told, and you will find them in the inscriptions that have been added to our Belltower.

Perhaps the most radical but most healing aspect of our Belltower is the inclusion of inscriptions memorializing the suffering of our “enemies.” I added inscriptions for both my grandfathers. Another memorial plaque was dedicated by U.S. Marine Corps veteran Mike Hanes to “The Iraq citizen who died in one of our raids. Died in my buddy’s arms. An image I will never forget.”

This Armistice Day, let us – at long last – beat our swords into plowshares.