WINTER 2001/2002
Peace Matters index




god bless america?


ONLINE contents

- god bless america
- challenge to afghan media
- child soldiers
- good deeds
- conflict and the search for peace
- gender and armed conflict
- state of the global vilage

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The light of the early morning sun, low on the horizon, gives a red cast to the names carved on the white Portland stone wall. At this hour of a January day the sun’s rays throw the carving into sharper relief. Later, when visitors start to arrive, the names will have faded discreetly back into the stone. Now, on this cold, still morning, the long reflecting pool at the foot of the wall fails to reflect the limply hanging flag: the sun’s warmth has yet to reach the thin crust of ice on the water.

Here at Madingley, just a few miles outside Cambridge, is the only American military cemetery in Britain. The words of President Eisenhower, carved deep in large letters that run the length of the memorial wall, explain its presence. They begin: ‘The Americans whose names here appear were part of the price that free men, for the second time in this century’ – the 20th, that is – ‘have been forced to pay to defend human liberty and rights’.

Many visitors may not take the trouble to read the whole of the 472-foot-long message. But its sentiments, whatever questions they raise, are likely to be shared by the majority of Americans. The innocence or arrogance (depending on one’s point of view) which can be seen in almost every feature of this memorial embodies America’s view of itself as saviour and policeman of the world with a rightful place very close to the God from whom it regularly asks blessing.

Since America’s late entry into World War One its power and consequent arrogance have grown, at the expense of much of the rest of the world. The hatred of America which was so brutally brought home to an uncomprehending citizenry on September 11th is not so hard to understand when viewed from the standpoint of the millions whose lives have been controlled and blighted by American political, military and corporate power.

Even before the Madingley memorial was a mere twinkle in its architect’s eye, the American administration of the day was subsidising an unsavoury and brutal regime in South Korea: a regime in whose defence America fought a bloody war and a country over whose military forces America still retains control.

In 1954 the memorial wall and its associated structures were built, the names carved, and the dead reburied in a more aesthetic arrangement. In the same year, the US administration was pursuing a foreign policy supportive of another unappealing South East Asian regime. (Years later, this policy would result in the carving of many thousands more names: this time on a black marble memorial wall in Washington.) After the catastrophic defeat of the French army in Vietnam which ended its colonial rule, the Accords reached in Geneva called for countrywide election – a democratic process not favoured by the US, then or since, in its client states. Luck and US dollars gave Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem control over South Vietnam. With US approval he cancelled the scheduled election meant to lead to the reunification of Vietnam. The rest is bloody history.

The bronze door of the Madingley memorial building is embossed with images of military vehicles, battleships and bombers. Surrounding it are representations of the principal US military decorations. Above the entrance the memorial’s dedication is inscribed. All this, it says, is ‘To the glory of God...’

Enter, and you will find that one inner wall is taken up with a 20-foot high map of the world covered with little aeroplanes, tanks and battleships indicating the battles of World War Two. High above, on the mosaic ceiling, is a flight of bombers. Intermingled with them are sinister flying figures (mourning angels, apparently). They are on their way towards the altar in a mini-chapel, where an Archangel trumpets the arrival of resurrection and the last judgement – US style no doubt. Here in the quiet Cambridgeshire countryside is an outpost of a dark – and dangerous – fundamentalist doctrine.

Seconds away as the Stealth bomber flies, at another outpost of the American Empire (one of the hundreds of American military bases around the world), are some of the digital components of future war. From there the tentacles of empire, and war, wind their way on to better- known outposts (in Yorkshire, Iceland...). Today, no young Americans are forced to be here, and few Americans (or, for that matter, Britons) realise that Britain’s countryside provides a home to US essential war-making technology. US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld may be unsure how to pronounce ‘origami’, but he knows better than most that the cosily-named National Missile Defence project is really about America’s military domination of space (and therefore the world) and has little to do with its old foe in North Korea.

In principle it’s hard to argue that a system that could shoot down a rogue missile or two would be a bad thing to have. Even liberals are buying into it. ‘The logic of missile defence is to make the stakes of power projection compatible with the risks of power projection,’ says Keith B. Payne, a deterrence theory expert and missile defence enthusiast. Missile defence, in other words, is not about defence. It’s about offence.

While Eisenhower’s fine words about ‘human liberty and rights’ were being chiselled into the Portland stone, a 40-year-old black seamstress called Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat in a bus to a white man when ordered to do so by the driver. ‘I was just plain tired, and my feet hurt,’ she said. Hundreds of thousands of black people in America might well have wondered when somebody would come not so much to defend them as simply to allow them their freedom and rights.

None of this means that the American people deserve the hate heaped on them by many around the world. But they, like the rest of us, must accept some responsibility for their megalomaniac politicians. Here in Britain, we too need to challenge a political establishment enthralled by military power. Can our government really be so ludicrously unaware how little such power it actually has, and how much of it depends on America? Can’t Tony Blair rescue from his visionary conference speech a commitment to the strength of non-military thinking instead? In the end it’s the only world-view that can work.

Jan Melichar


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