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Honoring the dead

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This Monday, Memorial Day, I plan to join my neighbor, Doug Johnston, at the state Capitol, where he'll be leading a tribute to the troops who've died in the disastrous Iraq war. If he needs an extra pallbearer for one of the coffins—the ones he's making from boxes—I'll volunteer. Otherwise, I'll listen to the eulogies. I may give one myself, but I'm not very good at controlling my emotions when the subject is so terribly sad.

But I'll be there, and I invite you to be there, too, if you're reading this, because I think it's a good thing Doug is doing. A good thing that has not, however, been well received even in our progressive Cameron Park neighborhood and that Doug has struggled to explain—I dare say, even to himself.

For reasons he feels too deeply to reduce to a single, uncomplicated thought, Doug decided it was important for war opponents like himself to show respect for our troops not just in a general way—like flying the flag—but by memorializing the 3,422 Americans who've fallen in Iraq to date. "The issue," he wrote a few days ago, "is not whether the war is good or bad, it is that service and sacrifice were honorably given."

Further, he decided a Memorial Day service needed not just words—though words will matter—but also flag-draped coffins.

It's the coffins that made some of our neighbors angry.

"Mr. Johnston," one note to our neighborhood listserv began, "I am writing to urge you to abandon your efforts to organize a mock funeral procession (at) the Capitol.... This silent protest (although your invitation doesn't call it that) is not only inappropriate in its timing ... but is in no way supportive of troops in Iraq or their families, as your message stated is the intended purpose."

This was from Patrick Roberson, who grew up in Cameron Park and is now a captain in the Army, stationed at Fort Bragg.

"While I know you may think that symbolizing troops' deaths with flag-draped 'coffins' will be a public tribute to sacrifices made in the (war)," Roberson went on, "I assure you that to most who have served and to their families, it will be nothing more than a perversion and exploitation of our fellow troops' and loved ones' deaths."

I read this Monday night and went to bed thinking Johnston's critics were right—that using the war dead to make an antiwar statement, no matter how well intended, was not proper.

This morning, I think they're wrong.

First of all, honoring our war dead is not an act reserved for those who support the war, though many such—starting with the White House—have tried to appropriate it for themselves.

Second, Doug Johnston is not making an antiwar statement. What he's doing is offering a dignified way for those of us who've opposed the war to recognize the valor of the people who've fought it. In retrospect, he realizes he should've worded his invitations so they both "urged those against the war" to participate—as they did—and welcomed others, too.

All are welcome.

Third, Johnston didn't mean for the coffins to be macabre, simply a way to draw attention to the real sacrifices that war entails. The White House would prefer we never see a coffin. He thinks we need to see them.

"I started this effort with the question, What does it take to get people's attention?" he says. "Now my question is, What keeps us from crying for another parent's child?"

Tuesday morning, I asked Doug whether he's received much positive response to his announcements. "No," he answered. "People who know me and trust me have responded." What was his reaction to Roberson and the others? He didn't have one, except that he "struggled with the same question" and recognizes that, just as he feels "intensely" that what he's doing is right, they feel with equal intensity that it's not. He'll write to each of them afterward, he promised.

I should say, I'm not a close friend of Doug Johnston's, though we have a mutual close friend. He's a lawyer, highly regarded, and served 16 years in the Navy Reserve's legal corps, retiring with a meritorious service medal. It was "a wonderful experience—great people," he says. He wasn't in a war.

Johnston's not a political activist, not at all. I think that's why I'm drawn to his situation. He's thought this through. He's not mad that people are mad at him. He's thinking about that, too, in his quite analytical way. "My youngest daughter said to me, 'Dad, you're either a great guy or you're delusional.'"

One or the other, but what he isn't is content to do nothing as this ill-begotten war surges on for, what, another year? Two? Memorial Day is the perfect day for its opponents to take action, I told him. Because until it ends, every day is the right day.

Johnston is seeking brief eulogies on subjects like "Why a Salute Is Proper," "A Parent Remembers" and "In the Middle of Nowhere With Nowhere to Go." His e-mail: MemorialDay2007@gmail.com. The service will be on the Capitol grounds, 1-2 p.m., immediately following the service associations' ceremonies.

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