Roger Ehrlich, creator of the movable Swords to Plowshares Belltower, is a peace activist, but not a pacifist. When I broached the difference with him, he thought about it for a good while. He's not given to easy or glib answers.
"Some people say that we must continually prepare for war. I believe we need to be continually working to prevent the next war," he finally said. "Can you turn a battleship around on a dime?" Erhlich left his own question hanging whether the American war machine can change.
"Do you need to self-defend? Yes. But I think the cause of freedom at home and abroad has been weakened and jeopardized by militarism."
It's the complex duality of violence in the cause of nonviolence—of making war for peace—that inspired Ehrlich's artistry, a project the Cary builder, artist and sometime sociology teacher undertook for the Triangle chapter of Veterans for Peace. It's modeled on the Bell Tower at N.C. State University, a memorial to alumni who died in World War I.
N.C. State's tower, like Ehrlich's work, greets visitors with a biblical message: "And they shall beat their swords into plowshares."
That message, conveyed when "The War to End All Wars" ended almost 100 years ago, expressed a hope that the world now saw that carnage and destruction avail nothing. Henceforth nations would make tools, not weapons, and "learn war no more."
But World War I begat World War II which begat other wars where the U.S. military was defending freedom. Or so we're told ad nauseam by propagandists who never seem to be on the battlefield when the bombs go off.
In the 2014 elections, candidates again vied to be seen as most willing to put American troops in action. It's the rare politician who risks being called soft on defense.
It's Tuesday, so I don't know who won the elections. I do know that the difficult issue of what the United States might do to interrupt the cycle of violence—of what it would take—did not come up during campaigns.
It will come up this weekend, however, when Ehrlich's tower is put in place at the State Capitol to mark Veterans Day.
The tower is dedicated, Ehrlich says, to all victims of war, Americans included but not exclusively, and to all the men and women who've fought on every side for causes they were told had honor.
Politicians in many countries, he adds, use the bravery of fallen troops to justify wars after the fact and to stifle criticism or dissent. He wants an "honest accounting" of the costs of war against the valor shown.
"We need a different way to commemorate war," Ehrlich says, "and address the mythology that it's always glorious."
For that purpose, his tower is a simple, brilliant conception.
Ehrlich, with the help of his friends, built the tower out of recycled, flattened soda and beer cans strung on cables connected to recycled wood. Winched into place, its silvery cans sway in the breeze and glisten in the sunlight, giving them an ethereal quality quite unlike the granite solidity of most war memorials. The effect is gentle and inviting.
Visitors are invited, too, to ring its bell, which was discovered buried in the ground during a renovation of the Church of Reconciliation in Chapel Hill.
The best thing is that visitors are invited as well to inscribe the silver-can "bricks" with epitaphs for war victims.
Ehrlich's tower debuted next to the N.C. State Bell Tower over Memorial Day. It's also been to the Durham Armory and to Asheville, where it stood in the town square during the national Veterans for Peace convention in July.
Thus, it now contains a rich variety of inscriptions:
Cost of War—Human. Alexander S. Arredondo, USMC, 1984–2004, KIA Iraq.
• Chisai Yamamoto, a Japanese suicide bomber whose mission failed, so survived WWII—my loving father-in-law.
A. Karatchoun, Soviet Red Army.
Casey Shea 12-16-77 to 2-25-81, son of Daniel Shea USMC Vietnam '68. Collateral damage of Agent Orange.
Mother of Ngô Xuân Hin.
And many more like them.
Ehrlich said he expected pushback from American vets about his tower's dedication to all war victims. So far, he says, he's gotten none.
He has collected a series of interviews. Daniel Shea told him his beautiful son died from genetic damage his father suffered in Vietnam. Ngô Xuân Hin's mother fought on the side of the Vietcong. Her epitaph was by Chuck Searcy, an American veteran who heads the VFP's Hanoi chapter, and works with her son. The two are leaders in Project Renew, whose goal is to remove unexploded U.S. bombs from Vietnamese farm fields.
The inscriptions prompt people to share their war experiences with one another, Ehrlich says, "the good, the bad and the ugly." It helps them to see their shared humanity, and is part of what he calls the "redemptive healing" the world requires.
"I feel almost like a Catholic priest sometimes, listening to their stories," he says. "They ring the bell, sometimes they have a tear in their eye. Some stop to say thank you. Some come back to tell me, 'That helped.'"