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The other cheek


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In the end, there were no caskets. We didn't need them. They were never the point anyway.

So when 50 of us who are opposed to the U.S. occupation of Iraq came to the Capitol Monday for our Memorial Day service, we were met, not by pallbearers, but by six solemn people bearing American flags folded properly in the tri-corner style.

That was Doug Johnston's call. He'd always meant to carry the six faux caskets with equal dignity as a way of honoring those who've given their lives in service. But his critics, including The News & Observer's Dennis Rogers, insisted that what Johnston really wanted was "a macabre sideshow," "a morbid perversion of military burial ceremonies," "a protest."

Well, he didn't. And rather than let the caskets be a distraction from what he did want, he got rid of them. Because, again, they were never the point.

And when, on short notice, the Capitol Police called to say that, even though they'd issued him a valid permit to conduct a ceremony on a small portion of the grounds at 1 p.m., he was to move his service to 10 a.m., he didn't argue. He readily agreed.

Why? Because a big turnout wasn't the point, either. Nor was it getting into an argument.

So what was the point?

It was that Johnston and some of his close friends and family, war opponents, wanted to pay their respects to our fallen troops in their own way—and as a group. They invited some neighbors to join them if we wanted to, and sent out a few announcements to the media. My wife and I got one, and I wrote about it a week ago in this space ("Honoring the dead," May 23.)

For this, Johnston and friends were widely denounced. "Ingrate" was one of the nicer things said. "March on Washington," Rogers roared in his column Friday. "But not this ugly thing."

Nobody who saw us Monday would ever say, I hope, that what we did was ugly or anything but pure and heartfelt. I'm mortally certain that, if the caskets had stayed, the purpose and effect would've been equally pure.

But I got a lesson in anger management from Doug Johnston, because until the morning of, I thought he never should've let the police force him to reschedule, never should've let his critics mischaracterize and defile the simple ceremony he had in mind.

It made me mad.

It made him sad.

After which—and here's a thought I don't often have—he turned the other cheek. He didn't agree that the caskets were inappropriate. But the point was to pay his respects. Nothing else. So he changed course, cried a little, and did not complain.

Johnston wanted it understood that people who don't support the war and never did, and who can therefore never offer to the fallen, as he said so eloquently, "the usual consolations that your sacrifice was neither demanded needlessly nor made without results," can still honor their loyalty, bravery and dedication to country.

That we did. We didn't need caskets to do it. We didn't need the flags, either, nor grave string music, though both expressed our emotions well and helped to frame the few words that were said. Were they off-limits to us, too?

But I will say that, as much as I think we had a right to our own ceremony, not insisting on it, and doing it instead in a way that would surely have disarmed the critics had any come, made it all the more purposeful, and I let my anger go—for a while.

And then someone insisted on telling me that no political message was appropriate on Memorial Day, and that I was lying when I said our ceremony had no politics beyond the fact of who we were. I thought about my reaction if war supporters held a service to honor the fallen. I wouldn't go, because I'm not one. But neither would I question their right to do it, or their motives—or their patriotism. I would question their judgment about war policy, as they can freely question mine.

Indeed, attend any "nonpolitical" Memorial Day service and you will hear how our troops fell "defending freedom around the world." That used to ring true for me, or at least true enough that I didn't flinch saluting the flag. I do flinch now, since Bush II, and words like that make me uncomfortable, but I'm sure I've never thought, how inappropriate, how unpatriotic. What I do wish is that other views might be heard, but they never are.

I'm against the war, but my eyes still water when I see the faces of the young soldiers who've died in Iraq, and I've grieved for them privately. Thank you, Doug Johnston, for the chance to grieve with you.


Part of my anger is the realization that congressional Democrats do not actually want to end the war in Iraq. They want to say they're for ending the war. But they fear that if the troops come home before the '08 elections, Iraq will be an unspeakable disaster (as it already is), and they'll be blamed for it. Why else would the majority party in Congress vote to bring a blank-check bill to the floor that would pass only because the Republicans were solidly for it?

Or to put it another way, why did Triangle Congressmen David Price and Brad Miller vote for the bill, only later voting against it? At least Rep. Bob Etheridge was consistent—he was for it, and for it again.

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