After the carnage of the Second World War the members of the now defunct Victory Chapter of the American Gold Star Mothers in St. Petersburg, Florida, knew better than most what it was to lose their sons, daughters, husbands and other near relatives in war. "We'd rather not talk about it," Ceil Rindfuss, whose son was killed in WWII, told the St. Petersburg Times 15 years after the war ended. "It's a terrible scar that never heals. We hope there will never be another war so no other mothers will have to go through this ordeal." But thanks to our wars in Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, and the Gulf War - not to mention our proxy wars around the globe - and now the savagery of Iraq, too many Moms now have to mourn family members badly scarred or lost to wars dreamed up by demagogic politicians and people and companies doing very well, thank you.
But it's now Mother's Day. Few Americans know that Mother's Day was initially suggested by two peace-minded mothers, Julia Ward Howe, a nineteenth century anti-slavery activist and suffragette who wrote the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," and Anna Reeves Jarvis, mother of 11, who influenced Howe and once asked her fellow Appalachian townspeople, badly polarized by the Civil War, to remain neutral and help nurse the wounded on both sides.
Howe had lived through the barbarism of the Civil War, which led her to ask a question that's as relevant today as it was in her time: "Why do not the mothers of mankind interfere in these matters, to prevent the waste of that human life of which they alone bear and know the costs?" Mother's Day, she insisted, "should be devoted to the advocacy of peace doctrines."
While neither lived to celebrate an official Mother's Day, President Woodrow Wilson of all people eventually designated it as a national holiday. Wilson, an avowed racist, ordered his army to invade Mexico, had Eugene V. Debs, an opponent of WWI and conscription, jailed for lengthy terms, and once declared that, "A war of service is a thing in which it is a proud thing to die" - a sentiment by someone who had never served in the military. This recalls Charles Edward Montague's classic putdown of living room heroes, then and now, "War hath no fury like a non-combatant."
Though not a mother, my favorite female opponent of war and imperialism was
the undeservedly forgotten poet and feminist Katherine Lee Bates who wrote "America the Beautiful" as a poem in 1895, which is now virtually our second national anthem. The poem I love best is her "Glory," in which an officer heading for the front says goodbye to his tearful mother:
Again he raged in that lurid hell Where the country he loved had thrown him. "You are promoted!" shrieked a shell. His mother would not have known him.
More recently there was Lenore Breslauer, a mother of two, who helped found Another Mother for Peace during the Vietnam War and helped coin their marvelous slogan: "War is not healthy for children and other living beings." Years later I came to know three mothers named Carol (Adams, Miller and Cohen) who started Mothers and Others Against War in 1979 to protest Jimmy Carter's inane resurrection of draft registration. They stayed on to battle Ronald Reagan's proxy wars in Central America.
On this Mother's Day, while yet another American war (how many there have been!) drags on and on, we could use more of the anger and dissenting voices of women to protest the needless and cruel sacrifice of sons, daughters, wives, and husbands as cannon fodder, as Russian mothers have done in protesting Moscow's invasions of Afghanistan and Chechnya. In Argentina and Chile, mothers and grandmothers marched against the torture and murders carried out by neo-fascist military juntas which ran their nations during the late '70s and early '80s. And in this country, the anti-Iraq movement has often been led by women demonstrating, in essence, against people who believe "War is a glorious golden thing...invoking honor and Praise and Valor and Love of Country"-as a disillusioned and bitter Roland Leighton, a WWI British combat soldier, wrote long ago to his fiancÃƒ©e, the British anti-war writer Vera Brittain.
Sadly, on this Mother's Day, peace seems further away than ever. How many more war widows and grieving families do we need? Do we need yet another war memorial to the dead in Washington? Do we really need to continue disseminating the myth - and lie - that an idealistic America always fights for freedom and democracy?
On Mother's Day 2007 nearly 3,500 American soldiers and Marines have already been killed, and many more have been wounded in body and mind, not to mention dozens of thousands of Iraqis. They all had mothers.
Murray Polner wrote "No Victory Parades: The Return of the Vietnam Veteran"; "When Can I Come Home?" about those who refused to serve in the Vietnam War; and "Disarmed & Dangerous (co-authored with Jim O'Grady), a dual biography of the Berrigan brothers. He is a history book review editor for George Mason University's www.historynewsnetwork.org/books.