Letter to Capitol Area and Architectural Planning Board

March 14, 2021

Dear Capitol Area and Architectural Planning Board,

Thank you for undertaking a review of the memorials and monuments on the Minnesota State Capitol grounds. The purpose of this letter is to illuminate the militarism that dominates the Capitol landscape.

By my count, there are at least seven memorials/monuments that are dedicated to war, soldiers, and militarism:

  • The Special Forces in Laos Memorial
  • The Minnesota Vietnam Veterans Memorial
  • The Minnesota WWII Veterans Memorial
  • The Minnesota Korean War Veterans Memorial
  • The Military Family Tribute
  • The Monument to the Living
  • The USS Ward Gun

Even the monument that is ostensibly dedicated to peace is in the process of being converted to yet another tribute to militarism. While the Promise of Youth statue may have once symbolized the human aspiration for peace, it is being incorporated with a new memorial dedicated to Minnesota Medal of Honor recipients.

According to Shannon Loehrke on Capitol Report, when this project is complete, it will realize architect Cass Gilbert’s “desire for a tribute to veterans at the south end of the Capitol mall”. It will also leave the Capitol grounds with exactly zero memorials to peace and/or peace advocates.

While the militaristic memorials are unwelcoming to me, I find the virtual tours of those memorials to be downright objectionable. They contain rank propaganda and should also be reviewed and considered for removal. I will offer several examples.

The first is the Promise of Youth virtual tour. Paraphrasing sculptor Alonzo Hauser, historian Martin Zanger says “We’ve always had wars forced upon us, and what we’re fighting for is peace and stability and the future for our youth”. Setting aside the reasons that America wages its wars, it cannot be reasonably said that war is forced upon us. Every war that America has participated in since the Korean War has been a war of choice at best, or a war of aggression at worst, the Vietnam War and the 2003 Invasion of Iraq being examples of the latter.

In that same virtual tour, Major General Larry Shellito asks the rhetorical question; Why do we go to war?. He answers the question, “It’s for humanity”. A peace activist would never claim to find humanity in war. Humanity is found in the prevention of war, or in the cessation of war once it has started. Again, this is found in the virtual tour for a supposed peace memorial.

The virtual tour of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial serves as a second example. In it Paul Mandel says that there was objection to the name wall facing south because that would be representative of the Canadian border where “people fled if they were conscientious objectors”. This statement is problematic first of all because those who were successful in their conscientious objector claims had no need to flee to Canada. Some whose claims were denied likely fled to Canada, right along with other resisters, refuseniks, and draft dodgers. Such people occupy the high moral ground when a nation commits an act of military aggression, as the United States did against Vietnam. They are deserving of praise, not the dismissal implicit in Mr. Mandel’s statement.

Mr. Mandel went on to generalize about returning soldiers, “They had a chip on their shoulder. They came back, they were either forgotten or they were spat on, mistreated, the benefits weren’t coming forward, just all around the nation had abandoned them”. Most objectionable in this statement is the perpetuation of the spat upon soldier myth. Rather than elaborate here, I will refer you to a book by Jerry Lembcke titled The Spitting Image. Suffice to say that contemporary accounts were virtually non-existent, and only began to surface after an iconic scene in a Rambo movie of 1982. The myth served to both demonize the anti-war movement, and help break the public’s rejection of war, otherwise known as the Vietnam Syndrome.

America was indeed divided during the Vietnam War. But the fault line was not between civilians and military personnel. Peace advocates and anti-war GI’s were close partners in their efforts to end the war. The fault line fell between pro-war and anti-war Americans regardless of station.

‘Healing’ is cited as a purpose served by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. But can healing really occur without acknowledgement of the truth? Were American soldiers the real victims of the war, or was it the Vietnamese people? Does the word ‘honor’ apply when we know that 500 civilians were slaughtered in the hamlet of My Lai and lesser atrocities were committed nearly every day of the war?

This is not to say that all soldiers acted dishonorably. This week, on March 16th, I will remember Hugh Thompson who landed his helicoptor to confront troops of Charlie Company who were in murderous pursuit of Vietnamese civilians. But when words like ‘hero’, ‘valor’, and ‘honor’ are applied to the entire US military without exception, it is apparent that a deception is underway. That deception is furthered by minimizing, or omitting altogether, the harm done and the lawlessness that characterized the America presence in SE Asia during what we call the Vietnam War.

I would like to introduce a quote by President John F. Kennedy into this review of Capitol monuments:

War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today.”

Militarism is ubiquitous on the Capitol grounds. Recognition of peacemakers is entirely absent. We have a long way to go if we are to follow JFK’s recommended path to peace.

Mike Madden

Veterans For Peace, Chapter 27