Editor’s Note: Today the “Wall of Separation” is pleased to feature a guest post by Ed Beck, a First Amendment advocate and veteran of the War in Iraq.
Beck at Al-Taqaddum airbase in Iraq, 2005
This weekend, hundreds of Albia, Iowa, citizens gathered in support of the "Welcome Home, Soldier" memorial, a publicly-funded park featuring 21 Latin crosses challenged by Americans United. This is the latest in a long line of publicly funded veteran's memorials to feature sectarian symbols, the First Amendment be damned.
Although these controversies provide a worn tune for our pied pipers of reaction, it would be unfair to pin their transparent chauvinism to every supporter. Many certainly wish to do well by those who serve and honor them as completely as possible. But as surely as those who serve set aside sect in solidarity with one another, so too must those who build memorials to them. Anything less is a dishonor.
For all their well-meaning, sectarian memorials fail to truly understand how deep the values of military service go. Those who defend these memorials nod to the idea of shared sacrifice yet avoid doing it themselves. No one in the U.S. military serves under or alongside the Latin cross; they serve under the flag and alongside one another. They should be memorialized in the same manner.
Unfortunately in these battles, rank chauvinism is always present – the loudest often those who never served themselves. One example is the Albia Union-Republican’s Dave Paxton, who, in a column that mangles history, gleefully pointed out that the memorial’s organizers “wisely sought counsel from a legal defense organization from Texas that fights the atheists, agnostics and First Amendment haters of this country.” He’s referring to the well-funded First Liberty Institute.
First Liberty is home to Michael Berry, a former Marine Corps lawyer who now serves as director of military affairs at the organization. A prime example of those who served while remaining blind to the diversity around them, at Values Voters Summit 2015 he threw his fellow veterans under the right-wing gravy train, claiming:
“If people of faith form the backbone of our military, and they’re not joining the military and they’re getting out of the military, what does that leave us with? A spineless military. And when we have a spineless military that weakens our nation.”
That his employer would defend a sectarian memorial is not surprising.
Our nation of immigrants has always been a more religiously diverse country than many wish or admit, and the military drawn from it has often been even more so. The U.S. military has been a home to adherents of Christianity’s numerous strains, the non-religious and those who subscribe to religions from every corner of the globe. These people find themselves opposed on questions of the Almighty, but united in arms.
For instance, the Army of the Potomac was filled with famine-forged Irish Catholics, freethinking Germans and many Jews. The officer corps especially hosted abolitionist volunteers from all corners of Europe whose “papism,” Communist-inflected atheism and unorthodox theisms and deisms would render today’s conservative pundits as apoplectic as atheist and Muslim soldiers do now.
Veterans’ memorials must be for them too.
The American military of the world wars saw more Catholics, Jews and secular-minded leftists taking up arms (if often as reluctant draftees). The most highly decorated American unit of World War II was the all-Japanese 100th Battalion of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. It was made up of volunteers drawn from the 100,000 immigrants hideously interned – not just out of white Christian America’s fear that vague ethno-nationalist affinities kept Japanese secretly loyal to Emperor Hirohito but that their Buddhism encouraged it and Shinto demanded it.
Any memorial must be fit for them.
Today’s military is more diverse than it’s ever been. I served in the Marine Corps from 2002 through 2006, and during my service I met my first (open) agnostics and atheists, my first Muslim, first Wiccan and first Buddhist. I served proudly alongside them all, and they all served proudly alongside me.
Any memorial must be fit for all of us.
That experience made it quite clear to me why the Department of Veterans Affairs offers to inscribe one of 62 religious and philosophical symbols on the graves of service members, and why new symbols are added every year. It made it quite clear to me why publicly-funded memorials must be religiously neutral.
A veterans’ memorial that isn’t fit for all who serve isn't fit for any of us.
Ed Beck is a former United States Marine Corps Sergeant. He served from 2002-2006 and is a veteran of the Iraq War. He's now a First Amendment advocate residing in Washington, DC. He is on Twitter at @dedwardbeck.