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FROM READERS: A Veterans Day look at MU's role in honoring the dead

Monday, November 12, 2012 | 4:04 p.m. CST

W. Arthur Mehrhoff is the academic coordinator for the MU Museum of Art and Archaeology. Click the links in the body of the text for additional background information.

American folklorist Henry Glassie once observed that the American landscape speaks, incessantly babbling myth. The Nov. 11, 2011, rededication of the American War Mothers' memorial on the east side of Memorial Student Union embodies all the key elements of what I call Pride of Place, how our landscape continues to speak to us. The ceremonies involved material culture (in the form of the rededicated memorial stone), landscape (in the form of tree planting and paver stones), tradition (in the form of the wreath-laying ceremony and the color guard) and the arts (in the form of the new Purple Heart stamp, music and reading by prize-winning author Ron Powers). At a very deep level, the rededication demonstrated how our unique and rich campus heritage continues to shape the life of this campus, often without our conscious efforts.

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What it did not and possibly cannot do is answer the existential question: What is the proper place in a modern, public university such as Mizzou for traditional values such as honoring the nation’s war dead?

When I first visited the university campus and Memorial Union in the early '60s with my father and uncle, both proud World War II veterans, few harbored any doubt about the rightness of such values and memorials. By the end of the '60s, symbolic places such as MU's Peace Park (honoring the student protesters killed by National Guardsmen at Kent State University) on the north side of the campus posed a serious challenge to those traditional values embodied in Memorial Student Union. The rededicated American War Mothers' memorial reflects and recalls an earlier America before the seismic '60s, but what does it say to us today? That Great Divide still runs like a fault line through university campuses like ours, perhaps even reflected in the nation’s widening political divisions.

I hold no illusions about my ability to heal The Great Divide, only my ability to share a filament of understanding that someone else tossed out for me to grasp.

Columnist Terry Schlemeier’s thoughtful column in Sunday’s Columbia Daily Tribune about the war experiences of the late George McGovern, the 1972 "peace" candidate for president maligned and soundly defeated by Richard Nixon in that Watergate prelude, offered a valuable historical and cultural perspective on The Great Divide. As Schlemeier wrote, “McGovern’s objections to the war in Vietnam made him appear, to some, as a coward when he turned out to be one of America’s most decorated war heroes.” In fact, McGovern completed 35 successful bombing missions for the 15th U.S. Army Air Corps in Cerignola, Italy, during World War II (the casualty rate for the 15th was 85 percent) without losing a crew member, returning from one mission with 170 bullet holes in his B-24, and was twice awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Like George Washington’s farewell address warning against "foreign entanglements" and Dwight D. Eisenhower’s against the "military-industrial complex, George McGovern’s concerns about the use of military force reflected the very martial memory honored in the American War Mothers' memorial and Memorial Student Union itself.

But an equally fascinating feature of Schlemeier’s story relates to Peace Park and the '60s counterculture. From Earth Day to the Society for Creative Anachronism to tai chi, the spirit of '60s counterculture still finds a groovy place in Peace Park.

It’s been said that if you actually remember the '60s, you weren’t really there. However, many of us do remember the enormous popularity of Joseph Heller’s iconic novel "Catch-22" (the Army Air Corp’s regulation that anyone who wanted to be grounded on the basis of insanity was by definition sane, and so therefore could not be grounded) about the absurdities of war. It turns out that Heller was also stationed with the 15th and 12th Army Air Corps in Cerignola, Italy; Schlemeier poses the fascinating question whether Capt. Yossarian, Heller’s fictional hero in Catch-22, may indeed be partially based upon the mind-bending exploits of Capt. George McGovern.

So what does our campus landscape show me regarding the place of martial memory? Just this: Viewed from sufficient distance, Peace Park and Memorial Student Union can clearly be seen as part of the same university, the same cultural landscape.

Perhaps from sufficient historical distance, we can acknowledge that our freedom to challenge abuses of power and to doubt the absurdities of war came at considerable cost and requires sacrifice on all our parts, conservative and progressive, Red and Blue.

The long view suggests that we take full advantage of our heritage of intellectual and press freedoms to learn the truth for ourselves and be open to the possibilities of discovering honor as well as outrage. So thank you, Dad. Thank you, Uncle Art. And thank you, George. 

This story is part of a section of the Missourian called From Readers, which is dedicated to your voices and your stories. We hope you'll consider sharing. Here's how. Supervising editor is Joy Mayer.


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