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 fifteen 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 Iraq, too many Moms now have to mourn family members lost to wars dreamed up by demagogic politicians.
But Mother’s Day is now upon us. Few Americans know that Mother’s Day was initially suggested by two peace-minded mothers, Julia War Howe, a long-forgotten 19th century anti-slavery activist and suffragette who wrote the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and Anna Reeves Jarvis, mother of eleven, 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: “A war of service is a thing in which it is a proud thing to die.” This is a sentiment by someone who had never served in the military and which 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 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 coined their marvelous slogan: “War is not healthy for children and other living beings.” Years later I came to know three mothers named Carol who started Mothers and Others Against War in 1979 to protest Jimmy Carter’s 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 drags on and on, we could use more of the anger and dissenting voices of countless women who have joined together to protest sacrificing theirs sons and daughters as cannon fodder, as Russian mothers have done protesting Moscow’s invasions of Afghanistan and Chechnya. In Argentina and Chile, mothers and grandmothers marched against the murders of the American-supported butchers who ran their nations during the late-'70s and '80s. And in this country, the anti-Iraq movement has 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, an obscure British combat soldier of WWI wrote long ago to his fiancée, the British antiwar writer Vera Brittain.
Sadly, on this Mother’s Day, peace seems further away than ever. How many more war widows and grieving parents do we need? Do we need yet another war memorial to the dead in Washington? Do we really need to continue disseminating the myth that an idealistic America always fights for freedom and democracy?
On Mother’s Day 2006 nearly 2,400 American soldiers have already been killed, and many more have been wounded in body and mind, not to mention tens of thousands of Iraqis. They all had mothers.
Murray Polner co-authored Disarmed and Dangerous: The Radical Life and Times of Daniel and Philip Berrigan and wrote No Victory Parades: The Return of the Vietnam Veteran.
Other Articles by Murray Polner