When the Airborne and Special Operations Museum opened recently in Fayetteville, someone had to be there to tell the truth. According to its own promotional materials, the museum is to celebrate 60 years of Airborne history. But our group of 13 Triangle demonstrators attended the museum’s grand opening to remember the horrendous cost of that history: millions of lives lost on all sides in conflicts ranging from World War II to the Gulf War, including many where the United States blatantly violated international law to push its own agenda.
We knew the $22.5 million museum would not reveal the truth about these interventions, nor present the costly side of war to all persons involved. Instead, it would appeal to children with interactive displays and paint a picture of life in the Armed Forces as adventuresome and exciting. The opening ceremony would be a victory celebration, rather than an occasion for mourning.
So we went with signs that spoke the sad reality: World War II, 55 million killed, 60 percent civilian; Vietnam, 2.3 million killed, 58 percent civilian; Gulf War, including sanctions, 1.3 million killed and counting, more than 75 percent civilian.
In between parachute jumps and flyovers by transport planes, I envisioned a different museum, one full of graphic detail about what it was really like in Normandy in 1944, the Dominican Republic in 1965 or Vietnam in 1971. I imagined an exhibit showing the remains of the neighborhood El Chorillo in Panama City after the 1989 U.S. invasion to take Manuel Noriego, in which 90 percent of the people killed were civilian and many desperately poor. A visit to such a museum would leave visitors feeling sick about the horrors of war and determined to counter the Pentagon’s deception and work nonviolently for peace. What better tribute to those who have died than to inspire visitors to prevent the sad mistakes of the past?
As we leafleted the crowd, reactions to our message were mixed. Some people were angry or ignored us, but others stopped to talk and better understand our purpose.
One police officer engaged my husband, Steve, in conversation for several minutes. Finally Steve asked him, “If you had lived in El Chorillo when the United States blew it to bits in 1989, and you knew people were building a museum to celebrate it, wouldn’t you want someone to protest?
The police officer agreed that he would. Wouldn’t you?