Fifty years ago today, November 2, 2015, at about 5:20 p.m., a 31-year-old Quaker named Norman Morrison immolated himself 40 feet from the window of US Secretary of War Robert McNamara’s office at the Pentagon. I was a law student in Washington, DC at the time.
Most US Americans know little of our nation’s history and seldom reflect on the moral issues relating to its genocidal origins and imperial nature. And, it seems, they avoid at all costs reflection on anything that may produce “negative” feelings (i.e., the truth).
For more than eight years, 1965-73, the US expended more than 16 million tons of deadly ordnance on Viet Nam, Cambodia and Laos, more than was utilized in all previous wars combined by all sides. Seventy-five percent of South Viet Nam was designated a “free fire zone” by US military planners. B-52 bombing missions occurred virtually every day. Hundreds of schools, hospitals, Catholic churches and Buddhist pagodas were considered “psycho-social targets”. Thirteen thousand, or 60 percent, of all villages in Viet Nam were severely damaged or destroyed. Twenty-one million gallons of deadly chemical herbicides were sprayed over villages, farms and forests. The third generation of birth defects are now appearing. Over 6.5 million Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians were murdered during the war, over five million in Viet Nam alone – thirteen percent of their population!
Vietnamese resistance and self-defense were treated as a crime deserving evermore vengeance from the US war machine. Use of systematic terror, including torture, was unprecedented. Surrender not forthcoming, genocidal scorched-earth and search-and-destroy policies sought to eliminate the entire Vietnamese population. By mid-1965, the war was just beginning to seep into the consciousness of a small minority of people. Heavy bombings began to make the news, along with the open invasion of US troops that had occurred in March.
Norman Morrison, director of a Quaker Meeting in Maryland, agonized over the US criminal war, and was distressed by lack of public outrage, especially from Quakers. On the morning of November 2, 1965, in preparing a lecture for an upcoming class, Norman penned: “Quakers seek to begin with life, not with theory….The life is mightier than the book that reports it”. Over lunch, Norman and his wife Anne discussed the latest issue of I.F. Stone’s Weekly that reprinted a letter from a Catholic priest in Paris Match who barely survived US bombings: “I have seen my faithful burned up. I have seen the bodies of women and children blown to bits. I have seen all my village razed”.
After lunch, his wife Anne went to school to pick up their 6-year son Ben, and 5 year-old daughter Christina, Norman stayed with their daughter, Emily only nine days shy of her first birthday. With no evidence of premeditation or discussion, Norman drove to the Pentagon with baby Emily. At about 5:20 p.m., within 40 feet of the window of Secretary of War/Defense Robert McNamara, Norman safely placed Emily aside before dousing himself with a flammable liquid and striking a match. Within a few minutes Norman was dead, the second US American to immolate in protest of the war. As the war dragged on, seven others would follow suit. At least 76 Vietnamese immolated themselves protesting the barbaric war being waged against them for simply seeking political autonomy.
Anne received a letter the next day penned by Norman: “Dearest Anne, I have been praying only that I be shown what I must do. This morning with no warning I was shown, as clearly as I was shown that Friday night in August 1955 that you should be my wife…Know that I love thee but must act for the children in the priest’s village. Norman”.
His wife Anne would later describe that Norman had a philosophy of “guided drift”, a kind of divine inspiration where each moment possesses reflective wisdom of its own.
Norman’s life has special significance to me. In the small town I grew up in rural western New York, he dated our neighbor’s daughter and was the first Eagle Scout I ever knew. Though seven years my senior, we graduated from the same Chautauqua Central High School, each with 28 students in our class. He considered becoming a minister as I would. We both loved baseball.
I thought Norman must have gone off his rocker. However, three-and-a-half years later, as a US Air Force lieutenant in Viet Nam, I personally witnessed the after effects of unspeakable napalm bombings of farming villages where virtually all inhabitants were murdered in a flash, mostly young mothers and children. Official reports identified them as “VC” (enemy) but I knew they were civilians. The horror caused me to turn against the war.
During an incredible dinner conversation with an educated Vietnamese family in Can Tho City, I was stunned to discover that the Vietnamese deeply revered Norman for his “constructive” sacrifice. They sang for me, in English, “An Ode to Norman Morrison,” that included the words: “The flame which burned you will clear and lighten life and many new generations of people will find the horizon. Then a day will come when the American people will rise, one after another, for life”. I wept as I grasped the extraordinary meaning that Norman’s life and act had on an entire nation of people, even though unrecognized by his own country’s citizenry.
If that was not enough, I later discovered there was a postage stamp the North Vietnamese government issued shortly after the immolation, revealing Norman’s face looking down from the clouds on US war demonstrators. The lettering on the stamp, translated reads: “Norman Morrison, the ultimate sacrifice as duty and purpose demand.”
I also learned there were streets named after Norman in Viet Nam. Posters and photos of him had appeared throughout the country, and Vietnamese soldiers on the Ho Chi Minh Trail carried his photos on their trucks. President Ho Chi Minh personally invited Norman’s widow Anne to Viet Nam. North Viet Nam’s Prime Minister Pham Van Dong shared this high national praise: “Norman Morrison has gone into Vietnamese mythology: The Vietnamese people, when fighting oppression, always have in their heart the image of Norman Morrison.”
Five days after Norman’s immolation, North Viet Nam’s revolutionary poet laureate To Huu wrote a poem, still famous in Viet Nam, “Emily, My Child,” dedicated to Norman. Towards the end of the poem is a section: “McNamara!/ Where are you hiding? /…you hide yourself / from the flaming world / as an ostrich hides its head in the burning sand”. Her father, who considered the entire human family just as valuable as his own, bore witness in the clearest and most incontrovertible manner against McNamara’s impersonal, mechanistic, and analytical waging of a war that was unleashing unspeakable violence on the innocents of Southeast Asia.
From my Viet Nam and other experiences, and from Norman’s example, my own long activist life has been guided by the mantra, “We are not worth more; They are not worth less”.
Perhaps as more of us become acquainted with the example of Norman Morrison, we will find our own version of “guided drift”.
Posted in Brian’s Blog