Activists on quest for civilian war dead memorial
August 6, 1999
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Activists seeking to memorialize civilian casualties of war reached their destination on Friday, but not their goal.
Having pushed a one-ton granite tombstone almost 500 miles for more than a month, they laid down their heavy burden in front of Arlington National Cemetery.
Known as the Stonewalkers, the group moved the marker to the middle of Memorial Bridge, which leads to the entrance to the cemetery.
Then project director Lewis Randa announced that because "this stone has no home" he would allow police to impound it until Congress adopts a resolution allowing it into the cemetery.
"Were we to complete the journey today and bring it to Arlington, the stone would be discarded, rejected like the very message it embodies," Randa said.
Inspired by the words of peace activists such as Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, the Stonewalkers began their six-state odyssey on July 4 to seek recognition for civilians killed in wars.
"Nine out of ten people who die in war are civilians, and half are children. How is it that our government doesn't have a memorial to them," said Randa, 52, a Vietnam-era conscientious objector who runs a school for disabled children.
Like other Stonewalkers, Randa wore a shirt with the words "Unknown Civilians Killed in War" across his chest, the same phrase etched into the stone.
Leaving from Sherborn, Massachusetts, they pushed the 6-foot by 4-foot marker on a wheeled cart along back roads, often joined by volunteers and veterans from the Gulf and Vietnam wars.
"I do not feel the general public realizes the magnitude of civilian deaths in war," said Hugh Thompson, the former Army pilot who tried to stop the 1968 My Lai civilian massacre by placing his helicopter between attacking U.S. troops and Vietnamese villagers.
Peace activists estimated that 90 million civilians have died during wars in the 20th century.
Randa thinks one reason civilian war dead are not given proper recognition is the modern military term used to describe them, "collateral damage."
"We've come to accept that as the label that releases us from any guilt or responsibility," he said.
When the Stonewalkers needed help pushing the stone, motorists often stopped their cars to lend a hand.
"As we went through each town, people came together," Stonewalker Margo Roman said, "to help us pull it through."
But when the Stonewalkers reached Washington on Thursday, only one member of Congress greeted them.
"I think this is an incredible movement. I think this is a very strong statement," said Rep. James McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat.
Other Capitol Hill leaders may not agree. The Stonewalkers want to donate the memorial to Arlington National Cemetery, but the necessary support from Congress or veterans groups to place it there has been lacking.
"The only way a monument or memorial can be put in Arlington National Cemetery is if Congress passes a current or joint resolution," said Dov Schwartz, spokesman for the cemetery, which was established as a shrine to those who served in the armed forces.
No one has sponsored such a proposal, but McGovern has encouraged the group to win support from veterans groups to start the political process of acceptance in Arlington.
The political obstacles have not dampened the spirit of the Stonewalkers, who include members of Peace Abbey, a faith- based group near Boston, and an organization called Veterans for Peace.
They held a vigil Thursday night to remember the victims of the August 6, 1945, U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, in World War II.
Correspondent Jonathan Aiken and Reuters contributed to this report.
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