Earlier this month, I spent a day in Marseilles, videotaping a documentary about recent American military history, specifically the ongoing wars that most of us prefer not to think about.
Lest there be any confusion, let me explain. I am not referring to Marseilles (mar-SAY), France, that nation’s largest port and second largest city with a population approaching 900,000. No, my destination was Marseilles, (mar-SAYLZ), Ill., a small prairie town with a population hovering around 5,000.
The Midwestern Marseilles nestles in LaSalle County alongside the Illinois River, smack dab in the middle of flyover country between Chicago and Peoria. I have some personal familiarity with this part of America. More than half a century ago, the school I attended in nearby Peru used to play the Panthers of Marseilles High. Unfortunately, Marseilles can’t support a high school anymore; its teenagers travel downriver to Ottawa.
Back in the day, Marseilles manufactured corrugated boxes for Nabisco. But that factory was shuttered in 2002, and only the empty, abandoned building remains, its eight-story hulk still looming above Main Street. Although the U.S. economy has bounced back from the Great Recession, the good times here look to have ended and never come back.
Not too surprisingly, this is Trump country. In 2016, LaSalle County voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by a hefty 14% margin. It’s easy to imagine residents of Marseilles, which is more than 96% white, taking umbrage at Clinton’s disparaging reference to “deplorables.” They had reason to do so.
Now, Marseilles retains one modest claim to fame. It’s the site of the Middle East Conflicts Wall Memorial, dedicated in June 2004 and situated on an open plot of ground between the river and the old Nabisco plant. The memorial, created and supported by civic-minded Illinois bikers, many of them Vietnam veterans, is the only one in the nation erected to commemorate those who have died in the campaigns, skirmishes, protracted wars and nasty mishaps that have involved U.S. forces in various quarters of the Greater Middle East since the 1960s.
Think about it: Anyone wanting to pay personal tribute to those who fought and died for our country in World War II or Korea or Vietnam knows where to go — to the great American public space of the Mall in Washington D. C. Any American wanting to honor the sacrifice of those who fought and died in the series of more recent conflicts that have lasted longer than World War II, Korea and Vietnam combined must travel to a town where the nearest public transportation is a Greyhound bus station in Ottawa and the top restaurant is Bobaluk’s Beef and Pizza.
Critics might quibble with the aesthetics of the Marseilles Middle East memorial — a knock-off of the far more famous Vietnam Wall — but its effect is palpably honest and heartfelt: a series of polished granite panels listing the names of those killed in this country’s “forever wars” going all the way back to the sailors gunned down in June 1967 in the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty.
The panels contain more than 8,000 names. Each June, in conjunction with the annual Illinois Motorcycle Freedom Run, which ends at the memorial, more are added. (The run takes place June 15 this year.) Along with flags and plaques, there is also text affirming that all those commemorated there are heroes who died for freedom and will never be forgotten.
On that point, allow me to register my own quibble. Although my son’s name is halfway down near the left margin of Panel 5B, I find myself uneasy with any reference to American soldiers having died for freedom in the Greater Middle East. Our penchant for using that term in connection with U.S. military actions strikes me as a dodge. It serves as an excuse for not thinking too deeply about the commitments, policies and decisions that led to all those names being etched in stone, with more to come next month and probably for many years thereafter.
Those whose names are engraved on the wall in Marseilles died in service to their country. Of that there is no doubt. Whether they died to advance the cause of freedom or even the well-being of the United States is another matter entirely. Terms that might more accurately convey why these wars began and why they have persisted include oil, dominion, hubris, the refusal among policymakers to own up to their own stupendous folly, and the collective negligence of oblivious citizens. Some might add to the list an inability to distinguish between our own interests and those of putative allies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel.
During the several hours I spent at the wall, virtually no one else visited the Middle East Conflicts Wall Memorial. A single elderly couple stopped by briefly and that was that. If this was understandable, it was also telling. After all, Marseilles is an out-of-the-way burg. Touristy it’s not.
Which, when you think about it, makes it exactly the right place to commemorate conflicts that Americans would like to ignore or forget.
With the campaign for the 2020 presidential election now heating up, allow me to suggest that should change.
Just as there are all-but-mandatory venues in Iowa and New Hampshire where candidates are expected to appear, why not make Marseilles, Ill., one as well? Let the dozens of candidates competing to oust Donald Trump from the White House schedule at least one campaign stop at the Middle East Conflicts Wall, press entourage in tow.
Let them take a page from presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan at the Berlin Wall and use the site as a backdrop to reflect on the deeper meaning of such a place. They should explain in concrete terms what the conflicts memorialized there signify; describe their relationship to the post-Cold War narrative of America as the planet’s “indispensable nation” or “sole superpower”; assess the disastrous costs and consequences of those never-ending wars; fix accountability; lay out to the American people how to avoid repeating the mistakes made by various administrations, including the present one that seems to be itching for yet another conflict in the Middle East. They should help us understand how, under the guise of promoting liberty and democracy, Washington has sown chaos through much of the region.
And, just to make it interesting, bonus points for anyone who can get through their remarks without referring to “freedom” or “supreme sacrifice” or citing the Gospel of John (“Greater love hath no man …”). On the other hand, apt comparisons to Vietnam are not just permitted but encouraged.
I’m betting that the good bikers of Illinois will happily provide a mic and a podium. If they won’t, I will.