At the Un-National Monument Along the Canadian Border
by William Stafford
This is the field where the battle did not happen,
where the unknown soldier did not die.
This is the field where grass joined hands,
where no monument stands,
and the only heroic thing is the sky.
Birds fly here without any sound,
unfolding their wings across the open.
No people killed-or were killed-on this ground
hallowed by neglect and an air so tame
that people celebrate it by forgetting its name.
The matching of poem to location lacks subtlety, I know: an anti-war poem within strolling distance of the new WWII monument, the more modest D.C. War memorial, the spooky Korean War Veterans memorial and of course the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. But I couldn’t resist. Down the hill from the Washington Monument heading towards the Lincoln Memorial was a stumpy mini-obelisk perfect to quickly affix a poem, take a picture and not draw attention. My initial thought was to mark a spot for poet William Stafford to commemorate the opposite of all these monuments to war.
Stafford was a conscientious objector in WWII, a registered pacifist. (Which strikes me as funny—what forms do you fill out to register a character trait? Other than registered sex offenders, are there other types officially labeled and licensed? How about a registered nut factory? Or–I’m sorry I can’t volunteer at school today because I’m a registered crankpot.)
While I do really like this poem and honor its peace-loving intentions, I have two thoughts that I didn’t have before I put the poem where I did. How do I know, how did Stafford know, that in the whole history of life–human, animal and insect–no one actually did kill on this spot? Yeats seems more correct that “under every dancer/a dead man in his grave.” Obviously there’s a difference between being dead and being killed. But the food chain alone guarantees killing.
My second thought is that this pacifist poem looks out on monuments to two wars which were truly necessary to end an evil. Without WWII, Hitler would have carried out his Final Solution; and without the Civil War, slavery might have continued a few more decades. (I’m not a historian but I play one on TV.)
At the Lincoln Memorial, which I visited after posting this poem, I was particularly moved by the words of the Gettysburg address, imprinted on the wall to Lincoln’s right: “We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we do this. But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”
Many times I’ve read those words before but they meant something to me for the first time the day I posted William Stafford’s poem nearby. And that’s the value of keeping opposing positions in shoulder-rubbing distance.