Earlier this month, I spent a day visiting Marseilles to videotape 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 be more specific. 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), Illinois, a small prairie town with a population hovering around 5,000.
Our own lesser Marseilles nestles alongside the Illinois River, more or less equidistant between Chicago and Peoria, smack dab in the middle of flyover country. 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, their school closed three decades ago.
Back then, the town had achieved minor distinction for manufacturing corrugated boxes for Nabisco. But that factory was shuttered in 2002 and only the abandoned building remains, its eight-story hulk still looming above Main Street.
Today, downtown Marseilles, running a few short blocks toward the river, consists of tired-looking commercial structures dating from early in the previous century. Many of the storefronts are empty. By all appearances, the rest may suffer a similar fate in the not-too-distant future. Although the U.S. economy has bounced back from the Great Recession, recovery bypassed Marseilles. Here, the good times ended long ago and never came back. The feel of the place is weary and forlorn. Hedge-fund managers keen to turn a quick profit should look elsewhere.
Perhaps not too surprisingly, this is Trump country. Marseilles is located in LaSalle County, which in 2016 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 The Donald’s supporters as so many “deplorables.” They had reason to do so.
A midwestern memorial to America’s wars in the greater Middle East
Today, 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 a conglomeration of civic-minded Illinois bikers, many of them Vietnam veterans, is the only one in the nation that commemorates those who have died during the course of the various campaigns, skirmishes, protracted wars, and nasty mishaps that have involved U.S. forces in various quarters of the Greater Middle East over the past several decades.
Think about it: Any American 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 Mall in Washington D.C., that long stretch of lawn and reflecting pools connecting the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Any American wanting to honor the sacrifice of those who fought and died in a series of more recent conflicts that have lasted longer than World War II, Korea, and Vietnam combined must travel to a place where the nearest public transportation is a Greyhound bus station down the road in Ottawa and the top restaurant is Bobaluk’s Beef and Pizza. Nowhere else in this vast nation of ours has anyone invested the money and the effort to remember more than a generation’s worth of less-than-triumphant American war making. Marseilles has a lock on the franchise.
Critics might quibble with the aesthetics of the memorial, dismissing it as an unpretentious knock-off of the far more famous Vietnam Wall. Yet if the design doesn’t qualify as cutting edge, it is palpably honest and heartfelt. It consists chiefly of a series of polished granite panels listing the names of those killed during the various phases of this country’s “forever wars” going all the way back to the sailors gunned down in the June 1967 Israeli attack on the USS Liberty.
Those panels now 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. 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 pronounced penchant for using that term in connection with virtually any American military action 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.
In Ernest Hemingway’s famed novel about World War I, A Farewell to Arms, his protagonist is “embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain.” I feel something similar when it comes to the use of freedom in this context. Well, not embarrassed exactly, but deeply uncomfortable. Freedom, used in this fashion, conceals truth behind a veil of patriotic sentiment.
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 wellbeing of the United States is another matter entirely. Terms that might more accurately convey why these wars began and why they have persisted for so long include oil, dominion, hubris, a continuing and stubborn refusal among policymakers to own up to their own stupendous folly, and the collective negligence of citizens who have become oblivious to where American troops happen to be fighting at any given moment and why. Some might add to the above list an inability to distinguish between our own interests and those of putative allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Candidates at the wall
During the several hours I spent there, 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, Illinois, is an out-of-the-way, isolated little burg. Touristy it’s not. There’s no buzz and no vibe and it’s a long way from the places that set the tone in present-day America. To compare Marseilles with New York, Washington, Hollywood, Las Vegas, or Silicon Valley is like comparing a Dollar General with Saks Fifth Avenue. Marseilles has the former. The closest Saks outlet is about a two-hour drive to Chicago’s Loop.
On the other hand, when you think about it, Marseilles is exactly the right place to situate the nation’s only existing memorial to its Middle Eastern wars. Where better, after all, to commemorate conflicts that Americans would like to ignore or forget than in a hollowing-out Midwestern town they never knew existed in the first place?
So, with the campaign for the 2020 presidential election now heating up, allow me to offer a modest proposal of my own — one that might, briefly at least, make Marseilles a destination of sorts.
Just as there are all-but-mandatory venues in Iowa and New Hampshirewhere candidates are expected to appear, why not make Marseilles, Illinois, one as well. Let all of the candidates competing to oust Donald Trump from the White House (their ranks now approaching two dozen) schedule at least one campaign stop at the Middle East Conflicts Wall, press entourage suitably 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 historical significance of this particular 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 previous administrations, including the present one that seems to be itching for yet another conflict in the Middle East; and 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,” citing the Gospel of John, chapter 15, verse 13 (“Greater love hath no man than this…”), or offering some fatuous reference to GIs as agents of the Lord called upon to smite evildoers. On the other hand, apt comparisons to Vietnam are not just permitted but encouraged.
I’m betting that the good bikers of Illinois who long ago served in Vietnam will happily provide a mic and a podium. If they won’t, I will.