Marseilles, Ill., is a pleasant community of 5,000 souls living on the Illinois River, the location of the country’s only memorial to the thousands of men and women who perished in the seemingly endless series of invasions, occupations, wars and other armed conflicts involving U.S. military forces in the last 61 years – 38,591 Americans, according to the Department of Defense.
This Saturday (June 15), the tidy site – the Middle East Conflicts Wall Memorial – will fill with mourners and more as the 17th Annual Illinois Motorcycle Freedom Ride descends on LaSalle County.
Erected and dedicated in 2004 – when 15 years ago this week, four car bombings killed 56 people and injured 208 others in Iraq – the reverential area is at 200 Riverfront Drive, off Mill Street just west of the Main Street bridge and the lock and dam. Organized by a good-hearted group of bikers, some of whom were in the Vietnam War, it features a brick walkway bordered by wrought-iron fencing and small shrubbery, statues and three flagpoles.
“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,” writes Andrew J. Bacevich, whose son’s name is etched with others there. “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. 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.”
In Marseilles, it’s possible to respectfully recognize people’s sacrifices and patriotism. However – in contrast to recent commemorations of the D-Day invasion that started the arduous liberation of Europe from Nazis – the Middle East Conflicts Wall Memorial also silently acknowledges the nation’s “forever wars” seemingly serving oil companies and questionable allies such as Saudi Arabia, going back to the 1958 Lebanon crisis, but including fighting in Iran and Beirut, 1987-88’s Persian Gulf escorts and 1990-91’s Gulf War, “Operation Provide Comfort in 1991-96 and the nine-year Iraq War, and the interminable intervention against ISIS in Syria and the region and 2017’s raid on Yemen.
True, people remembered here died serving their fellow Americans. However, it’s unclear, if not tragic, to ask if they died to protect us and our freedom or the safety and security of the nation, or something else conjured behind closed doors in Washington, D.C.’s marbled hallways.
Stressing the fabled fight for freedom can serve 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,” said Bacevich, author of “America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History.”
As the fund-raising Freedom Run roars through north-central Illinois, enjoying a 6 a.m. pancake breakfast, the actual 20-mile ride, a 1 p.m. ceremony at the memorial, and an after party. It will be good for people there and near and far to remember the lives lost and the reasons why.
Bill Knight has been a reporter, editor and columnist for more than 50 years. Also an author, Knight is a journalism professor emeritus from WIU, where he taught for more than 20 years. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For archives, visit mayflyproductions.blogspot.com.