Walls support the straphangers of “things” in life. Walls spin tales of what existed, what is and what might be in that life or the lives of those who live within the walls. Homes of the 300 plus million people of the United States of America host walls containing a living archeological record of individual residents. And they are as unique as each person.
Walls in our home are such a record. On a mint green wall in a room reserved for writing and drawing hangs a watercolor, a gift from a treasured friend. Other walls boast family pictures, oil paintings by a long-dead Aunt, images of the dogs, cats and goats who have graced our lives, marionettes from the kids’ youth, and Tom’s photographs. One wall, however, is mine alone. The framed pictures gracing that space are chosen from my past to remind me of what once was and what must never be again if I can stop it. It is a personal bookmark in history and reminds me that the ‘Arc of the Moral Universe’ may be long, but it bends toward justice; toward the positive.
At the upper right is an image of the Baker event of Operation Crossroads conducted at Bikini Atoll in 1946. In the 1990s, my job was to provide logistics support to the scientific teams working to restore the Atoll. Of course, there is no complete restoration of Bikini Atoll. A few of the little islands that made it up disappeared forever in the nuclear firmament. Back in 1946, the 167 people who called Bikini home believed a yarn about their part in nuclear history for a tiny sacrifice of time. They left their islands singing and smiling with the certain knowledge they would return shortly. After all, how often does the entire Atoll get to take a short vacation on Rongerik Atoll traveling in a big ship the likes of which was a tale to be told by old men late at night? The people of Bikini bought a bill of goods believing they were helping. Bikini Atoll is now habitable thanks to the passage of time. To the left is a Marshallese navigation aid. It is the device the Marshallese used to navigate the Pacific for a trade that no longer exists, and the old sailors are dead. The original adult evacuees are long gone, and their grandchildren grew up on Spam and Coke and in another world entirely. I promise I will do everything in my power to prevent something like this from happening again. The Marshallese are a bigger people-they still sing.
A little further to the left is a picture that could be the Jersey shore at night but isn’t. You are looking at the JACADS (Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System) plant on Johnston Atoll. The JACADS plant neutralized the chemical agents left over from WWI and WWII in Europe. It is impossible to overstate or exaggerate the horror of chemical agents. They are our worst nightmares, the most grisly horrors that you can imagine; GB, VX and mustard gas. Atmospheric nuclear weapons and chemical agents wreak terrible damage to human beings, animals and the environment. Another of my ‘never again’ moments
The last picture is of Johnston Atoll, the center of my life, one way or another, for many years. Johnston Atoll is a grouping of four coral islands, two of which are mostly artificial. They lie about 750 nautical miles west of Hawaii. Johnston Island is the largest of the islands in the atoll and shaped like a caricature of an aircraft carrier. Mostly constructed from fill, the island is about 2 miles long and, at the widest point, measures a scant half-mile in width. Splitting the island lengthwise is an 11,000-foot runway. When I lived and worked on Johnston Island in the late 1980s, about 1,400 other souls called it home. In 2004, after about seven decades of military use, most signs of human habitation, excluding the runway, were obliterated. Currently occupied by the occasional sunning Hawaiian Monk Seal, Johnston Atoll also hosts fourteen species of seabirds and five species of wintering shorebirds.
Little Johnston Atoll had earned its place in the sun and heartily contributed to the securing the United States’ role as a superpower. The rock’s isolation and ready infrastructure and contract format made it shovel ready to support the Army’s mission to demilitarize nerve agents, store Vietnam era Agent Orange, support down-range programs, host the Coast Guard’s LORAN station, and still keep its atmospheric nuclear readiness mission alive, while simultaneously maintaining the sanctity of the Wildlife Preserve. It was one square mile where everyone got along to get whatever or whoever’s mission accomplished. Cooled by a tropical breeze, the last crew marveled at a glorious, meaningful, and exciting past; and lamented the immediate loss of infrastructure and history. It’s that ‘Arc of the Moral Universe’ tending toward justice, toward the positive, that makes Johnston Atoll part of the past…as it should be.
Walls are uniquely personal and Stanley A. McChrystal, Retired United States Army general, wrote an article for the Atlantic Monthly in which he shared that “At 63, I Threw Away My Prized Portrait of Robert E. Lee”. McChrystal states that “On a Sunday morning in 2017 I took down his picture, and by afternoon it was in the alley with other rubbish awaiting transport to the local landfill for final burial. Hardly a hero’s end.” Naked truth.
McChrystal shares his ‘Lee’ journey from hero worship to disillusion with the reader. He openly addresses the complexity of the Lee, the man, and the glow of Lee, the myth. A methodical and eloquent writer, McChrystal states, “…Although it was a portrait of a man, to many it evoked wider ideas and emotions. For like an object bathed in the light of the setting sun, Robert E. Lee’s shadow took on exaggerated size and grew steadily as America’s Civil War retreated ever further into the softer glow of history…”
McChrystal summarizes the complexity of such decisions “…The picture of fellow soldier Robert E. Lee that hung in my home and inspired me for so long is gone, presumably crushed and buried with the other detritus of life. But the memory remains. The persona he crafted of a disciplined, dutiful soldier, devoid of intrigue and strictly loyal to a hierarchy of entities that began with God and his own sense of honor, combined with an extraordinary aptitude for war, pulls me toward the most traditional of leadership models. I try to stand a bit straighter. But when I contemplate his shortcomings, and admit his failures, as I must my own, there is a caution I would also do well to remember.” Robert E. Lee was, after all, just a man.
McChrystal and I each battle for the continued extension of the ‘Arc of the Moral Universe’ toward justice, toward the positive on the axis of life. I choose to highlight the complexities of human nature. My fallen heroes, Oppenheimer, Teller, Heisenberg, et al. were not evil men and women. They were merely men and women driven, perhaps amoral, definitely flawed to achieve something amazing. They didn’t think about the bloodshed, but we must never forget that it came anyway and the carnage was gruesome. Regardless of what one thinks of Lee, the side he took, the slavery, his side lost and the slaves freed. Lee’s former land now cradles our war dead. The price paid for the Civil War was gruesome, but the ‘Arc’ prevails. We must never return.
My wall is a teaching wall. I taught our children from that wall. Strangers and friends who wander through stop, stare and are treated to historical perspective, horror and the many lessons we must learn. General McChrystal’s wall is empty; nothing to begin needed discussions from which learning emanates. Different people, with different views about what is needed to learn the lessons of history and continue the journey toward justice.
Walls. Are they not interesting to ponder?