Monday, 2 November 2015


It was late yesterday, and I was trying to find some lines to help fix up a series of old poems I've been working on. By chance, I'd taken a few old notebooks out of a box a few days before, and I took one from 1985, which was about the same time-frame as the other poems, and opened it to a page of notes about Norman Morrison, on the twentieth anniversary of his death. I cursed myself silently, for in the wake of certain turmoils in the past few months, I had forgotten the 50th anniversary, which I'd been reminding myself about for years, hoping to write a story for a paper or magazine remembering it. Call it chance, or fate, or synchronicity, but whatever drew me to that little notebook, and that page, filled me with a certain sombre joy, that I had not in the end been allowed to forget, and this is what I wrote:

Today is the 50th anniversary of the death of Norman Morrison, a Quaker who, at the age of 31, handed his 15-month old daughter Emily to someone, and at the Potomac River entrance to the Pentagon, under Robert McNamara's office, "quietly sat down, doused himself with kerosene, and set himself on fire'. He was the first of six Americans to die by self-immolation in protest of the Vietnam war. I think of him every time I see a red poppy on someone's lapel in the weeks leading up to Armistice Day. I used to wonder why he brought his daughter with him, but I read once that his widow Anne thought he might have needed her there for comfort. And Emily herself felt she was there to be "a symbol of truth and hope, treasure and horror altogether. And I am fine with my role in it." I felt he needed her there to remind him of the future, and the people, for whom he was making his sacrifice. He had been struggling with himself for weeks, but that morning something had spoken to him.

I resisted the draft in 1972 with the help of the Quakers, the American Friends Service Committee. When I was writing my statement out for the draft board, it was Norman Morrison I was thinking about, and I quoted him more than once. I was also thinking of leaving the country, and I thought about how hard it must have been for his family, after he'd gone. Ironically, I won my fight, if only on a technicality, but I left the country anyway a couple of years later.

Norman Morrison's sacrifice didn't hasten the end of the Vietnam War. He is basically forgotten now; the only mainstream report I saw today was primarily about the pain his family suffered. I was a serious Christian in those days, but the example of a Quaker who appeared to take the gospels far more seriously than most Christians was something that began to propel me away from my religious idealism. His sacrifice deserves to be remembered. RIP


1 comment :

Dying Empire said...

Just a quick correction to your story on the 50th anniversary of Norman Morrison's self-immolation to protest the Vietnam War. Actually, he was not the first US citizen to do this. 82-year old Alice Herz immolated herself on March 16, 1965 in Detroit to protest the war. She didn't die immediately because of the intervention of some bystanders. However, 10 days later she did succumb to her injuries and trauma.