Print More

(HOST) Listening to those who oppose the war in Iraq has reminded commentator Willem Lange of an old friend who died fighting against a different war.

(LANGE) Norm Morrison, if he had lived, would have turned seventy-three this month. But he didn’t. He died during the Vietnam War. He wasn’t a serviceman, but he was a combatant. He died right outside Defense Secretary McNamara’s office on November 2, 1965.

Norm and I were fraternity brothers at the College of Wooster. It was a local fraternity, called Second Section. He was a year ahead of me, a very quiet, serious guy whom I remember as the only active brother who didn’t give me a hard time during Hell Week.

Like most Wooster students, Norm arrived a Presbyterian, but during his sophomore year added a determined pacifism. His roommate, now a retired teacher in Montpelier, remembers the long bull sessions they had about justifications for violence. “Norm couldn’t hurt anybody,” he says, “except in touch football.” His fraternity brothers remember him as primarily gentle.

A fraternity is usually a mixed bag, ranging from irreverent to reverent, from Joe Cools to nerds, and lotharios to shy guys. After lunch we all watched “The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show” and played loud games of Hearts. Norm was often somewhere in the room, but when the language went from profane to obscene, he evaporated and climbed up to his room on the third floor.

He majored in religion and graduated in 1956 certified to teach secondary history and social studies. He spent a year at the University of Edinburgh, and two in seminary. He earned a Bachelor of Divinity degree and became a Quaker. Shortly after that, President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam called for help from the United States. As the US military presence increased to half a million men, and Vietnamese citizens died in ever-greater numbers, Buddhist monks began burning themselves alive in the streets of Saigon. The grisly photos were seen worldwide.

None of us heard anything about Norm during this time. He and his old roommate corresponded for a while, but after the roommate was drafted, the letters ceased.

We heard about him again on November 3, 1965. The day before, a distraught man had approached the Pentagon with a container of gasoline and a baby in his arms. That morning he had sent his wife a clipping reporting the bombing of a Saigon church by American aircraft that killed many women and children. A note attached told his wife that he had to “act for the children in the priest’s village.” Witnesses never agreed whether the baby was given or taken away, but a few moments later Norm doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire.

It’s been said that those who stayed at home and protested did as much to end the war as those who went and fought. Most Americans would consider Norm Morrison insane, but Secretary McNamara claims in his memoir to have been deeply affected by his self-immolation. The people of Vietnam later honored him by a street with his name and a postage stamp bearing his photo. And those of us who knew him remember.

This is Willem Lange up in Orford, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.

Comments are closed.