By David Morgan
BALTIMORE (Reuters) - A tiny band of peace advocates, including two Vietnam veterans who tried to stop the 1968 My Lai massacre, will ask Congress this week to honor of millions of civilians killed by war in the 20th century.
About a dozen volunteers from Peace Abbey, a faith-based group near Boston, and an organization called Veterans for Peace are nearing the end of a 490-mile, 33-day march on Washington that has taken them through the heat-wave scorched states of Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland.
They have been lugging a flag-festooned wooden caisson with a one-ton granite tombstone dedicated to ``Unknown Civilians Killed in War'' by former world boxing champion Muhammad Ali, who refused the draft during the Vietnam War.
``I do not feel the general public realizes the magnitude of civilian deaths in war. Civilians get caught in the middle, and I don't see why anyone would object to honoring these people,'' said Hugh Thompson, the former Army helicopter pilot known as the hero of My Lai.
Thompson and his former door-gunner Larry Colburn walked with the Stonewalk Memorial as it left Sherborn, Massachusetts, on July 4. They will rejoin the group Thursday outside the U.S. Capitol and Lincoln Memorial for vigils that will feature survivors of the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which killed more than 200,000 people.
``We hope to jar Congress so that this century does not end without our country having a fitting memorial to the millions of civilians who have died in America's wars,'' said Peace Abbey director Lewis Randa, a 52-year-old Vietnam-era conscientious objector who runs a school for disabled children.
Their list of ``America's wars'' includes this year's NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, which the group says precipitated civilian deaths in Kosovo after the removal of international monitors.
Peace advocates say 100 million people died in war the 20th century, one of history's bloodiest, and that 90 percent of those casualties were civilians. Civilian casualty rates have risen since the Cold War, too, as conflicts turned more to religious and ethnic rivalries.
Thompson and Colburn witnessed the 1968 massacre at My Lai in which 500 Vietnamese civilians were killed. When they saw U.S. troops killing villagers from their helicopter, Thompson tried to stop the bloodshed by putting his chopper down between the rampaging soldiers and terrified civilians.
``Because I witnessed the massacre of civilians, it's hard for me to turn my back on this project,'' said Colburn. ``An average of 2,174 people every day die as a direct result of war worldwide. Nine out of 10 are civilians and half are children. I was dumbstruck when I heard those figures.''
However, placing a civilian marker in Arlington National Cemetery would require a joint act by the Republican-controlled Congress. The Stonewalkers, due to set out for Washington from Beltsville, Maryland, Thursday, do not expect congressional approval but still plan to wheel their monument across Memorial Bridge to the cemetery gates at noon EDT Friday.
``This is a good cause and it's great for these folks to do it. It deserves to be in Arlington,'' said Frank DeLuca, former Army intelligence analyst who is now police chief of New Hope, Pennsylvania. He was so struck by the Stonewalk as it passed through his town that he helped push for several miles.