Posted by: trevormeers | March 6, 2011

The Museum of Hard Questions

On the whole, Santa Fe stays mellower than a hippie strumming a guitar on a spring night in the desert. Not counting adobe architecture, the place is mainly about art and museums. And the latter, it seems, are generally about the former. You have a Native American art museum. A Georgia O’Keeffe museum. A state history museum. Another Native American art museum. A folk art museum. And another Native American art museum.

But when I hadn’t quite hit my museum quota during a recent visit—but had clearly maxxed out my decorative pottery experience—I headed for a museum that stirs up the desert cool like a guy in a high-and-tight haircut walking through a commune.

Out on a street literally named Old Pecos Trail sits a quiet little museum that’s short on art and long on heroes. And a lot like real-life heroes themselves, it has a funny way of arriving without much notice.

The Bataan Military Museum features exhibit technology amounting to little more than laser-printed cards and wood-and-glass display cases probably made by a handy guy working in the garage. But you don’t need interactive video and emotional lighting to feel the power in the big room with high ceilings and creaky wooden floors.

The museum, run by the New Mexico National Guard, recalls the Bataan Death March of 1942. Even if you’re one of those Americans who can’t put the Civil War in the right century, the march’s name is enough to clue you in. In April 1942, a massive American/Filipino force defending the Philippines’ Bataan peninsula surrendered to the Japanese. That launched the death march, a 60-mile odyssey through the steaming jungles to POW camps that functioned a lot like a de facto Death Row. The Japanese, never known for their obsession with the Geneva Convention, especially resented these 75,000 enemies because they had surrendered. Further priming this war crime in the making was the Japanese soldiers themselves, many of whom drew POW duty because they were their army’s weakest links. Suddenly, these perennial doormats were put in positions of absolute power over a despised and disrespected enemy.

Roughly ¼ of the prisoners died during the march. The Japanese denied them food, water and rest. Stop to drink from a stream, and you would probably lose your head to a Japanese sword. Fall to the ground, and you may get the sword to the stomach. Stop to help a fallen comrade, and you’d get the blade right along with him. One anecdote that memorably stuck in my head (which rises 6’4” above the ground) recounted how the guards particularly singled out tall Americans for death.

If you didn’t know all this back story, you may not appreciate the little New Mexico museum, since it doesn’t do a lot to bring you up to speed. But I’ve read the books, so when I found a Japanese officers’ sword in a case next to a Japanese bayonet, I knelt down and stared long at them. I knew what weapons like these had done to Americans. And now I knew they had done it to men who once stood in this room.

It was in this armory that the men of the New Mexico National Guard were mustered in for duty in the Pacific. About 1,800 of them went to the Philippines. About 900 came home. Within a few more years, about half of those survivors were dead, too. As I looked around the room, it was easy to envision a throng of anxious young men in this exact space. They were ranch kids. Sons of miners. Just folks. I can almost guarantee that none of them, even when their imaginations ran wild, could predict what they were heading for.

They weren’t professional soldiers, sequestered in a Spartan training school since childhood, built into life-long fighting machines. They were like the people in your office or church or neighborhood who dress up in camo and head out to do something you really don’t understand for a weekend each month. Only in today’s world, it’s those neighbors who are again on the front lines, just like the New Mexicans of 1942.

It would be easy enough to wrap it up here by urging everyone to go say thanks to the men and women in uniform all around us. And we certainly owe them that. But when it was just me and a recording of WWII-era band music in the little museum, I struggled with a deeper reflection. It didn’t take supermen to face Bataan and its horrors. Just people who, up until then, knew no more than the juniper-covered hills of northern New Mexico. Average guys who didn’t know they had it in them to go toe-to-toe with humanity’s darkest side, but it turns out, they did.

There’s no need for me to try outwriting Jon Krakauer, so let him speak for me with this quote from the dust jacket of Ghost Soldiers, a book about Bataan. (And remember that this is a guy who survived one of the deadliest episodes in Mt. Everest’s history.) “It is impossible to read this book without wondering uneasily how you, the reader, would respond if forced to undergo the monstrous trials described with such immediacy by Hampton Sides. Would you be able to endure? And at what cost to your soul?”

Such questions go a long way toward explaining why little boys, without really knowing why, constantly play at war—even chewing their toast into pistol shapes, as the son of one of my peace-loving bosses once did. These questions drove Teddy Roosevelt, despite having served as a state legislator, Assistant Secretary of the Navy and New York Police Commissioner, to lead men into combat at age 40 because he didn’t believe that he knew himself until he knew what he would do under fire. (Turns out, he would do pretty well, eventually being awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor, the only president to receive one. It makes a nice bookend to his Nobel Peace Prize.)

In a diluted form, these questions drive us to go climb mountains, run marathons or launch a new business with a mortgage hanging over our heads. Few of us have to face a Bataan. But because people like the folks from New Mexico or from just down our own street have done these things and given us the luxury of reflection, we find ourselves wondering, probing, digging, testing until we somehow can figure out whether there really is bedrock lying far down in our souls.



  1. A sobering pause to reflect on the challenges especially of young men in the military. I pray every day for my 5 grandsons… for an ever-increasing faith & willingness to demonstrate the love of God in our times and places. I cannot imagine what the parents & grandparents of these young men must have gone through… perhaps it was their prayers that helped sustain them. Thank you for this article.

  2. I’ve read Ghost Soldiers… a very engaging book

  3. Thanks, Trevor….many of the young men even those of todays troops I am sure question what they are made of, but most if not all have more then they think when it comes to defending what they love, and Americans have always stood tall….May God Bless them all..!!!!

  4. Great piece Trevor. I can appreciate how neat that museum must have been. I loved your line about how “the Japanese were never known for their obsession with the Geneva Convention.” Kind of like the French were never known for their obsession with valor….or soap.

  5. Another good blog! I may be going to Santa Fe in October. Maybe I’ll see this museum.

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