The Remembrance Project: Colonel John Barr

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Colonel John Barr died September 22 in Rochester, N.H. He was 90 years old. Afterwards, his daughter discovered a neatly typed index card in his papers. “War is obsolete,” it said. “The survival of humanity depends on its ability to mature and learn to resolve conflicts without violence.”

During his 30-year Marine career as an artillery and weapons deployment expert, Colonel Barr served in Korea, Okinawa, Vietnam. With utter patriotism, he relocated his family from Virginia to California to Hawaii to North Carolina. Yet even while serving, he recognized the toxicity of war, and before retiring, refused a promotion to general.

This was a disciplined man who quit smoking the day he was diagnosed with emphysema, and a moralist who loved golf but wouldn’t drive a cart because it wasted gas. He came home from work each day and stood on his head to clear his mind.

As soon as he retired and left Washington, Colonel Barr and his wife moved to a family farm, from 1793, in New Hampshire. He knew every tree on the 60 acres, tapped them for syrup he gave local schoolchildren, and kept records of which mushrooms grew where. That was when he and his wife of over 50 years joined groups like Veterans for Peace and Beyond War, standing on street corners with signs entreating cars to Honk for Peace. Some drivers shook their fists. Others, recognizing him, obeyed.

Though quiet by nature, after becoming an activist, he toured college campuses, carrying a briefcase. There was a note taped to its outside: “This briefcase contains radioactive material. It could blow up your whole city.” It didn’t and couldn’t, of course, but was a useful conversation starter; a way of standing audiences on their heads.

The trio of women who raised him — a grandmother and two aunts — survived by working as domestic servants and laundresses. “They taught me much,” he wrote in a family history. “Much of sickness is imaginary. Hard work is good for you. Be nice.” In tribute, he did work hard, and became a football-team captain and Ivy League scholarship student, but even more, a quiet feminist.

Any anger was low-key and sensible. If his own kids were fighting, he interrupted them with a two-finger whistle that could break sound. After all he had seen in combat, Colonel Barr had little patience for stupidity. Yet his entire life, he had great patience for mankind.

“This occasion of my personal extinction,” his legacy of an index card concluded, “is but a small matter, important only in that it affords me one final opportunity to appeal to my surviving friends and acquaintances, to think often on the extinction of our species — and to act accordingly.”

Did you know Colonel John Barr? Share your memories in the comments section.


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