Monday, March 19, 2007

Vietnam, Iraq & A Tale of Two Marches

Marches on the Pentagon: October 1967 (top) and March 2007
Why all these bugles crying,
For squads of young men drilled,
To kill and to be killed,
And waiting by this train.

Why the orders loud and hoarse,
Why the engine’s groaning cough,
As it strains to drag us off,
Into the holocaust.

Why crowds who sing and cry,
Who shout and fling us flowers,
And trade their right for ours,
To murder and to die.

The dove has torn her wing,
So no more songs of love.
We are not here to sing.
We’re here to kill the dove.

— From Jacques Brel’s “LaColome”

In October 1967, I covered an anti-Vietnam War protest March on the Pentagon for my college newspaper. That historic event, considered a turning point in opposition to the war, is perhaps best remembered by photographs of protesters slipping flowers into the muzzles of the rifles of the Army troops who ringed the Pentagon.

Forty years later, I retraced my steps at another March on the Pentagon, this time a protest against the Iraq War on its fourth anniversary and a commemoration of the 1967 march.

Herewith a then-and-now report:

October 21, 1967

I feel like a kid on Christmas Eve as my photographer friend’s rattle-trap VW Beetle hurtles down Interstate 95 toward Washington and the first big protest march against the Vietnam War. I can see the highway through a hole in the floorboard between my feet and we can barely hear our voices over the roar of the big charter buses filled with protesters that clog the highway. I wonder whether I’ll succumb to carbon monoxide poisoning before we get there.
The caravan of buses and cars exits the interstate and heads down New York Avenue to the rallying point at the Lincoln Memorial. It is unseasonably warm and brilliantly sunny. A great day to protest the war.

March 17, 2007
I am behind the wheel of the Dear Friend & Conscience’s Japanese SUV as we hurtle down Interstate 95 toward Washington and another March on the Pentagon to protest another war. There are few tour buses and only the occasional car with people who obviously are bound for the march. A big late winter nor'easter has dumped a foot or more of snow on New York and New England. The St. Patrick's Day-centric strains of the Pogues on the eight-speaker CD sound system drown out what road noise there is.

We exit the interstate at Greenbelt and hop on the Washington Metro’s Green Line for downtown. We transfer to the Orange Line at L’Enfant Plaza and detrain at the Foggy Bottom station. It's an easy 10 block walk down 23rd Street past the State Department ("Hi Condi, we'd like to stop in, but . . . ") to the rallying point at the Lincoln Memorial.

Washington was spared the snow and ice, but it is very cold with sub-20 degrees F wind chills and only occasional sun poking through high clouds.

October 21, 1967
I am attending the march as an aspiring journalist who will file a story for my college newspaper. But I would be lying if I didn’t say my heart is with the protesters and my opposition to the Vietnam War is driven in part by the possibility that I’ll be drafted once my student deferment ends. (It did. I was. But my subsequent travels in Southeast Asia were in journalist’s mufti.)

March 17, 2007
I have had more than my fill of war and pestilence over four decades as a veteran, reporter and editor. I bleed red, white and blue for my country but do not abide being lied to by its leaders whether it is Vietnam or Iraq. I am at the march because I feel compelled to do more than merely blog on the war and yammer about it with the DF&C over after-dinner single malt Scotches.

October 21, 1967

There they are, a veritable Who’s Who of the American antiwar movement, including novelist Norman Mailer and baby doctor Benjamin Spock. Mailer will drawn on his experiences this day for his seminal "Armies of the Night," while my mother was one of millions who raised their boomer children in the 1950s based on the sage advice in Dr. Spock’s "Baby and Child Care."

These people are like gods to me. Spock towers over the diminutive Mailer as they talk animatedly in the shadows of the Lincoln Memorial. They seem to be as excited as I am, and there is talk of civil disobedience and stuff like what to do if you get arrested. I am brought up short. This is not a lark. It’s deadly serious business.

March 17, 2007
The novelist has retired from marching. The good doctor is long gone. A new generation of celebrity antiwar activists have replaced them, but none seem to have the gravitas of a Mailer or Spock, and I arrive at this march with a predisposition against two of the current movement’s leading lights – Ramsey Clark and Cindy Sheehan, blowhard bookends who have done more to hurt than help the cause.

Perhaps it is the weather, but the crowd seems rather tucked in and there is no talk of civil disobedience. No, I decide, it’s not the weather. It’s the times.

October 21, 1967
Press accounts put the crowd at 50,000 or so, but that seems to be on the low side to me. The assembled masses are a predominately young and predominately college students, an eclectic lot ranging from Communists to Quakers. There is a smattering of North Vietnamese flags. I spot beat poet Alan Ginsberg and then pacifist David Dellinger, two more of my heroes.

After a couple hours of speechifying at the Lincoln Memorial that is interrupted by a scuffle when three Nazi Party members crash the podium, the march to the Pentagon steps off at 2:30, over an hour behind schedule. (Has any protest march ever started on time?)

No sooner had the van of the march crossed the Memorial Bridge and arrived at the Pentagon than there was the first of series of clashes with U.S. marshals and troops from several Army units, including the 82nd Airborne Division, who are ringing the starkly imposing building. (Irony alert: Two years later, I would be a member of the 82nd myself.)

Several hundred protesters rock a chain-link fence until it topples and several thousand people, myself included, rush through the breech across toward the Pentagon's main entrance where they are pushed back by the troops. I get a close look at them for the first time and am struck by the fact many are baby-faced teens.

March 17, 2007
Press accounts put the crowd at 10,000-20,000, with several hundred counter-protesters. That seems to be about right to me and not surprising considering that most of the charter buses from New York – that enduring hotbed of protest -- and New England never made it because of the storm. The assembled masses range from suburban moms and dads with their children and dogs in tow, to college students to an amazing number of gray hairs. There is a crazy quilt of signs and placards, most calling for the impeachment of President Bush. Che Guevera seems to be back in fashion, or at least his image is judging from the number of t-shirts and signs bearing his likeness. There also are many different kinds of flags. They are carried by veterans groups, church groups, gay and lesbian groups, 9/11 conspiracy theory wingnut groups, and members of the ever present Socialist Workers Party, who probably have been at every protest rally and march I have attended. Who are those people?

After a few speeches at the Lincoln memorial, including blessedly short remarks by Mother Sheehan, the march to the Pentagon steps off at 1 p.m., only a half hour behind schedule.

The van of the march loops around the back of the Lincoln Memorial and toward the Memorial Bridge where we run a gantlet of imposing black clad counter-protesters standing on a long wall -- pro-war bikers and veterans (and veteran bikers, I suppose) -- who heckle and wave signs saying "Stand Behind Bush" and "Go to Hell Traitors." Park Service officers in riot gear keep the anti-protester protesters separated from the protesters, but the barbs and catcalls seem almost amiable and there is no indication that there’s going to be trouble. There isn’t.

As the marchers crosses the bridge to the accompaniment of drumming (on upturned 5-gallon plastic buckets) and chanting ("One, two, three, four . . . "), we meet a college professor from Georgia, a former Peace Corps volunteer from Los Angeles, church ladies from Iowa, a physical therapist from Virginia who is teaching amputee Iraq war vets to snowboard and ski ("These guy’s break my heart," he says. "I was for the war, but not any more. My wife loves Bush and she'll kill me, but I had to come. . . . I just had to come.") and a Viet vet from Michigan with a long beard, a chest full of medals on his ragged dress green Army jacket and a bad limp ("I was feeling sorry for myself in this cold until I saw that guy," he says, pointing to a very elderly man shuffling ahead of us with the aid of a walker).

The wind gusts as we walk onto the bridge. A Park Service helicopter makes noisy loops overhead. Mounted officers ride parallel to the march, their horses practically prancing. An officer on a bay black steed, its magnificent head sheathed in a riot visor, raises his right hand and gives the peace sign. A roar goes up from the crowd – the loudest of the day.

October 21, 1967
As the afternoon shadows grow long, there are more clashes, rumors that Mailer and other march leaders have been arrested (true), that President Johnson has been evacuated from the White House (not true) and that some soldiers have joined the protest (highly unlikely). Then there are shouts of "Tear gas! Tear gas!" I am nearly trampled as protesters try to outrun the acrid clouds.

Bonfires are lit in the Pentagon parking lot and a sit-in commences on the front steps. I am so tired and hungry that I can barely stand. I have lost one of my gloves and have been separated from my friends for hours. I think about turning heel, but don’t have a clue as to how I’m going to get home.

"Fucking coward!" I tell myself. "You’re a part of history in the making and here you are feeling sorry for yourself."

As if on cue, a young hippie woman with whom I had chatted as the march crossed the bridge appears and offers me a chocolate bar and a drink from her canteen. I ask her where she is from and she gives me the address of a commune in Georgetown. Now at least I’ll have someplace to stay. (No, I didn't sleep with her.)

March 17, 2007
The 1967 march was a rag tag event with its collective shirttails, my friend, blowing in the wind. This march is tame by comparison, which is a damned good thing considering all of the children and old folks. We approach the Virginia side of the Memorial Bridge and Arlington National Cemetery.

"Where’s the Pentagon?" asks the DF&C. I point to a nondescript slab of a building about a half mile away that seems to melt into a backdrop of glass encased high rises. It is an enormously imposing structure, just not from this perspective.

We are herded down a hill to a parking lot where a stage had been set up. I barely listen to the speechifying. The guerrilla theater performances in the crowd are much more engaging, notably a troupe dressed in brilliant orange jumpsuits who are chained together and perform a grotesque ballet of torture a la Abu Ghraib.

October 21, 1967

Darkness falls and a roar goes up from the front of the rapidly dwindling crowd. The troops are clearing the floodlit steps.

I push my way back to the front and stand on my tip-toes to try to get a better look. Soda bottles, rocks and a garbage can fly overhead. Some of the troops are using the butts of their rifles to hit the protesters, who are linked arm in arm. The cordon collapses and the steps are quickly cleared. As we move back, I encounter protesters whose faces are covered in blood. My woman friend and I help a bloodied young man onto his feet after he collapses.

My hunger has vanished. I suppose I should feel scared, but I’m exhilarated. I write that people are shouting "The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!" as the marchers retreat, but 40 years later I’m not so sure that they were.

I'll play it straight when I file my story for the college paper, but for the moment my journalistic "objectivity" is shot to hell. I feel enormously proud of my brothers and sisters. "We can stop the war! " I naively think. "Take that LBJ!"

There is blood on one arm of my jacket. It’s not mine, but it seems like a badge of honor nonetheless.

March 17, 2007
The sunlit skies could not mask the feeling of darkness at the 1967 march. This was a time of extraordinary change in America with the civil rights, women’s and antiwar movements ascendant. There was the feeling that things could become unhinged at any moment – which of course they did several times during that momentous day and at protests in other cities and on college campuses for the rest of the decade. There were over 600 arrests, although conveniently no official count of the injuries. The smell of marijuana mingled with the tear gas. There was trash everywhere. I never did see those hippies confront the troops with flowers.

The people marching with us on this St. Paddy's Day in the footsteps of that epic 1967 event are decidedly more tucked in. They certainly are more somber.

Five people are arrested trying to cross the police line on a closed bridge to the Pentagon and another 200 had been arrested the night before during a prayer vigil outside the White House. No injuries are reported. The smell of clove cigarettes and manure from police horses fills the air. I smell marijuana only once and marchers dutifully pick up trash and put it in litter barrels or their backpacks.

People do not come to Washington this time to storm the barricades, and I suspect most don't have a clue nor care that the march organizers – the Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER) Coalition – are a socialist group that is only incidentally involved in opposing the Iraq war. The organizers seem to have recruited few parade marshals, there is a disorganized feel to the event and the speechifying beneath the Pentagon is well meant but sometimes downright silly. Unlike a much larger demonstration on the National Mall two months ago, no members of Congress or Hollywood stars speak.

And unlike 1967, there are the counter-protesters, many of whom had gathered at the nearby Vietnam Veterans Memorial because there were rumors that protesters would try to deface it. That is ridiculous. We are here not to tear down but to bear witness. The feeling of respectfulness among the marchers -- to the military, the police and counter-protesters, even to the Park Service clean-up crews -- is palpable.

It doesn't matter what ANSWER is or how poor a job it has done. We are there to declare that we have had enough. No more killing. No more troops deployed. No more lying and deceit.

But do George Bush and the Washington establishment have anything to fear from us?

The answer is an unequivocal "absolutely." The demographic of the marchers -- their races, ages, backgrounds, experiences and politics -- is staggering in its diversity. These people who have braved the elements to tell the president to knock it off and Congress to get its shit together will be going home, but they won't be going away.

Some of the older marchers wear photographs of their young grandchildren on lanyards around their necks as if to say "What kind of America will they inherit?" A good question, indeed.

Then there is the little girl on her father’s shoulders who holds a crayoned sign above her head that hopefully reads: "No More War Anniversaries." But even amidst this outpouring of protest, I know in my heart that there will be more anniversaries before the last U.S. troops slouch home from Iraq, as well as more wars.

8 comments:

Libby Spencer said...

What a gorgeous post. Beautifully written and the first one I've read that really gave a sense of an honest and neutral perspective.

Thanks.

wjr said...

Great post.

On an unrelated note, would you mind reposting that picture from TMV of the Marine base with the white board that says America as at the mall, while the Marines are at war (or something to that affect). It got lost somehow. Thanks.

Shaun Mullen said...

Please email me privately with your email and I'll send a link to the photo.

Charles Amico said...

Great post Shaun. It took me back to 1967 and the contrast is powerful. Thanks.

wjr said...

Sorry mate, don't have your email address and can't find it on your blog or TMV. Just shoot it to me at w.j.rue@lse.ac.uk please. Thanks again.

Deb said...

Great post. From the WaPo article you would have thought that only people who supported the war, were marching. Thanks for another perspective.

The Mother Sheehan lines were great.

Kevin Hayden said...

I don't understand your intolerance of Cindy Sheehan, who acts upon her emotions with as sincere a dedication to refuse to quit until the war quits.

Otherwise, it was a beautiful perspective. Except that it points to another parallel: neither is capable of shutting down the war, with or without charismatic leaders.

What gives me greater hope is the decentralization of protests. Next to DC, I think the largest assemblage was 10,000 in little old Portland, Oregon. When groups like that start forming in cities and towns across the country, resorting to civil disobedience designed to force arrests, then we will tax the resources of the local justice infrastructures, far exceeding what mass rallies in DC can do.

WE can stop the war because of the diversity of the war's opponents, as you noted. When every step to every city hall is blocked by sit-ins and the courts and jails are clogged by non-criminals opposed to the criminals who launched, maintain and profit from this war

Shaun Mullen said...

Kevin:

I am not intolerant of Mother Sheehan so much as I am sick of her. Yes, she acts on her emotions. And every wingnut group whose path she crosses has preyed on those emotions to get her to say over-the-top things.

I quite agree about the decentralization of protests. FYI, there also were 100,000 antiwar marchers in Barcelona over the weekend.