Vietnam, Iraq & A Tale of Two Marches
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
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:
We exit the interstate at
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
These people are like gods to me. Spock towers over the diminutive Mailer as they talk animatedly in the shadows of the
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.
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.
After a few speeches at the
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
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.
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
"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.
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.
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
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.
But do George Bush and the Washington establishment have anything to fear from us?
Some of the older marchers wear photographs of their young grandchildren on lanyards around their necks as if to say "What kind of