Posts Tagged ‘anti-war’

Viva La Revolution

Friday, April 1st, 2016

Viva La Revolution

It was a glorious, spring day. Puffy, white clouds caressed an eye-popping, blue sky. Cool but not cold. I was on the quad of my university playing guitar and singing “The Great Mandala” by Peter Yarrow. “So I told him, that he’d better, shut his mouth and do his job like a man. And he answered, ‘Listen, Father. I will never kill another.’ He thinks he’s better than his brother that died.” Vietnam. It was a war that killed and mutilated and left many a young man’s future tossed off onto the shoulder of the highway of life, forlorn and forgotten. All for a cause that didn’t exist .

“If we don’t stop communism in Southeast Asia, we’ll be fighting them in San Diego.” I was from Colorado. I didn’t care if the Vietnamese invaded San Diego. But it never occurred to the hawks that the agrarian communism of Russia and China didn’t appeal to Americans the way it appealed to undeveloped countries trying to throw of the yoke of colonialism. In Vietnam’s case, us.

Every night you saw film of injured or killed American soldiers being carted off the battlefield, Viet Cong executed, villages set on fire and the women and children running in terror, Buddhist monks self-immolating in protest. The nightly news. I don’t know if I can convey how important it was. If you wanted to know what was going on, you read the paper and watched the nightly news. There were 3 of them: NBC, CBS, and ABC. And they were insulated from their parent companies so that the news wouldn’t be beholden to advertisers. So when you watched the news, you got…news!

Walter Cronkite was the anchor for the CBS nightly news. He was the man who cried when Kennedy was killed. He was the man who told America after the Tet offensive in 1968 that, despite what our leaders told us, the war in Vietnam could not be won no matter how many young men we threw at it. Because we weren’t fighting a country, we were fighting an idea: freedom.

The draft had made the war a part of every family’s nightmare. It brought families to the verge of civil war. I remember that year, 1970, my family celebrated Easter at a brunch. And my sisters yelled at me for being against the war. I have to explain yelling in the context of my family. It was more like stage whispering. “How dare you not support your country?! How can you sit there and judge the actions of the elders?!” To which I would respond, “It doesn’t make sense. The only way it makes sense is from the perspective of those profiting from it.” That didn’t stop the stage whispers.

Vietnam was the main reason the children of the people got together. Protests, marches, sit-ins, lie-ins, love-ins, draft card burnings. The anti-war movement was the burning flame in the heart of American youth. Women, blacks and gays pinned their movements to it, because here was a large group of young American men who would listen and even help with their causes.

April, 1970. The United States invaded Cambodia. Richard Nixon was elected in 1968 because he promised to “get America out of Vietnam, with honor.” Those last two words translated from Nixonese to, “never.” Students across the country left our classrooms behind and took control of the grassy open spaces on the campuses, and created “peace villages” made of tents and sleeping bags and lean-tos, protests, laughter, speeches, heated discussions, music, love and life. The teachers joined us and the administrations panicked. Had they waited us out just a little longer, boredom would have set in. “Whatcha doing tonight?” “Protesting I guess, you?” “Yeah.” We were young.

But they panicked. They called the governors and the governors called the national guard. So it was at my school, so it was at Kent State where the national guard murdered 4, unarmed students and wounded 9 others.

So there I was, singing and playing when the national guard formed a phalanx, three soldiers deep, along one side of the quadrangle. Our fearless leaders with the bullhorns ran to the other side of the quadrangle to put as many students between the soldiers and them as they could.  A beautiful woman crossed in front of me, carrying a bunch of daisies towards the guardsmen. I followed her. She placed a daisy in the muzzle of each M-1 rifle the soldiers carried at port arms. Some softened but many yanked the flower out of their weapons, crushed it in their hands, dropped it, and spat on it to show their utter male contempt for the fact that she made them doubt, even for a moment, that they were doing the right thing. The young man in front of me let the flower stay in his rifle. I knew I knew him and I could see from his face that he knew me.

“Regis High School?” I asked. “You were two years ahead of me,” was his reply. Will was his name. I knew him because everyone in the school knew him. He was brilliant. Everyone thought that he would win a Nobel prize or become a supreme court justice or the first black president. Faced with the draft, he joined the national guard in hopes of staying out of Vietnam. So there he was with all his promise, dressed in drab, olive green carrying a rifle with a daisy sprouting out of it.

We talked about high school. Memories of crazy, wonderful, mean, brilliant Jesuits made us laugh.

His sergeant growled in Will’s ear. “You taking up gardening, son? You miss your mama that bad?” The sergeant turned his dead eyes on me and I back up a step. Will expression removed the flower from his rifle and turned the weapon upside down so that any residue of peace could tumble out.

Way in the back of the crowd, the leaders of our protest exhorted us over bullhorns to “Kill the pigs”, “Fuck Nixon”, and “Give peace a chance.” I guess they hadn’t been able to decide if they were going radical or hippie. I wondered, Why were the leaders in back, I wondered. Shouldn’t they be in front inspiring us with their compassion or fierceness, depending on which bullhorn you were listening to? I thought about Wellington and Napoleon, surrounded by their adjutants on their opposing hillocks, watching their armies slaughter each other. Did Agamemnon lead the fruitless charges against the walls of Troy or was he back in his ship thinking thoughts of empire with a slave tending to his lap?

Will nudged me with his rifle.  “I think you better get out of here,” he said. “…said the joker to the thief,” I replied. I forgot about history. Now I was lost in the Jimi Hendrix version of Dylan’s song.

His rifle nudged me a little harder. I could smell his nervous sweat and gun oil and the daisy.

“I mean it, man.”

I looked at him. Without turning his head he slid his eyes sideways. I followed them. Behind the phalanx an officer, red-faced with anger, yelled, “Fix bayonets!” I looked at Will who unsheathed his bayonet and attached it to his rifle. He gave me a sheepish shrug and I ran. I ran across the boulevard to fraternity row. The frat-boys were for the war because their fathers had made sure their sons wouldn’t be drafted.

Before my eyes, the peace village that had was full of life and love was destroyed in a matter of minutes by young men carrying rifles with blades attached. In their wake were only cries of terror, agony and rage.

My lasting memories are of the clowns on the bullhorns, a governor who decided the national guard was the right way to stop a peace demonstration, a beautiful woman who smelled like spring, and a boy, a school mate and potential friend, separated from me by a gun with a blade attached. For a brief moment, the war and protest had been forgotten as he and I shared memories of a less dramatic childhood.

I read later that Will and all his potential died in Vietnam.

The revolution ended a few years after that. Not because xenophobia, bigotry, misogyny, and fear of anything sexual or non-Christian were defeated.  No, they went into hiding in the Republican party along with the war-profiteers waiting for a more opportune time. The revolution ended the day they ended the draft. No longer unified by the larger cause, black rights, women’s rights, and gay rights had to stutter step on their own through the decades.

The leaders with the bull horns became bankers or hedge fund managers. We all sold our souls for a piece of the American pie. But some of us tried to pass on to our children the knowledge that we all, every living thing, live and breath on this little blue marble in the middle of space. And, no matter what we believe or what god we pray to, we had better learn to get alongPerhaps some of you are those children.