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85 of 99 people found the following review helpful
on February 2, 2008
Forty years ago, Norman Mailer and I attended a major demonstration against the Vietnam War at the Pentagon. Our situations were very different. Mailer was then forty-four, an established author and celebrity, and a founder of the "Village Voice." He attended the demonstration in the company of the poet Robert Lowell (a conscientious objector jailed during World War II) and Dwight McDonald, a leftist contributor to the "New Yorker" and the "New York Review of Books." Mailer was the subject of a BBC documentary and was accompanied to the demonstration by a film crew. He was arrested early in the day for crossing a police line, spent a night in jail, and was released the following day after extensive efforts by his lawyers.

I was twenty-one, a penniless student in my third year at Antioch College. I was a comparative newcomer to mass demonstrations. Although I did not consider myself a pacifist, I was opposed on principle to military service, and I was opposed specifically to the Vietnam War. If drafted, I expected to go to prison. I did not go to the Pentagon to be disruptive, and I did not go to join the hippie "levitation/exorcism" exercise, which I considered juvenile. I attended with a Quaker who had been a conscientious objector in World War II, and a fellow classmate, who would become a conscientious objector. We felt it was important to make our opposition to Selective Service and the war visible. We had heard that some pacifists intended to commit civil disobedience (blocking doors or entering off-limits areas), and we went to support their action. I had neither the courage nor the self-discipline to commit civil disobediance myself at that point, and either arrest or injury would have been catastrophic for me. Simply participating was the bravest thing I had ever done in my life.

The week before the march had been marked by anti-draft demonstrations in many cities, and television news stories showing Oakland police beating demonstrators with riot batons were quite vivid in my mind. In the bus driving through Washington, D.C., to the staging area, I was startled to see the streets lined with paratroopers with fixed bayonets. Nineteen sixty-seven might have been the "Summer of Love" in San Francisco, but the summer had been marred by major riots in the ghettos of Detroit and Newark. Obviously, Washington city officials were afraid that the ghetto in NE D.C. might erupt.

I don't remember much about the march. I remember circulating through the grounds outside the Pentagon, trying to stay out of the way of the troops and MPs, trying to avoid getting clubbed, gassed, or arrested. The night was cold, and people built fires of abandoned picket signs. Eventually it was time to rendezvous with the bus home, and since there seemed little else we could do, my friends and I retreated to the bus back to Ohio.

Mailer was arrested early in the day, and I left late in the evening, so neither of us personally witnessed the systematic beating and arrest of hundreds of unresisting demonstrators by army units in an event called the "Battle of the Wedge" (reconstructed by Mailer from eyewitness accounts). A disproportionate number of those beaten were women.

It takes a certain kind of man to beat a defenseless, nonviolent woman with a riot baton. America had caught of glimpse of this kind of man during the Civil Rights demonstrations in the 1950s and early 1960s, men willing to use dogs and fire hoses against Negro children, but this was still seen as an aberration of the segregationist, racist South. It would not be until the following year when these men would gain greater visibility at My Lai, raping and butchering innocent women and children. It was white, middle-class America's introduction to the fact that "our boys" could be less than heros.

Mailer speculates at length why so much of the violence was directed at women, but I don't think his explanations suffice. For men who opposed the draft, the support of sympathetic women was crucial. Faced with accusations of being cowards and homosexuals, the love and compassion of activist women helped young men find the courage to resist induction and face prison and ostracism by society. (For an example, see the poster by Joan Baez and her sisters, "Girls Say Yes to Boys Who Say No".) Mailer says that soldiers at the Pentagon were "taunted" by hippie girls exposing their breasts, but he forgets about the "Summer of Love" and the counterculture affirmation of Life -- the hippie girls weren't taunting the soldiers, they were trying to remind them that there is an alternative to violence and death. Make love, not war. And for other women, opposing the war and the draft was a statement of their independence of the patriarchy. And that night, violent men took their revenge on independent women.

Mailer speculates that the demonstrators experienced a "rite of passage," and invites comparison with Valley Forge and the Alamo. He overlooks a far more recent rite of passage that I'm sure was uppermost in the demonstrator's minds -- the Civil Rights Movement and the profound courage exhibited during the Freedom Rides, the lunch counter sit-ins, and the march on Selma.

Sometimes Mailer sounds like refried Mickey Spillane. But this book must have been written quite hurriedly -- the march took place in October 1967, and the book was published in 1968.

"Armies of the Night" is divided into two books (I and II). Book I is divided into four parts (1-4). I would rate book II as a "5" -- if you want to understand the politics of the Sixties, book II is one of the best introductions you can find. If you're short of time, read book II and leave the rest. I would rate parts 3 and 4 of book I at "3", and I would rate parts 1 and 2 of book I at "1".
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32 of 35 people found the following review helpful
on June 30, 2001
Those of you who are already familiar with the work of Norman Mailer don't need much of an introduction to the man who could perhaps be the most transcendant egoist of the century. For those of you who haven't read Mailer, know this: he writes unlike anyone of his peers, he can turn a phrase as well as Fitzgerald, he is a profound and unusual thinker, and has a great sense of humor.
In this, the book that won him his first Pulitzer Prize, Mailer gives us what he likes to think of as two books. First comes "History As A Novel," in which Mailer describes his experience (in the third person) participating in the largest anti-Vietnam War rally to have occured by 1967 when this book was published. In traditional fashion, a somewhat besotted Mailer makes rousing and unsettling remarks at a theater based event, lends his support to draft-card burners (actually, the group of protesters were to turn in their cards, rather than burn them), and walk in the historically significant march on the Pentagon. At the Pentagon, Mailer manages to get himself arrested (a goal he had previously set for himself), and spends the weekend in jail. He describes all of this with such wit and insight that Mailer himself becomes as much the subject matter as the march itself.
In the second book, "The Novel As History," Mailer gives us a historical perspective on the march and describes its genesis, reason for existance, movers and shakers, and then describes the march as it might have been seen by an unbiased reporter (although Mailer admits that no unbiased reports of this event could ever be given).
Mailer is an enjoyable author to read, as his utterly opinionated and iconoclastic personality cannot be kept apart from his subject matter, a fact that is all the more true for Armies of the Night. I was surprised how much self-awareness he actually posesses... writing in the third person allowed him to step outside himself and observe some of his more unusual personality traits.
You do not need a heavy interest in the Vietnam War to enjoy this book (although I suppose it may help)... all you need is your sympathy, intelligence, and sense of humor.
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19 of 24 people found the following review helpful
I'm not going to try to answer my own question. I will say that this is an interesting look at the 67 march from Mailer's perspective. The section on the development of the march itself and the organizers was very informative, as was the section entitled "Why are we in Vietnam?" (a clear reference to Mailer's previous novel, which was criticized for not answering the question clearly enough.

The analysis of the changing liberalism in the US is also quite good. Overall, there is no plot. And Mailer's attempts to avoid even the most minor suffering are laughable especially when held against the suffering of the Vietnamese and the US soldiers enlisted to fight a meandering war.

Reading the book in 2005, however, gives the book great significance. It's clear that liberals write books and conservatives work in politics. And unfortunately, neither side listens to the other very closely.

Mailer's style in this book is very fast and pulled me through the first section quickly. Things slow down in the second section, but not because the subject matter is slower. Mailer clearly wanted to switch styles (and even talks about how he prides himself on changing styles with every work).

Anyway. Enjoy it for the connections to 2005 America, but remember that Mailer is...Mailer. And he loves to talk about himself and how important he is to everyone around him.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on January 25, 2007
The original review of Norman Mailer's Armies of the Night was posted just prior to the 2007 anti- Iraq War demonstration noted below. I have recently reread his book (May 2008) and have revised and expanded that review but have let that 2007 preface stand.

On March 17, 2007 various anti-Iraq War forces will converge on the Pentagon to oppose that war and to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the original protest of that symbol of American imperialism during the Vietnam War (and `levitation' of the building according to some sources then, such as the late Abbie Hoffman). Whether such a celebration is called for under the circumstances of the Iraq anti-war movement's continuing failure to stop this war is a separate question to be left to another day. Today it is nevertheless fitting that Norman Mailer's Armies of the Night, about those several days forty years ago, should be reviewed with this upcoming event in mind.

In this novel as history (or history as novel depending what part you are reading at a given time) Norman Mailer tries, successfully for the most part, to use this literary trope as a means for closely investigating the action that he is witnessing (and taking part in). As I have mentioned elsewhere in other reviews of Mailer's books he will be eventually known in the literary pantheon for his journalism and musings on his life and his times. But not merely as a journalist in the conventional sense, those are basically a dime a dozen and eminently forgettable, but as an exemplar of the then `new' journalism. That concept got its greatest expansion in the later work of Doctor Hunter Thompson (`gonzo' journalism) but Mailer, and to a lesser extent, Tom Wolfe gave it legitimacy.

The premise behind this mode of analysis is that the reporter not prohibited from being an actor in the action he or she is covering contrary to the norms beaten into media students that one is suppose to be `objective'- detached from the action one is reporting. Now is not the time to expound of the virtues and vices of that `gonzo' method but to see whether it works in Mailer's exposition. I believe that it does.

To set the stage the Vietnam War, by 1967, had gone through various stages of escalation by the administration of Lyndon Johnson as it attempted to find a way to deal with the quagmire that it had created for itself in South Vietnam. The opposition to the war had also gone through several stages of political activity responding to those Administration acts of escalation. By the fall of 1967, working off a successful mass demonstration in the spring, the diffuse leadership of the anti-war movement (Old Left, New Left, New York intelligentsia and so forth) and especially one Dave Dellinger a central leader of the time, had decided that it was necessary to up the ante. Thus, the Pentagon, a very visible and direct symbol of American imperial power, became the focus for a proposed mass rally and various undefined acts of civil disobedience in October. As a long time opponent of the war and one almost always ready, despite some personally-driven contrary instincts expressed throughout the work here, to give something to the cause Norman Mailer steps into the picture. His personal saga informs the bulk of the book.

And what is that personal saga. Mailer originally signed up to bear witness to symbolic mass draft card turn in at the Justice Department and to speak. During the course of those few days in October, however, he got dragged into, not unwillingly for the most part, an act of civil disobedience that got him arrested, confined in various holding pens and finally released after a number of twists and turns worthy of a novel. Along the way Mailer described his fellow prisoners, their responses to their confinement, his responses to his legal situation and further musings on the nature (or rather de-nature) of American society at the time, the worthiness of the anti-war opposition movement and his own periodic leadership delusions of grandeur as he tries to place the event in context of an on going war against...well, plastic. Thus, he successfully fulfilled the basic premise of `gonzo' journalism- he was able to become mired in the center of the story but was also able through that process to bring out some home truths that one expects from a good journalist...or novelist.

The irony of fate of this book is that the part that Mailer spends the most time on, essentially the bulk of the book as an updated version of his perennial scheme of advertising for himself, is some forty years out the least interesting from a historic standpoint. I would say that the last twenty pages or so are what are important today for those of us who are trying to find our way out of the current quagmire in Iraq. Mailer, I believe, consciously and correctly tried to demonstrate that mere symbolic actions (including, in the final analysis, his own) would not bring the monster down. His own prescription however proved totally inadequate (and as echoed today continues to do so).

Mailer is rather unkind to the Old Left (Communists, Trotskyists of various hues, professional pacifists-the `plan' types) and their dependence on the centrality of the traditional working class, as well as the New Left kids (SDS, Draft Resistance, etc.- the `free play' types) and their dependence of `students and professionals' as the new working class. His position then seemed to be somewhere in the vicinity of an Americanized and sanitized version of Che Guevara's theories on guerilla warfare. Except that what Mailer is really postulating is the theory behind Guevara's work that it was necessary for a new cleansed `man' (and given his other known sentiments of the time concerning women I believe he was being exclusive here) to emerge to fight the monster. Norman, wherever you are, I believe that sentiment, if less articulately expressed than by you, already had its day with Bakunin and later with the Social Revolutionaries in late 19th century Russia. But Kudos for Armies. Adieu, Left Conservative.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on January 29, 2004
Mailer's 1968 account of the march on the Pentagon is something of a great and sweeping read where all of Mailer's skittish brillance falls into place. With nearly every facet of the counter culture gathering in Washington DC to give voice the commanding idea that the Viet Nam War was a folly that is at heart evil --antiwar protestors, Yippies, Quakers, poets, beats, rock stars, various drugged out crazies, nuns and ministers--Mailer was the superb witness to the events as they unfolded.
The book is cranky, spirited, rolling with the metahors and acid insights that the mature Mailer manages; he is a subtle and rich noticer of small things, bits of business, gestures, facial expressions. Indeed, "Armies of the Night" is as much a comedy of manners as it is literary journalism. The shrewd and blunt estimations of Robert Lowell and Dwight MacDonald are wonders of the whole-honed phrase.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on November 23, 1999
I checked this book out from the public library because it was short and looked interesting. I found one of, if not the best book I have ever read. This gives an excellent account on the March on the Pentagon and is definitely worth reading. Buy it today.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on July 28, 2010
Norman Mailer was the self-confessed bad boy of American letters. Notorious for his intemperance and violent outbursts he was, nevertheless, a superb craftsman who is able to grip and hold the attention of the reader right from the beginning of The Armies of the Night.
He admits he joined the campaign for peace in Vietnam with reluctance, but once involved he became convinced of the legitimacy of the cause.
In Australia, opposition to our involvement, in what was patently a civil war, and in support of a corrupt South Vietnamese government, was just as strong. Draftees were tearing up their call up papers - and some were gaoled. I was a school teacher at the time, but left my classes for an afternoon to join the Vietnam Moratorium march through the centre of Melbourne. I was astonished to see block after block filled with marchers kerb to kerb, because although I knew there was a lot of opposition to the war, I didn't realize so many would be prepared to march and risk arrest. The march was led by Labour MP Dr Jim Cairns, and I vividly remember seeing the waterside workers marching down the Collins Street hill from the other direction to join our group. Then we all sat down and sang some ant-war songs while the police looked benignly on.
Norman Mailers confrontation was much more violent, and he was arrested and gaoled. Throughout the novel he refers to himself in the third person, as an onlooker recording his impressions and describing the events that followed in vivid detail. He introduced us to Dr Spock, Mitch Goodman and Robert Lowell, leading activists and opponents of the war, as well as the pro-war group, who used every means at their disposal to discredit so-called communists and traitors.
"Mailer's final allegiance, however, was with the villains who were hippies. They would never have looked to blow their minds and destroy some part of the past if the authority had not brainwashed the mood of the present until it smelled like deodorant. (To cover the odor of burning flesh in Vietnam?)"
He was arrested by a US Marshal while 'perambulating around the Pentagon', and was placed in the rear of a Volkswagon camper which began to fill with other Pentagon demonstrators - then to an army truck - with a Nazi with whom he engaged in a contest of wills that ended peacably. Upon arrival at Occoquan they are fingerprinted, and Mailer picked his bunk in a dormitory next to Noam Chomsky. Eventually he was sentenced to 30 days in gaol (25 suspended) and fined $50. After a lot of arguing from his lawyer he was released on his own recognizance pending an appeal.
Finally he describes the confrontation - and the tactics used by both sides - that took place at the Pentagon between the demonstrators, the MPs, the troops and the US Marshals . . . "Slowly the wedge began to move in on people. With bayonets and rifle butts they moved first on the girls in the front line, kicking them , jabbing at them again and again with their guns . . . Mailer comments on the bravery of the young people who refused to leave - and he was among them - until the wedge beat through the last line,and the resistance was broken."The Learning Process: Some Creative Impressions
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12 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on February 22, 2000
Mailer has a really enjoyable ego, and a rather likeable personality. This book describes vividly a March on Washington in '67 against the Vietnam War, and the main character is Norman Mailer. (This book is written in the third person; an ingeneous way for Mailer to take shots at himself).
Most interesting to me, being a rather apolitical person, was the way Mailer described his "image" as a being completely outside of himself, and how the character "Mailer" in the book can be seen as his image, while the Narrator can be seen as the real Mailer.
That last bit may not make complete sense but anyhow this book has moments of vivid excitement, of feeling the slow painful movements of history unfolding, the "existential moment" as Mailer calls it, of doing something uprecedented and thus not having any idea of what will come of it.
Unfortunately the prose shines only in patches and often i found myself skimming. This may be my fault, for though I like America and everything, i dont have the overwhelming enthusiasm and obsession for all things American that Mailer has. Nevertheless this is a really enjoyable read and Mailer, unlike most political people - and certainly unlike most "activists" both radical and conservative - can laugh at himself as well as those around him.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Norman Mailer gave a personal view of that time which included all different intellectual personalities perspectives. It was interesting how the country looked down on the protestors due to the race riots in the cities at that time! Also, it was interesting to see how the press protected the Democratic President and not give an accurate perspective of the war! Very Good Book!
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As a boomer, ya gotta love it. While we may not have all checked in, we were all there in spirit. Thanks, as Bob Hope would say, for the memories, Norman!
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