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Read the History, Skip the Novel (I was There)
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".