Library - Reading Room
Supporting Materials for Sir! No Sir!
FRIDAY AFTERNOON On most weekends Washington presents to the visitor an obscenely blank face, like some civil service bureaucrat, or a company top sergeant when you ask him a favor. That is, if you are white and do not explore the subterrean other-world that makes up more than half the city, a city with two faces, one blind the other in pain. It is safe to say that most of the people who came to the largest demonstration in the history of the Republic never saw the other side. Instead they transformed the face of this pretentious morgue into something new. It was human wave warfare, all right,, but Washington, D.C. became alive, like New York and San Francisco are alive, like Woodstock was alive, and if it moved slowly, well, zombies and mummies are not the best dancers. I could see it already at the airport. Instead of the faceless government clerks and foreign service debutantes, all clamoring for some recognition like Hollywood extras in the stage set formality of D.C. architecture; instead of them and Pentagon shelf-ornament lifers, all around me were our kind of people. It might be a dream, but it looked like everybody was on our side.
When R. picked me up at the airport, she was excited and in a hurry. The March Against Death had been going on for hours now and a solid line of people stretched from a church downtown to Arlington Cemetery, and it was supposed to look quite remarkable. I was a bit leery. It struck me as melodramatic and sentimental, and I was getting hungry.
The traffic had slowed down. The drums beat, muffled and regular, deadening. It was the drum and was the long single line and it was the serious emotional dignified look on the faces of the marchers, each carrying the name of some dead man in front of him like it was the body or his son. Even the pigs looked on with some respect, but perhaps would have turned their dumb power on some blood freak who might have shouted anything into the silence, but nobody did. The drums went on and the marchers went on and when they reached the Capitol they said out loud the name of the man each was carrying. It must have been like a ritual and it could well be that nothing better might be done for the souls of the dead. The singular repetition of those names echoed through D.C. that weekend, louder than the ramming on the doors of the Justice Department, louder even than the shouting of 800,000 Americans at the Mall.
SATURDAY MORNING Different things happened by night and day. It looked like a new world. Let us look at the scorecard: they had money, guns, powers, usually the local communications facilities and media, they had social institutions that automatically shove people to the bottom. I mean without even concentration camps; they had Vietnam like a big bleeding ulcer, as little able to stop it as we were, but it was their fault they had caught the disease. They had the Army. Some of it.
But then there was this. A helicopter might have been able to see it all: all of Potomac Park covered, a street-wide line on both Constitution and Pennsylvania Avenues, and then the mass filling up, the Washington monument looking more and more surreal as the mass of people around it moved. It was more people than I had 'ever seen at one time in my life. The Numbers Game. The police estimate, admittedly conservative, was 250,000. That was of course ridiculous. 'the march along Pennsylvania Avenue was that much. The educated guesses of some people at around 800,000 are probably more accurate.
Indeed, there was a sense of unreality, of a really good dream, of a Utopia: there did not seem to be anyone from the government in the streets or in the buildings. And it was a kind of real American dream, not the Horatio Alger individual kind, poor boy makes good, but the apocalyptic kind, the real ideal of the New World, the magic islands. But, on the other hand, it is a dangerous kind of trip, when you consider the realities, that Nixon is a particularly ugly kind of Wizard of Oz, and Agnew a Blue Meanie with no hint of innocence.
The march began at 9 A.M., which is another reason the attendance could have been even higher. The government was so set against this march, so sure that, in the words of the Army Reg: "violence would be likely to result," that it had invoked all sorts of unprecedented rules. One of these was a "morning-only" permit. That night, in fact, when groups of people, tired and happy, stood around the mall near burning fire drums, the police set in with tear gas again for absolutely no reason. It was also difficult to get to the march from Georgetown, where many of the marchers were billeted. The government had cancelled all bus service in certain areas and used the busses parked bumper to bumper as a pop art last-ditch barrier around the White House. It took us nearly an hour. As we approached the park the crowd became thicker and thicker, till a block away one had to push his way through. Up to now I thought it was all kids, but more and more we saw the hats, white paper hats of Veterans against the War. They looked slightly uncomfortable maybe even alienated at first, as if after years of civilian life they had suddenly been woken up to serve parade duty. As the March went on, though everyone relaxed and this incredible variety of people, many older people but many more kids, had gotten together.
From the USO on the corner a few white faces peeked out as if they were imprisoned. No doubt one or two had been in Nam and this sort of thing was unreal. They looked like they would not understand. They looked bitter. Then the marchers flashed the V sign to them- they just stared back. It could have been something else. Before, the March had been loose, casual, though crowded. But the group, arm-in-arm underneath the banners: GIS AGAINST THE WAR IN VIETNAM, and AMERICAN SERVICEMANS UNION, maybe two hundred strong, sprinkled with some veterans,marched tighter, more together, marching with the kind of force one only sees in Blacks today. Some of them had been to Nam too. There is a song, "I Aint Marching Anymore". These were marching again, but this time to a different drum, listening to their own minds instead of an order, instead of a pathetic Army band or recorded marching music.
In the march now. Cops wear buttons, flash back peace signs. Some Saturday workers in Government buildings flash peace signs, some wave American flags. But so did the marchers. For all the American flags it could have been a Fourth of July Parade. Independence Day. Wierd signs: VIRGINS FOR PEACE and the posters for Women's Liberation Movement, like a left-wing WAC ad, a fist in a female sex symbol. And maybe the most important, a button with a quote from Eldridge Cleaver(wherever he is, there is more of America than in the halls of the Justice Department and the Pentagon) not the first prophet thrown into exile: IF YOU ARE NOT PART OF THE SOLUTION' YOU ARE PART OF THE PROBLEM. Another sign: THE SILENT MAJORITY ELECTED HITLER' By the time we got to the Mall, and we were at the biginning of the march, it was covered with so many people that no one knew even in what direction the speakers were. We could only assume that it was at the foot of the monument. It was impossible to see over a crest of the hill, and when we turned around there were as many behind us. We did not stay long. Except for Dick Gregory and the entertainers, it seemed like the speakers were talking not to us but to Nixon and the press. It was cold. Besides, with 40 people coming to dinner we had to get ready: every house in D.C. was like Alice's Restaurant that weekend.
"Look! MPs on the Corner!" I was horrified. MPs, CID- despite the fact that they rarely do anything but harass, despite the fact that I had leave- they still elicit a feeling of fear. Being in the Army is like living in a totalitarian country, Nazi Germany, an occupied land, in which your rights may be arbitrarily taken away, and where you could be isolated and punished for not having your papers in order, for looking suspicious. Of course, nothing could happen here. Then on closer inspection I saw what they were. Washington NGs with MP hats and clubs. A bit shy, scared, trainees on their first stupid guard duty. The government stationed them on corners to free police for the march. They were a bit pathetic, a bit funny. Some had long hair and with the field jackets that everyone wore (did the Quartermaster General, in his zeal, also outfit the Mobiization) looked little different than the parade marshals. One of them flashed a peace sign. I went up to them. They all said they would have marched if they weren't called up. They were on our side too.
SUNDAY AFTERNOON It is considerably warmer now. The demonstrators who have not left have gone sightseeing. Walking by the Jefferson Memorial, a beautiful inlet off the Potomac, a scene a bit more beautiful than the film strip before each post movie. Two Army 5-tons come across the road. NGs going hone. They give the peace sign. Everybody is on our side. Across the pool the Jefferson Memorial seems lonely except for a few visitors. Imagine with me a debate St. Thomas of Monticello and Spiro Agnew!! Jefferson had real balls- he would be on our side. How would some lifer explain to him that "OK" people had some inalienable rights, but NOT THE TROOPS.
POSTSCRIPT All during the demonstration the White House was off-limits. A three block radius kept it from contamination by the people. Nixon, we are told spent the day watching a Jets game. But perhaps some sound, like Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie leading nearly a million people in singing "Give Peace A Chance," or, louder still, the names of the war dead, one by one read off at the end of the March Against Death, may have pierced through his mausoleum. No doubt he heard what the astronauts- who knew their names that weekend hurtling through space away from it all, must have heard: some distant roar.
Fun Travel Adventure, no. 15