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Marching for Peace

March 20, 2006

I did a lot of marching when I was young—in Boy Scouts, high school marching band, rifle-twirling ROTC drill team, Army training, active duty units, and at West Point, whose cadet parades perfected the patriotic spectacle of “marching as to war,” in the words of that militant old British hymn “Onward, Christian Soldiers.”

Yet, after all that marching, and spending 10 months in a war, I was scared to death the first time I joined a peace march.

After resigning from West Point and mustering out of the Army, I sought out ways to lodge my protest of the escalating war in Vietnam. I tried writing a book to expose the folly of it all. I wrote letters to editors, to members of Congress, and to the Pentagon—returning my war medals. I argued with war supporters in bars and at parties. But I kept a wary distance from the strange people who conducted peace marches.

I was not about to make a public spectacle of myself marching in the streets with wild-eyed partisans spouting radical politics.

Then a buddy who’d served in the Navy talked me into going with him and some friends to a Vietnam War protest march to United Nations headquarters. Weeks before, I’d quit a newspaper job in New Jersey and moved to Manhattan looking for a way to more actively weigh in on this issue. I was curious to see what happens at a peace march.

Walking to the assembly point, we encountered a sea of people streaming into Central Park on that cloudy Saturday, April 15, 1967. There were families dressed up as though going to church, young people in somber groups, a large formation of men and women wearing red, white and blue Veterans for Peace hats.

“Vietnam veterans to the front!” someone shouted. Waving to my buddy and his friends, I dashed toward the head of the parade. I found a small cluster of young men, some with girl friends or wives and children, gathered behind two guys in dark raincoats holding a large banner that read “VIETNAM VETERANS AGAINST THE WAR!”

A short distance in front stood a handful of dignitaries carrying an American flag. Abruptly, the march began. To register my seriousness in protesting the war I served in, I was wearing an olive-green suit and tie and double-breasted tan raincoat. Some of the other vets wore military field jackets.

As we stepped out onto Fifth Avenue, following the leaders with the flag, our small group suddenly was walking through a gauntlet of hostile crowds lining both sidewalks. I felt nakedly exposed. My eyes kept sweeping the tops of buildings, looking for snipers. As we passed a construction site, metal debris clattered into the street near our group. “Commies!” “Cowards!” and other insults were hurled at us at close range.

Then the Veterans for Peace contingent stepped out of the park, a massive block of older men and a sprinkling of women marching in cadenced step in serried row upon row upon row, war medals pinned to their suits and union jackets. The roar from the sidewalk onlookers transformed from howling snarls to startled buzz to outbreaks of applause.

Block after block, we encountered waves of jeers and cheers, the reviled march leaders followed by an astonishing mass of war veterans and tens of thousands of other marchers. When we arrived in front of the speakers’ platform near the United Nations headquarters, I looked back to see marchers stretched as far as one could see along First Avenue and jamming the side streets.

As I looked around to find my friends, the massive crowd absorbed the vets I’d marched with. I didn’t know if there was a Vietnam vets organization or just a banner someone made. I asked around among the Vets for Peace about their group. I’d never heard of Veterans for Peace until shortly before the march, when I spied an ad in the New York Times inviting veterans to join up to protest the war.

Now I was very curious to see what a group of war veterans could do to stop a war.

These days, peace marches frequently feature war veterans. Numerous marches protested the war in Iraq this past week, marking the bitter anniversary of another disastrous military folly. These two triggered a lot of memories:

Protesters March Through Gulf Coast to New Orleans
http://www.truthout.org/docs_2006/031706S.shtml
About 200 people marched on Highway 90 in Gulfport - protesting one war in the hopes of trying to avoid another. A war of what they call the neglect of the people in America. "I am shocked that something like this is happening on American soil and there's still this much destruction here six months later. I'm shocked that so much of this landscape looks exactly like what I saw in Iraq," said Iraq war veteran Michael Blake.

Iraq War Resisters Stage 241-Mile Peace March Across US-Mexico Border
http://www.truthout.org/docs_2006/031706T.shtml
A group of anti-war protesters are staging a 241-mile march for peace across the Mexico-US border and through California. Amy Goodman spoke with one of the march's key organizers, Pablo Paredes. He is an Iraq war resister who refused orders to board a ship in 2004 heading to Iraq.

Selected Works

Poetry
A tonic spray of poetry, verses that a Vietnam war veteran lives by.
Prose
A pragmatic, common-sense handbook for civic action at the community and international levels.