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How Will We Protest the Permanent War?

I was a high school freshman in October 1969. The school I attended was a small Catholic high school in a town midway between Washington, DC and Baltimore, MD. Approximately half of the teachers were nuns from the Pallotinian order. A few of the teachers—nuns and laypeople alike—were pacifists in the Catholic tradition and had helped several students organize a Vietnam war teach-in to coincide with the National Moratorium Against the War occurring on October 14th and 15th of that year. The Washington Post, which I delivered to fifty some households every morning, was full of stories discussing the Moratorium, the opposition to it, Richard Nixon’s statements against its leaders, and the opinions of a couple dozen Congress people in support of it.

The town I lived in was mostly in favor of the war then. However, its location ten miles away from the University of Maryland’s College Park (UMCP) campus meant that antiwar sentiment was creeping into the residents’ consciousness. The older brother of one of my friends was a student at UMCP and also an organizer for the Moratorium. He spent every Saturday in September and early October that autumn sitting at a table in the town shopping center distributing literature, arguing with other residents, and refusing to take the bait of those residents trying to engage him in a fight. My friend and I sat with him for a bit on a couple of those weekends, trying to get other teens to oppose the war which would end up taking a few of them in the years to come. Already, many men from the town had either been in the war, were on their way, or were there at the time. My father fell into the latter category, having left for Da Nang in February of 1969.

October 14, 1969 was a Friday. The teach-in at my school was scheduled for the morning. After homeroom attendance was taken, everyone in the school strolled to the assembly room. Being a Catholic school, a couple prayers were led by a priest from the church across the street. Then, the principal spoke, explaining why the teach-in was being held (“to explore the moral issues around an issue that was important to our young lives both as US citizens and Catholics”) and laying out the ground rules. The rules were typical. We should respect the opinions of others even when we disagreed with them and we should wait until the question and answer period to comment or ask questions. After her remarks, the teach-in began. An officer from the Army spoke first. I don’t recall much about his talk, having heard numerous times the reasons why Communism must be stopped in Asia before it reached our doorstep, etc. To his credit, the officer kept his statement brief and on topic. Like most military men discussing the war, he defended the tactics of the US military and insisted that communism needed to be defeated. Nobody booed or hissed him and he left to polite applause when his talk was done. The next speaker was a pacifist seminarian (or priest, I can’t remember) who told us that while he respected the intentions of the officer, the war was immoral and had very little to do with fighting communism, which the clergyman agreed was a bad ideology. After the clergyman was finished, two seniors spoke; one supporting US involvement in the war and the other opposing it. When the assembly was over, the nuns and the pacifist priest took a couple dozen of us students to a small piece of property near the town’s Main Street where we read the names of men who had died in the war. This list included alumni of the school and men from the communities from which the school got most of its students.

This scenario was replicated around the United States that day and the next. In communities large and small, north and south, east and west, millions of US residents protested Washington’s murderous involvement in Vietnam. The name of the protest—National Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam—was chosen to represent the idea that people were to stop their “business as usual” for at least a part of the day to express their opposition to the continuation of the war. The Moratorium actually began in April 1969 as a call for a general strike if the war was not over by October. However, less radical antiwar organizers who had worked on Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 antiwar presidential campaign changed the idea to a less radical moratorium. Although these organizers were not radicals, the news had been full of numerous radical actions against the war for over a week. The Weatherman had blown up the police statue in Chicago’s Haymarket to lead off a week of somewhat ill-advised street fighting designed to “Bring the War Home.” Another section of the recently disintegrated Students for a Democratic Society calling itself Revolutionary Youth Movement II was leading its own protests in Chicago beside radical labor groups and the local Black Panthers. Outside Fort Dix, New Jersey—where GIs were sent off to war daily—protesters fought with police. These were just a few of the organized protests around the world against the US war. However, even with the universality of these protests, the US did not leave Vietnam until its final defeat in 1975.

In 2014, we find ourselves in a state of permanent war. It’s easy for those of us in the United States to consider what the Pentagon is doing around the world as “low-intensity.” This was a term coined during the US wars on popular movements in Central America meaning very few US combat troops were officially involved in fighting. Instead, Washington’s killing was done via mercenaries, local militaries, Special Forces, local militias, and covert operations agents. In today’s world, this lineup is augmented with unmanned drones. The opposition to this state of permanent war is not only unorganized, it barely exists. Instead, some former antiwar organizers write articles discussing the evil nature of the latest enemy and some ignore the war all together. Others vote against the constant escalations of the war, but cast votes in favor of funding those escalations. Then, there are those who stay true to their task and wonder how to organize an effective counterbalance to the ever present, resource consuming imperial crusade. A great, but not insurmountable task looms before us. The permanent state of war demands an antiwar movement.

Ron Jacobs is the author of the just released novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of  The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden.  His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press.  He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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