Nostalgia, Protest and a 9/11 Everyday

In 1971, an important year for antiwar protest in the US, Abbie Hoffman (Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture, 1980) encountered a group of young people dressed in hippie garb. He greeted them and asked where they were headed to from Greenwich Village in Manhattan. They responded that they were going to a celebration in Central Park where participants were asked to dress like hippies from the 1960s. And there it was: antiwar protest was alive and vibrant in the US and around the world, and these kids were dabbling in apolitical theatrics. It was dress-up day and denim Friday rolled into one. The war still raged on the ground and in the air over Southeast Asia, and these kids were dressed in a sort of masquerade theater of the absurd. Here in the US, we can certainly have fun while mass murder is being carried out in our name.

Many from the decade of the 1960s had already begun to solidify their plans toward what would morph into careerism. Over these many decades, I watched as friends disappeared into careerism. My best friend from college, a protest leader, described the person he married at the end of the era of the 1960s and early 1970s this way: “She had a great career!” Many of those who protested during that great epic of change changed their values as easily as they changed their clothes. How different were they than the kids Abbie spotted on the way to Central Park?  No military draft; no protest. This began the era of the self and self-exploration devoid of politics and commitment. When my friend from college turned up on a list of people who donated to Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president in 2016, well, readers can easily make their own valid conclusions. From antiwar protest to support of a warmonger!

They, the newly minted careerists, would change their metaphorical garments of protest into the accepted expectations of the system and gain a professional education and go on with life. Today, when I attempt to communicate with some of those people from that decade of significant change, it is as if I’m trying to relate to an alien species. They bought the whole plan hook, line, sinker and middle-class and upper middle-class comfort and so-called respectability.

Abbie Hoffman, who I only encountered in the most tangential of ways (we passed in the reception area of a law office in Greenwich Village) was brought down by his own battle with manic-depression made worse by the right-wing world ushered in by Ronald Reagan. By the decade of the 1980s, students were mostly silent and conformists. When the Vietnam War ended, so did the sometime self-interest of those protesting wars and inequality. And without protest in a system attuned to endless wars, which were only in their infancy then, those in power could get away with murder that grew exponentially in response to the September 11th attacks.

The imprisonment of the journalist Julian Assange in England is intended to send a message to those who uncover and publish documents of US war crimes. The US does not want its dirty laundry from war published and the government will take drastic action against anyone airing crimes such as the murder and wounding from the air of civilians, children, and journalists. The Collateral Murder video is one such exsample of information the US government wants suppressed.

But protest continued and continues today, except movements to stop the destruction of the environment, women’s rights, attacks against sexual identity, attacks against civil liberties and civil rights, and even antiwar protest are hermetically sealed from one another. Identity politics and political correctness have become the way things are done and movements and organizing as vibrant as the Occupy Wall Street movement, the movement for gay rights, the movement to save the environment, the women’s movement, and the Black Lives Matter movement rise up and are then either minimized or repressed by the power elite.

Wars in Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Gaza Strip, Libya, Western Sahara, to name a few, and not counting the deadly sanctions and coups and attempted coups used against nations like Venezuela, Bolivia, and Iran, make mass movements and organizing as necessary as they were during the Vietnam War. The modernization of nuclear arsenals and the constant drumbeat against China and Russia (“Biden mulled punishments for Russia over suspected role in government hack,” Guardian, December 20, 2020) make vigilance and organizing on the political left even more necessary. The frontal assault on the global environment makes organizing and political action against polluters more important than ever. There is nothing wrong with a career, but a career without a commitment to saving the Earth’s living species is more than folly.

Biden’s cabinet nominations and his other appointments to key federal executive posts have all the appearances of equality and the hope for a newer world, but those individuals in positions of power untimely serve the system of class and power interests. The maintenance of power is very much a bipartisan endeavor, with the window dressing only sometimes and marginally different. Will we be delivered into a world much worse than the one Trump and his enablers have introduced to us? Over 70 million people voted to rubber stamp and perpetuate that horror, and they are not going away!

The nomination for secretary of defense (“History exposes the problem with Biden’s defense secretary nominee,” Washington Post, December 17, 2020) is one such example in a time of endless wars and war funding. We see a supporter of war supplanted by someone who comes from both the military and military-industrial-financial interests into a department with life and death power over the Earth that has usually been held by a civilian. We see the trend here.

One group that accurately portrays the war of my generation is the Vietnam Peace Commemoration Committee. The group’s presentations and resources in honestly presenting the protest of the Vietnam Era of a half-century ago are admirable. A “round table” presentation of the historic trial of the Chicago 7 (Chicago 8 with Bobby Seale), had the power of bringing back those heady and violent days of the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, the police riot there, and the unrelenting protests against the war then conducted by a Democratic administration.

I don’t know if war resisters will speak at future commemoration committee presentations, but I was disappointed by the absence of a Vietnam war resister (draft and military resisters who did not go to Vietnam) in one of the group’s early presentations. My criticism is a general criticism about who gets to tell the story about resistance. That resistance needs to include those who said no without taking part in the war itself, along with those who fought the war and resisted. As the war fades from tragedy and horror into history, I would like to hear more voices of those who resisted without direct involvement in the war, and I am not dismissing the very important involvement of Vietnam veterans in an accounting of their protest.

The Winter Soldier Investigation, held in Detroit, Michigan in 1971, provided uncensored testimonies of Vietnam veterans who had witnessed or been part of atrocities in Vietnam. It was the best testament to truth telling about that war to come out of that era. Now, we face another winter decades later and the enemy here is Covid-19 (“How We Survive Winter,” New York Times, December 20. 2020).

As war and fighting wars became normalized in the US, and especially following the 2001 attacks, I felt more and more marginalized by the voices of protest by those who took active roles in the War On Terror, earlier wars, and the Vietnam War.

I knew about the marginalization of war resisters who had not fought in Vietnam when an acquaintance in the town where I live disclosed at a public meeting that he had killed children in Vietnam. I couldn’t fathom how the killing in Southeast Asia had become that normalized! Perhaps its political amnesia? Many times I have attempted to enter into a discussion about war with veterans from that era and noted that I am a Vietnam-era veteran and have universally been greeted by “welcome home” without being able to explain my resistance.

Note: For the biography that I’ve found to be the best researched assessment of Abbie Hoffman’s life and impact as a protester see Jonah Raskin’s For The Hell Of It, 1998.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).