Mise-en-Scene

There’s a wall in Washington
and it’s made of cold black granite
They say 60,000 names are etched there in it
in that wall in Washington

There’s a Wall in Washington, Iris Dement

     If there was one thing in common across the entire strata of late 1960s American culture, it was that America was mobilizing.  The armed services were mobilizing in Vietnam pursuant to orders; those opposed to the abuse of authority were mobilizing domestically pursuant to an organic outgrowth of distrust resulting from persistent authoritorial abuse.  Both were at war.  The major distinction between the treatment of the ground troops in each war was this: the leadership of our armed services failed, due to a ‘because you must’ parental arrogance fed by the relative ease of recruitment by conscription, to create a coherent, clear explanation for why US troops were in Vietnam, leaving those troops mentally at sea; those protesting anything domestically shared a clearly focused distrust of all those in authority, having come together to face down a common evil wearing many faces.

     The number and size of protesting domestic crowds increased as the decade wore on.  These crowds protested a myriad of matters, chief among them civil rights violations, the Vietnam War, the draft, and, eventually, civil rights violations, the War, and the draft all rolled into one big package.  This combination was made possible by an increasing belief among many younger Americans that these issues were related by the common denominator of those in authority abusing the trust granted to them at the ballot box, by their sneering lack of regard – sometimes even to the point of murder – for vast segments of society.  Many in authority had committed the greatest sin possible: they forgot how they came to be in charge and what they were in charge of.  All in authority came under the microscope due to the consequences of their own actions, some of which were violent and far too many of which were self-serving.  Too many of the cultures smeared on the resulting slides prepared for the microscopic analysis demanded by the marchers exhibited a significant inflammation of misanthropy informed by hubris.  As a result, generalized authority – Authority, if you will – became the enemy, a common enemy whose individual constituents were to be railed against by the marchers regardless of their position, place, or aspect of power.

     A similar anthropomorphic aggregation happened to the War itself, as it escalated rapidly from the date in 1959 when less than 1,000 American soldiers were stationed in Vietnam and the first four died, to the War’s peak of 543,000 in mid-1969.  This, the original surge, was accompanied by ever-increasing casualties among American military personnel.  Total casualties increased with excruciating regularity, day-by-day, week-by-week, month-by-month, year-by-year.  Casualty figures became a mundane item of regular reportage in bulletins issued by the military’s command: a process which transformed each of the individual dead into nothing more than an unassigned number within an aggregated sum; a process by which Authority denied the dead their inherent dignity as an individual corpse, a denial lasting until their reconfirmation as human remains by family, friends, and neighbors at American funerals, at American gravesides.  Eventually, the War achieved a total of 58,000 undifferentiated dead, not to be given specific name, voice, or position in the national memory until construction of The Vietnam Memorial Wall some decades later.

     And while the algae bloom of dead were returning to America, the word ‘crowd’ was becoming a domestic media buzzword.  Crowds surged through American streets in increasing numbers: in riots over living conditions; in marches for peace; in marches for civil rights.  These crowds were representative of the New America, and the New America was on the march: it marched in Washington, DC; it marched in Chicago; it marched at Berkley; it marched in New York City; it marched in Selma; it marched from Selma to Montgomery and then on to other points south, east, west, and north; it marched in backwaters.  And while the 1960s opponents of the marchers (and, in truth, there were many more of them than the marchers themselves) always said that ‘they marched’ or ‘those hippies marched’ or ‘those coloreds marched’, in truth it was American ideals on the march – not to a different drummer, but to the twin, organically American heartbeats of ‘liberty and justice for all’.

      If this blog were electronically activated, a scrolling banner at the top of this page would continuously announce marches and protests:

  • Washington, DC on August 28, 1963: 250,000 listen to Dr. King’s dreams;
  • Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965: 50 marchers hospitalized by police brutality;
  • Montgomery, Alabama on March 16, 1965: 600 march;
  • Selma to Montgomery on March 21, 1965: Dr. King leads 25,000 marchers;
  • Ann Arbor, Michigan on March 24, 1965: the first Anti-Vietnam teach-in, 3,000 attend;
  • Washington, DC on April 17, 1965: 25,000 anti-war protestors march in the first such event in the capital;
  • Across the country on October 16, 1965:  100,000 march against the war;
  • New York City, March 25, 1966: 25,000 march against the war down Fifth Avenue;
  • Washington, DC on May 15, 1966: 10,000 march against the war;
  • New York City on April 15, 1967: 400,000, led by Dr. King, march from Central Park to the UN, protesting the denial of civil rights, protesting the War;
  • Washington, DC on October 21-22, 1967: 35,000 anti-war protestors storm the Pentagon as NPR begins its first-ever day of operations, broadcasting events live.

The scrolling would go ever on, featuring the likes of Dr. King, Eugene Carson Blake, Julian Bond, Walter Cronkite, Dr. Benjamin Spock, and other now-familiar names, names that now stand for courage, but which were then frequently denigrated as treasonous – for they dared to question.

     And Authority, as Authority tends to do in such times, increased its attempts to stop the questioning of its right to wield power, to stop the marchers – attempts which failed as the ranks of marchers increased beyond its capacity to control.  When physical violence failed in Selma, failed in Montgomery, failed at the Pentagon, failed in Chicago, and failed everywhere else, Authority began criminalizing acts of free speech and free assembly, rights deemed so basic by our Founders that they were enshrined in the first of the ten constitutional amendments which make up America’s Bill of Rights.  As for the associated right also found in the First Amendment – the right to petition the government for the redress of grievances – Authority proved so deaf that the crowds came to the doors of Authority’s many lairs to roar and to scream their defiance.  All that was missing for Authority to listen, for Authority to hear the crowds’ message, was the necessary ear trumpet.

     When force not only failed to stem the crowds but proved an instigator of yet larger crowds instead, Authority turned next to its courts.  This was a failed strategy from inception.  Given their ingrained notions of due process, courts could not possibly manage the ever-increasing civil disobedience with anything remotely resembling efficiency, could not manage at all when overwhelmed by volume.  And many judges – possibly a majority – were not keen to play the requested role and treated Authority’s demands to stop the questioning with frank and open hostility.

     When all else failed to achieve Authority’s purpose, Authority finally resorted to the draft as its featured control device.  For this domestic war was mainly of and by the young, and young males were subject to conscription and young women were subject to the terrors of conscription.  Draft deferments were eliminated in October, 1967, for those in violation of draft laws (including burning draft cards or other overt forms of disagreement) or for interfering with military recruitment.  Why not make these agitators soldiers, reasoned Authority, especially when they needed a good dose of discipline to set them straight and cannon fodder was at such a premium?

     And so it was that the country gradually became at war with itself; the generations in violent disagreement due to vastly differing perspectives of right and wrong.  The domestic war became as violent, as passionate as the Vietnam War – the principal difference between the two being that death played only a bit part on the domestic scene while enjoying a starring role in Vietnam.  There were no more lazy Sunday afternoons in America.  They were replaced by flower power, LSD, hippies, the Chicago 7, the Birmingham jail, Haight-Ashbury, SNCC, SCLC, The Beatles, The Stones, teach-ins, love-ins, happenings, the Summer of Love.  This New America was crowned in the mud and drugs of Woodstock, 200,000 in attendance; it was further defined and nearly derailed a mere matter of months later by the free concert at Altamont, by the moronic oxymoron of hiring Hell’s Angels to provide security.

     The domestic war was fueled by music; fueled by every genre from folk to rock-and-roll; fueled by groups and solo acts alike.  Bob Dylan single-handedly began things in 1962 by asking: “How many times must the cannon balls fly before they’re forever banned?” and noting that “the answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind, the answer is blowin’ in the wind.” (Blowin’ In The Wind, Bob Dylan).  For music had become the collective Voice of America’s young and young at heart.  Music had become adult – no more doggies in the window, no more ‘come onna my house’, no more hot ziggity dogs, no more doo wop.  Music had matured and acquired a starring role as Voice, as Narrator as in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, as the principal means of collective youthful reflection on sex, on war, on drugs, on the often violent denigration of the human condition.  Music not only became the Voice, music became an instigator.  Music was no longer simply entertainment for the sake of entertainment; music had acquired a mission.

     The domestic war was fueled by passion, and the Voice shouted and yelled and screamed that passion throughout its tenure at center stage.  And the Voice acquired an anthem for the age.  In 1965, P. F. Sloan wrote (and destroyed his career in so doing) The Eve of Destruction, consisting of declamations set to music, powerful music, which Barry McGuire, in appropriately gravelish tones, growled aloud on air and in person to anyone who’d listen:

Yeah, my blood’s so mad, feels like coagulatin’,
I’m sittin’ here, just contemplatin’,
I can’t twist the truth, it knows no regulation,
Handful of Senators don’t pass legislation,
And marches alone can’t bring integration,
When human respect is disintegratin’,
This whole crazy world is just too frustratin’,
And you tell me over and over and over again my friend,
Ah, you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction.

     As the domestic war matured, its passions began to spread across the lines that divided generations. They spread to the older generation first in 1967, when the Dreamer, Dr. Martin Luther King, jr., began to speak out against the War in the same measured tones he’d invoked to decry the lack of civil rights for non-whites in America.  Then, in 1968, Walter Cronkite, the speaking voice for the after-dubbed Greatest Generation, visited Vietnam and returned to change his status from one of supporter to one of questioner, speaking his mind after being appalled by injury, by death, by a lack of defined purpose in the face of such sustained suffering.  And with Dr. King’s and Mr. Cronkite’s leadership, other leaders of the older generation began, gradually but in ever increasing numbers, to add their voices to the cries for the War to be stopped, and to march along with the young.

      Whatever this domestic war was about – destruction or necessary change, depending upon your point of view – America was clearly on the eve of something momentous.  For America was mobilized in a manner only hinted at in the Great Depression, in a way only those who experienced the Revolutionary War or the Civil War, had they survived long enough to experience the 1960s, might have appreciated.  This was nothing less than revolution.  This was the beginning of the end of an Army of conscripts, and the catalyst for an all-volunteer Army – a terrifying result in retrospect, in prospect, and in fact.  This was the beginning of a more tolerant society, a society engaging in less violent practices in aid of its continuing discriminatory needs and desires – only subtleties need apply.  This was the beginning of a mixed race society, where all colors often live together in common – except those destined for the darkest ghettos remaining to America.  This was beginning of the end of Authority’s open, public enslavement of women as to cultural and sexual matters – a process beginning with the FDA’s 1960 approval of the sale of birth control pills, a seemingly never-ending process in a society controlled by males (whatever their color or nationality), a process chronically in need of renewal, of revival, of vigilance.

~

     The late 1960s and early 1970s were a time of radical, revolutionary change, its people as yet unaware of the consequences their passions would induce.  The country was a tea kettle on full boil, and consequences were merely steam to those impatient to drink their fill of the resulting brew.

     When the Vietnam War finally ended in 1975, so did the domestic war.  Our collective passions began to wind down from the fire of their unsustainable intensity.  And when the passions were played out, exhaustion and indifference took charge, the collective strength of the resulting ennui measured by the litany of lessons from the Vietnam War which we refused to learn then and which we refuse to remember now:  Why think about the meaning of the estimated 800,000 to 3,100,000 Vietnamese lives lost in the War, since who ever mentions them?  Why think about the impact of the massacre at Mai Lai upon a generation, upon the country, for who wishes to consider anew the morality of sending heavily armed, immature young men off to fight a purposeless War?  Why reconsider the truth of the ‘facts’ that inspired the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, when new resolutions may be required for new wars and passage of anything by Congress is difficult enough as it is?  Why reflect that carefully considered presidential lies were the basis for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, when new carefully considered presidential lies may be needed to induce future wars?  Why think about the vileness of the treatment many Vietnam War veterans received upon their return home, for we were done with the War then and why shouldn’t they have been?

     When the kettle boiled dry, passion was reduced to a blackened coating of sarcasm covering its bottom plate.  The Vietnam Generation did not hang on to its anger long enough to make a difference, despite a damned good start.  To our lasting detriment, we turned out to be sprinters rather than long distance runners.

~

     For readers of this blog, especially you who were not yet born in the 1960s and are looking at those times through the lens of preconceptions developed in the rearview mirror, these will likely seem pages in a well-thumbed, well-worn book: a book full of aged theses and conclusions ready for the kind of major revision always demanded by the altered passions and changing imperatives of future history and culture.  Perhaps a manga – for those were times in which cartoon-worthy heroes were created and torn apart with dramatic style appropriate to the medium.  Perhaps a retread gothic thriller – for those times have become akin to compilations of once-youthful rock-and-roll songs in vogue at the birth of the genre, too tired now from their endless repetition to pack the punch of first impact.

Unless you were there; unless you have your own story to tell.

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About Stephen Ellis

Stephen Ellis is the author of Fortunate Son, a novel of Sahaptin Valley
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