The dramatic election-related events in Iran have loosened an old memory, of a different demonstration miles away and years ago, the March on the Pentagon in October of 1967, 42 years ago, in which I participated. It was the largest anti-Vietnam War demonstration of its time, and one of the best storied, especially as recounted in Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History.

I never met Mailer, but I did cross paths with him once at the Clark Street subway station in Brooklyn. He was walking in to pick up the morning news and showed me the coldest blue eyes I have ever seen on a man. I have no idea what that was about.

What I am writing here is my own account of the event. Although this is not a scholarly piece, I have tried to be careful with facts. One thing that struck me in searching the Web, to fill in holes in my memory, was the general paucity of articles directly related to the march. Googling “Pentagon March 1967” quickly picked up the march of 2007, a kind of commemorative demonstration, with a new war—Iraq—and a new Villain-In-Chief, George W. Bush instead of Lyndon B. Johnson. Protesting foreign wars has almost become almost axiomatic in America since the Vietnam War era, something I find a bit disturbing in our post-9/11 era when we now have real enemies.

* * * * * * * *

In the summer of 1967 I dropped out of college at the end of my junior year. The immediate cause of this was my failure to complete a summer French course at the University of Delaware, in preparation for my senior year at college. I had no receptivity to the foreign words in the language lab, and so removed my headphones and walked out. This portended an impossible schedule for my senior year at the College of Wooster. A large portion of my senior credits would be an independent study project, which, in my case, as an English Major, meant creative writing, maybe a novel, for which I knew I was unprepared.

I had already decided to become a writer. I did not want to teach English. So finishing my bachelor’s degree became unimportant to me. This freed me to put my oar into the swift moving current of the times. This was the Love Summer, the summer of riots, when the political, social and cultural ferment in California swept across the country, and it swept up me.

I was living at home at the time, in northern Delaware. I had a job working on a landscaping crew, shoveling dirt—a job I did not want to place in jeopardy by protesting against the war. Nonetheless, I took the risk when the time came.

Nick and I drove to Washington, D.C. for a planning session for the march in an office near Dupont Circle. Nick was my friend from high school who had also dropped out of college and was in similar hot water with the draft; both of us had applied for conscientious objector status, a struggle with our draft board that would continue for some time. I remember little about this planning session, what I was supposed to do if anything. Nick, I think, was the Delaware representative of SDS. Anyway, I sat across the table from Jerry Rubin, co-founder with Abbie Hoffman of the Youth International Party aka Yippies. I don’t know whether that came before or after. David Dellinger, a pacifist and co-ordinator of the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam had asked Jerry Rubin, with his Berkeley credentials, to be project director of the march. So this was likely a Mobe meeting. I vaguely remember diagrams, maps. Perhaps they were discussing march routes to the Pentagon. What I remember about Rubin was his wooly hair. Nick and I resembled normal middle class students, which lately we had been. We fit in.

A week or two before the October 21st march, Nick and I attended an SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) party in Newark, Delaware. I did not formerly belong to SDS; it was the anti-war crowd I hung out with. There was booze and loud music, and the neighbors complained and the police showed up and arrested everyone. I was fingerprinted and booked, the only time I have been arrested.

Someone hired a lawyer and we all had a meeting together. Some expressed the fear that the judge might set a court date for Saturday the 21st thus depriving us of our anticipated plans to demonstrate in Washington. Our lawyer got the charges dropped, and that was the end of that. My parents were not particularly pleased about this episode.

* * * * * * * *

On the morning of the 21st, Nick and I drove to Washington. The streets were pretty much deserted, as I recall. Federal buildings were closed, and there were cops or National Guard troops or otherwise armed and ready men in front of federal and other key buildings. The Army of the Potomac was positioning itself.

However, nothing of the spirit of an army presided at the gathering in front of the Lincoln Memorial, covering both sides of the long reflecting pool and stretching on toward the Washington Memorial. It was the same arrangement as the 1963 civil rights march in which Martin Luther King Jr. announced his “I Have a Dream” speech-prayer-poem. Different colleges and affiliations were assembled under their banners. I recall a small group of Communists, The Progressive Labor Party, with their red banner and remember thinking how irrelevant they were to the driving purpose of the event. I think they were happy to be there more or less as hangers-on. Records indicate that Quakers attended and veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade that had fought against the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War.

The atmosphere was that of a big American picnic. It was sunny and warm, if memory serves. I was comfortable in a medium weight wool jacket and jeans. One thing that struck me at the time was the catholic nature of the throng. Youth prevailed, but grown-ups there in attendance. Thousands of Americans had come from far and wide, many by bus, to the nation’s capital to express their concern about the war and civil unrest. Were there cops there? Probably, though I don’t remember their presence, and I doubt if there were troops.

There were three main goals or activities of the march. First, in a small ceremony the day before, a thousand or so draft cards had been collected and turned in to the attorney general. The main purpose for most of the demonstrators on the 21sst was to protest the Vietnam War. And for a small minority, the plan was to attack the Pentagon itself and disrupt its operation.

Though the microphones were seldom silent, no one said anything memorable like “I have a dream.” There were black speakers. I remember Phil Ochs singing a folk song. So all hung out and mixed and mingled and had a good time and were ready for the next phase: the actual march on the Pentagon, where we became the Army of Dissent.

* * * * * * * *

Norman Mailer and his coterie of friends and sympathizers, including poet Robert Lowell and linguist Noam Chomsky, were at the head of the march, several hours ahead of Nick and myself as we began the two mile trek across the Arlington Memorial Bridge over the Potomac River toward the north parking lot of the Pentagon. It took more than an hour to make this journey. YouTube footage shows thousands of placards, motorcycle police moving easily among the marchers, helicopters buzzing overhead, street bands and puppets, chants of “Peace Now.” Nick and I did not carry placards.

When I review the personal and news footage on YouTube, I see people making all the motions and gestures of alert, healthy beings: walking forward, looking left and right, avoiding traffic, squinting in the sun, laughing, dancing, jumping up and down. None of this sticks as individual memories in my brain. All I recall is that I was part of the throng that crossed the bridge, estimated at between 30,000 and 50,000 persons. I was there; I walked the walk.

By the time we got to the Pentagon, several tens of thousands of demonstrators were already piled up in front of the Versailles-style converging stairways leading up to the Pentagon plaza. The inexorable movement of the throng was up the steps to whatever fate awaited them in their confrontation with the authorities. This procession was agonizingly slow, in the days before cell phones, iPods and Blackberrys. I should have brought a book. I remember nothing I said or said to anyone, not new acquaintances, not striking observations of female beauty. Come to think of it, if everyone had had cell phones, the din would have been overwhelming.

I would say it took a good two hours to work my way up to the top of the staircase to where I could see what was happening. It is said that in the army you hurry up and wait. This goes for protests too.

The Pentagon is the world’s largest office building. It is the headquarters of the United States Department of Defense. It contains the floor space of three Empire State Buildings. Built in 16 months on swampland during World War II from sand and gravel dredged from the Potomac River, it is a wonder of the modern world. It is both radical in design and crushingly dull in its exterior grayness. Five sides, five stories. It resembles a fortress.

At the top of the staircase was a vast plaza one hundred yards or more to the building itself. The demonstrators had established themselves on the plaza, facing off against ranks of military police in dress uniforms and armed with M-14 rifles. These were sturdier than the later M-16, and had wood stocks, which made them dangerous as clubs. No one knew if the guns were loaded. I figured they were not, on the assumption that there were sons and daughters of important people in the crowd and that Army brass did not want the responsibility for some grunt popping off a few lethal rounds. On the other hand, the troops were charged with defending the building from invasion.

In the late afternoon sun, the things you have read and heard about, if you know anything at all about that day, actually happened. Hippie chicks placed flowers into the muzzles of those rifles, demonstrators jawed nose-to-nose in intense conversation with the MPs, we sang songs; we sang “The soldiers are our brothers.” A few demonstrators burned their draft cards. I saw at least one trooper jump across the line and join us, which drew a big round of applause. It could not have gone the other way, of course: one of ours joining them and asking for a rifle. I saw a few demonstrators wearing Army helmets and other hardy souls who had come to fight wearing football helmets. I had come to protest and had no intention of mixing it up with the U.S. Army.

A small contingent of our forces broke through the lines and rushed a side entrance to the building and broke in. This penetration lasted less than half a minute as members of the 82nd Airborne Division, waiting in the corridors with squat to do had their moment of action and expelled our guys like angry hornets protecting the hive.

My draft card stayed safely in my wallet until a canoe trip in the sub-Arctic in 1970 when it went down with my pack in a storm. Thus it perished by water rather than by fire.

This standoff went on for some time, the line moving forward or back a few feet. During this period U.S. Marshals were roving behind the line of MPs making arrests. The arrestees generally volunteered themselves by pushing through the line, at which time they were hustled off to buses waiting near the building to take them to prison. I watched this procedure carefully as I was moving closer and closer to the line by backward pressure from the crowd.

Every hour or so the troops on the line were relieved by reinforcements who marched from inside the building in formation. Some soldiers wore white dress gloves, as I recall. Some had sheathed bayonets fixed to their rifles. Jeeps drove back and forth; men got out and exchanged salutes. I’ll bet that some of this maneuvering was for show—Army theater.

* * * * * * * *

Now it is dark. If I have flashed forward a bit, so be it. I am not writing a book here, and I don’t remember everything. I remember that it was after sundown and chilly and I was sitting packed body-to-body with fellow protestors, and I had become separated from Nick. I had kept visual contact with him and we had exchanged shouts, and now he had vanished. It was dark and I was pretty certain at this point that I was about to be arrested, as there was only a thin line of us between me and the arrest meatgrinder.

These U.S. Marshals, now at my back, as I was facing the demonstrators, were the meanest looking troops on their side. Some of us were of the opinion that they weren’t real marshals but thugs pressed into service by the Army. They wore helmets, thick padded coats, and carried long batons.

I looked around and saw that I was part of a group of four separated by a six feet from the mass of seated demonstrators. To my left was a young priest from Detroit, wearing his clerical collar. To my right was an older bearded hippie wearing a hillbilly hat, and there was a third fellow. The priest was talking about the summer riots in his city when tanks had rumbled through the streets. Detroit had suffered the highest civilian casualties of any U.S. city that summer. After five days of rioting, 43 people lay dead, 1189 were injured and over 7000 people had been arrested. In Newark, New Jersey, the downtown was gutted by fire and 23 persons were killed. In Wilmington, Delaware, a National Guardsman shot a suspect in the head from a block away while the police were in the act of arresting the man!

The priest was soft-spoken, as I recalled, though not silent like the old fellow, on a different wave length altogether. The older man sat still with his arms folded across his chest. Well, that was the question. Would we resist arrest, cooperate, or what? The third fellow said that we all should lock arms. I replied that I didn’t want to lock arms, because if we did, we would get smashed apart by clubs and rifle butts, and I wouldn’t be able to wield a shovel come Monday morning on my landscaping job.

The way I saw it, as soon as I got pulled through and lifted to my feet, I would keep pace with the arresting officers, so that no one dragged me anywhere, until we got to the bus. That was the way I had imagined it from watching multiple arrests. So no arm locking for me.

One by one my compatriots disappeared. First, the old timer, then the priest, then the third fellow. I was all alone. That six feet of separation was a canyon. Maybe I said something, or maybe I didn’t. The marshal standing behind me said: “What’s that? What did you say?” He rubbed his club into my back. I froze. That, indelibly. The next thing I knew, I lay sprawled across the seated demonstrators. I had been picked up and tossed back into the ranks. A girl turned and asked if I was hurt, and I said no.

I hadn’t been pulled through the line and arrested, after all.

* * * * * * * *

It was about this time, maybe 11 PM, that the lights set up outside went out. I think they had been set up for the media. Anyway, they went out. The problem for the Army was that the arrest process, while efficient and orderly, was too slow. There were too many of us packed tightly together and they weren’t clearing the plaza fast enough. In someone’s eyes, they were losing the battle. So they turned out the lights and went on the offensive.

The girl who had just spoken to me and everyone on the line near her came under attack. The soldiers and U.S. Marshals laid into them with clubs and rifle butts, a whirling windmill of flailing arms and weapons, in my memory. I scrambled over bodies to the back of the seated ranks and retreated to the first campfires, maybe 50 or 70 feet to the rear from the line. Then it stopped as swiftly as it began. It wasn’t working. The Army gave up.

Our verbal offensive continued. One grownup with a bullhorn challenged the dark Pentagon. “Why are you doing this?” he said, over and over. “Why are you hurting our people? We have a permit. General Van Fleet, why are you doing this?” The organizers did have a lawful permit to march, though there was some confusion as to when it had expired. General Van Fleet presumably was inside the Pentagon in some leadership role. He had made a name for himself in Korea with his “Van Fleet load,” a much heavier artillery barrage than average. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had been observing events all day from inside the Pentagon. Photographs were taken of him standing alone in his office at night. McNamara had given a speech during this period in which he had casually referred to the Vietnam War as but one of a series of wars America would need to stay safe, to keep the military industrial complex humming at peak capacity and the thousands of telephones at the Pentagon ringing constantly. To his credit, he apparently refused a request by a General Johnson to use “cold steel and gas” against us after the break-in through the side door. That night the Pentagon was stone silent. No one answered our question: Why are you doing this?

There were plenty of placards around and newspapers, leaflets and such, and campfires had been build against the cold, and maybe to cook food. I sat down by the fire and warmed myself, much relieved now that it was clear that the Army would not massacre us. I saw wounded at the fire, blood. No doubt about it. Later, after Monday night, when the last demonstrators were arrested and the whole thing was over, rumors circulated, maybe also newspaper stories, that several of our number had died in local hospitals from wounds. I do know that, later in Boston, where Nick and I moved after Wilmington, I met a cockeyed youth, a mellow fellow, who said he had been severely beaten on the head at the Pentagon and was now living on disability.

* * * * * * * *

After the failed offensive to clear the steps, the Army settled in, and we settled in. Some with sleeping bags parked themselves at the bootsof the military, an act which I thought had a certain distinction to it. One solder, that I saw, slowly emptied the contents of his canteen on the sleeper at his feet. That didn’t work, either, failing to dislodge the stubborn youth. I saw one young woman who clearly wanted to be arrested charge into the ranks, which stood firm against her and did not try to arrest her. Again and again, she charged the line, screaming at them, until she finally broke through and got her wish.

I had brought no provisions to spend the night. All I had, probably, was cigarettes. Some groups went into town and came back with burgers and such and tales of harassment, and passed out food. There were no portable toilets on Pentagon grounds. I don’t remember anything about relieving myself or that human waste was a problem. I might have nodded off. I watched the line for further developments, just in case.

Come Sunday morning, I left with a large bunch of us–large for safety–and we walked into the city. We stood across from the White House, which looked curiously unguarded and unattended, even unimportant. We chanted: “Hey hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” Just like the stories say we did. And that was pretty much it for me. Sans Nick and his car, if memory serves, I took the train home to Wilmington. Nick spent the night in a prison outside of the city, and was released. We both arrived home in one piece.

By Hudson Owen. All Rights Reserved.