Naming the Dead: the 1969 March on Washington


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November 20, 1969, Vol. XIV, No. 58

A Half Million March For an Audience of One
by Ron Rosenbaum

WASHINGTON — Thursday afternoon. “How to Attend a Military Funeral” was the title of a fact-filled article I found in Metronews, a PR magazine planted on my Metroliner seat. As we slid through the backyards of five cities en route to Washington, I read that on an average day there are at least 12 funerals in Arlington, the largest cemetery of its kind in the world. No long waits for the action to begin, the article boasted. Every U.S. serviceman is guaranteed the privilege of burial there. At the present rate of occupancy Arlington will not be filled until 1986. There are plenty of vacancies now.

At 6 p.m. on Thursday a very large military funeral began in Arlington. Television floodlights lit the Virginia side of the Arlington Memorial Bridge with flare-like intensity and heated the grassy ridge o which a memorial service for 40,000 dead soldiers was being held. In the center of the floodlit warmth stood Steward Meachem of the New Mobilization, who opposes a war because he’s a pacifist, and a group of 40 other people, who oppose the war because their next of kin are dead. Meachem spoke briefly, and called for an end to the war so that Americans could “once again look the other people of the world in the face.” He didn’t need to add that it was very difficult to look any of those 40 in the face.

But as soon as the March Against Death began stepping slowly across the Memorial Bridge, the press, tv, and radio men fell upon the 40, shaking them down for their human interest value. Suddenly the hot lights revealed a black woman with tears finally streaming down a face she had clenched tight to hold them back.

“Get her, dammit, get her will you,” the head of one crew shouted to his cameraman. The cameraman then swung a huge arc light into her face and got her. Then other crews discovered her — “perfect, isn’t she” — and several more lights swung on the woman, blinding her. She closed her eyes, crying freely now, and allowed herself to be pushed forward haltingly by the woman behind her.

Perhaps that’s the kind of bargain that has to be made: give this woman to the media and maybe they’ll give you a chance to reach two or three of “the silent majority” for five seconds over their morning coffee. Get sick of making that kind of bargain, and getting nothing but more silence in return, and maybe you find there’s not much else to turn to but street fighting, and there were a surprising number of young people thinking about it and doing it last weekend.

Detaching myself from the cameras and the first marchers, and re-crossing the bridge to get a name to carry, I discovered that the air outside the warm circle of tv lights was icy, and the wind penetrating. The marchers I passed crossing the bridge walked stiffly; partly from the cold, partly from the unfamiliarity of having a dead soldier’s name hung around their neck. They appeared to plant each foot very deliberately as they walked single file 20 feet apart; still, it seemed consciously playing the part of a walker, not yet walking…

Constitution Avenue on the way to the White House is lined with huge, indistinguishable government buildings. Late Thursday night they were almost totally darkened as the march filed by. Lights were on in a few ground-floor offices of late-working bureaucrats — light green cubicles with Mercator-distorted maps on the wall (huge Greenland, tiny Congo), desks with small American flags leaning forward in their stands, fire extinguishers on the wall. Exact replicas, I suddenly realized, of the stuffy fifth-grade classrooms of the ’50s in which we were taught our Cold War Map image of the world…

When we approached the White House grounds, the shape of the building itself was bleached into a blur by the floodlights set up for security. From one corner of the White House grounds it seemed like continuous flare was burning to the left of the main entrance. The forced light turned the grass neon green and illuminated what seemed like a blue mist hanging just above the lawn. When you could make out bushes and trees, you could also make out dark figures shifting back and forth near them. They did not appear to be gardeners.

“When you reach the next marshal, turn and face the White House and shout that name as loud as you can,” a Mobe marshal instructed us. This was the thing, I realized, I was really marching for: I wanted to throw stones. When I reached the next marshal, I turned to face the doors to the White House, but found myself staring into a blinding bank of lights, and saw nothing. I yelled the name (Vuon Tram, a bombed hospital) as loud as I could, but instead of hitting something visible the sound seemed to dissipate into the blur.

Caught up in the impressive allegory of the march, I had really wanted to reach the White House and find Nixon standing right behind the gate, glancing up nervously, as I approached, stopped, and shattered his ears with the name. Then he’d cringe, turn around, and trot into the White House, end the war, and announce his retirement. Allegories can become too impressive.

By the time I reached the Capitol, tore the strings off my sign, and placed it in a raw white pine coffin, I had the feeling that the march was another not-so-good bargain: aesthetically pleasing, a somewhat satisfying outlet for personal rage, but self-contained — designed to appeal to men on the basis of values they already considered trivial…

Saturday morning. The number of people who actually march Saturday doesn’t mean a thing. The only number that counts is the number the D.C. Police Chief says are in the march because that number will appear in the Sunday headlines the silent majority reads and perhaps influence the polls the President reads…

There were some marchers whose presence meant a lot. About one-third of the 100 or more active duty G.I.s for Peace who marched near the head of the procession down Pennsylvania Avenue had gone AWOL from their bases to join the march because they had been denied passes. Here were all these short-haired guys, many with Southern and Midwestern accents, looking like, well, like soldiers and chanting “Free Bobby,” “Power to the People,” “Off the Brass Off the Pigs,” “Rich Live High While GIs Die,” and giving everyone in sight the clenched fist salute…

Later, at the Monument Grounds, a GI movement speaker told the huge crowd that “we are going to bring the administration’s war machine to a halt,” and added a word to Nixon himself: “If you don’t bring the troops home, Mr. Nixon, they’re going to come home by themselves”…

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