During my recent travels (specifically, in the Reading Room of the Hotel El Establo in Monteverde, where I do not stay after contracting a case of bedbugs several years ago, but which does have a fabulous forest with trails that extend to the top of the ‘canopy’), I picked up a copy of Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night. I haven’t read Mailer in decades because I find his zealous narcissism irritating (no wonder he had so many wives, although I’m not one to talk). I’m not really sure who categorized this book as a history and a novel (a ‘non-fiction novel’ – Norman himself?), since it’s indisputably a memoir that describes the behind-the-scenes ruminations and actions during the days leading up to and including the famous October 1967 March on the Pentagon, when young men across the U.S. under the leadership of student organizers Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman attempted to turn in their draft cards to the U.S. Attorney General at the Pentagon in Washington D.C. under the leadership of pacifist William Sloan Coffin, Jr., Yale’s chaplain. This publicity stunt signified a refusal on ideological grounds to participate in the Vietnam War.
Coffin, Mailer, and the poet Robert Lowell, among others, belonged to an older generation of distinguished gentlemen (the draft being a male-only affair may explain the absence of women in Mailer’s account, or it may have been a byproduct of Mailer’s self-declared misogyny) that lent their prestige and support in writing and in action to the cause of principled draft-dodging by the draftable younger generation. These intellectual leaders weighed their participation seriously, discussing and considering the extent (up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine at the time) to which they were willing to jeopardize their reputations and comfortable lifestyles in support of the terrified young men who hoped to avoid, death, exile, murder, lifelong PTSD, and drug addiction—misfortunes from which many conscripts suffered. Anyone young during that time knows/knew victims.
Mailer concentrated his narrative on his generation’s experience. These men were old enough to remember the most recent just war, World War Two (I know I’m ignoring the Korean War, but it exerted a far lesser impact on American society) and clearly saw the differences. Although voluntarily jeopardizing their public acclaim, status, and wealth accompanying their middle-aged success because they opposed the war, they harbored a more cynical, resigned, and dystopic vision than the youth they aided and abetted. After all, it was their generation that allowed the flourishing of Dwight Eisenhower’s ‘Military-Industrial Complex’, the unholy alliance of powermongers and profiteers, that got them into this mess.
The narrative reminded me of our current political-climatic situation. My knowledgeable scientific and political friends, regardless of where they reside on the planet, harbor, regretfully, an overwhelmingly dystopic vision of the future, glad, in some instances, that they never had children, or hoping to be spared grandchildren, whom they envision will be forced to grapple with a harsh, Mad-Maxish future.
In contrast, the younger (my) generation attending Mailer’s anti-war demonstration—even if frightened by then-present circumstances and well-informed about history and then-current events—seemed more optimistic about their ability to change the world. I remember that mindset clearly from my daily as an outward sign of my pacificist convictions. The teens I hung out with were the smart ones who attended Ivy League (or Seven Sisters) colleges (like many of the draft-dodgers in Mailer’s book), attended anti-war protests (“ho-ho, Ho Chi Minh,” “1, 2, 3, 4, we won’t fight your dirty war”) at home and via bus to New York or Washington, and were absolutely certain that our enlightened, flower power generation would transform the insane world of our misguided/misled parents into an harmonious, egalitarian, and sustainable paradise.
How wrong we were. My generation (abetted by Reaganomics) has, it seems, expedited humanity’s extinction and violated the trust (of God, of the Universe) that placed the Garden of Eden earth we inhabit in our incapable, selfish, avaricious, and short-sighted hands. Some Gen X-Z folks agree with the assessment of their disillusioned parents and live their best lives mindful of time’s winged chariot (and entropy), while others harbor great optimism about the future, citing escalating attention to self-help, spirituality and outer well-being, technological advances (nuclear fusion, mushroom substitutes for styrofoam and other synthetic substances, vertical urban farming, tiny houses, etc.) as evidence of a world undergoing a positive, if as yet largely hidden, transformation.
Thanks for these memories!
I was aware of Mailer, but never read him. I would like to…among a thousand other writers.
But I was there in the anti-war movement at that time, as a young teenager, and that conflict was massively formative in my young life, with repercussions all the way to the present. The main one being that if we are to try to behave as responsible adults (almost an oxymoron?), then we are obliged to be activists. And activism is the concrete manifestation of hope.
Yes, activism always, but now mindful, sadly, of its limitations.