Reading the War Dead
When I was seventeen, I did something that still makes me proud when I think of it today. Nixon was in his first term back then. Protests against the Vietnam War were spreading across the country, but Jackson, the small Michigan town where I lived, remained untouched by the demonstrations. The town had always been a cold-bed of conservatism, as my dad used to say. It was also the birthplace of the Republican Party. The KKK and the John Birch Society, which believed Eisenhower was a communist stooge, were active in Jackson as well.
But of course, it was the 60s, and things were changing. Even in Jackson, there were many of us who did not support the war. That included my high school friend, Phil Anderson. Together, Phil and I decided to do something about how we felt, and so we founded the Jackson Moratorium Coalition.
My family had already traveled to Washington D.C. to take part in the national moratorium in October 1969. Ann Arbor – thirty miles east of Jackson – was home to the SDS and numerous protests. The good town of Jackson, however, did not look favorably on dissent, or any type of nonconformity, for that matter.
A small example: my father was a Realtor and had a reputation for honesty, established over many decades. That reputation allowed him to secure a bank loan with a handshake. But when he grew a beard in the late 60s and chaired the Open Housing committee to prevent redlining, one of the three banks refused to do any further business with him.
Against that unwelcoming backdrop, Phil and I set about organizing the Jackson Moratorium Coalition, deciding to hold a reading of the war dead. It would be the first major demonstration against the war our town had seen. More than 40,000 US soldiers had died in the war by that point and we intended to read every single name. We got a list from the national moratorium organization. We ordered buttons and printed up bumperstickers. I quit marching band so I’d have time to help organize.
For a couple weeks, we went from church to church, looking for a place to hold our reading. Predictably, they all turned us down. Except one: the First Congregational Church, prominently located downtown with a park-like courtyard by the main entrance, granted us permission. I didn’t realize it at the time, but in retrospect I see that it was the most visible location we could have chosen.
The church’s reverend – Robert M. Rymph – supported the president and the war. But he met with us, and in the end he agreed to let us use entranceway and courtyard because, as he told his congregation the following Sunday, “I was convinced they were very highly idealistic and sincere in their point of view. They recognize war as dirty business and conclude that it would be far better if the killing and war would cease. They want their lives to count for something big, something worthwhile. The fact that you and I might think they are naïve in what brings peace, or is necessary for peace, does not eliminate the conviction that they now hold.” I had no idea how brave a decision Rev. Rymph was making, until much later.
The reading itself would take 32 hours. Phil and I recruited volunteers (included Laurie Kaufman, whom Phil would later marry, and Marty Kaser, my girlfriend for a while) but as the event neared, it became clear that our "coalition" would be small. Many parents forbid their kids from taking part.
Then, the day before we began, the newspaper in town – the Jackson Citizen-Patriot – ran an inflammatory front-page story about the event, characterizing it in the worst possible terms. This was before talk radio, but Jackson didn’t need Glenn Beck to tell them what was right and what was wrong. The Cit-Pat, as everyone called it without the slightest trace of irony, served the purpose.
“It didn’t require much imagination,” Reverend Rymph said later, “to believe that the most swinging slumber party ever held in the city of Jackson was going to take place on Friday night right here in the First Congregational Church of Jackson.”
An emergency board of trustees meeting was called on the morning of the reading. After “agonizing consideration” the trustees voted to support Reverend Rymph and allow the reading to go forward. I understood later that it wasn’t just a vote about our protest – it was a decision about whether Reverend Rymph would keep his job. What's clear about Reverend Rymph in my memory is that he was a leader, not afraid of his convictions, and he prevailed.
To be clear, he disagreed with us about the war. But he believed that the spirit which motivated us was precious, something to be respected and in fact, nourished.
That Friday night after school – in the cold Michigan winter – Phil and I and a few others set up a single microphone stand and an amp in the doorway of the church. A handful of us stayed all night, reading all 40,000 names, minus the soldiers from Jackson. Many families in Jackson had asked that their sons’ names not be included, so whenever we came to a deceased soldier from Jackson, we omitted his name.
When it was over, we were exhausted. But the event, from our point, was a tremendous success. We brought the war home to Jackson. We read the names. We stayed awake all night and all the next day. Though it was November in Michigan, we didn’t freeze. Despite the intrusion of a few drunks, the event was peaceful.
Did it stop the war? Did it, together with hundreds of similar readings across the country, contribute in some small way to the momentum that eventually brought our troops home? Maybe, but if so, the effect on national affairs was miniscule, much too small to be measured.
The effect on me was large, though – large enough to still move me decades later. What impresses me most now is the strength and commitment of a man I hardly knew, Reverend Rymph. I wasn’t a member of his church. I never heard him preach, though I knew he continued to support the war that I opposed. But I see now that his belief in a better future was as strong as ours.
He ended his sermon, the Sunday after our reading, with a statement of faith in young people, and by saying he wished he’d gotten to know us better. All these years later, I feel the exactly the same way about him.
This week, I was proud to be able to join with more than two hundred other writers in supporting the Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy Movement worldwide. The statement of support, at occupywriters.com, has been signed by Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Lethem, Jennifer Egan, Michael Cunningham, Gloria Steinem and many more. The effort was organized by author and journalist Jeff Sharlet and journalist Kiera Feldman and supported by the editors of Tin House, among many others.
In conversations I’ve had this week, I’ve heard as many concerns and disagreements about the Occupy Movement as I did about our reading of the war dead. Are the tactics right? What are the goals? Will it accomplish something or just invite backlash?
But the bigger issue is this: our current economic system rewards greed. Short-term shareholder gain trumps everything. The disparity between the richest and the rest of us has never been greater, and the value created by this system has never been more ephemeral.
Corporate wealth and the general prosperity used to be linked – or at least we used to perceive they were linked. Healthy businesses provided jobs and benefits. Now we perceive an inverse relationship. Lay off workers or cancel retirement benefits and share prices rise. Corporations and CEOs perpetuate the inequities simply by playing by the rules and making logical decisions – because the rules and logic are rigged against most of us.
Is it any wonder we’ve fallen in love, lately, with stories about robots attacking their creators? The metaphor is obvious: we created corporations and now they rule us.
I have some of the same concerns about tactics that others share. Occupation, it seems to me, is frequently a play-until-you-lose scenario, like Space Invaders. Is the agenda anti-corporate or pro-reform? Similar types of concerns were raised about the antiwar movement, of course. Movements, by definition, are big and hard to pin down.
But the underlying point is this: the economic discontent we feel is clearly widespread and why wouldn’t it be? The greed that drives too much of Wall Street nearly wrecked the economy and we continue to pay for the repairs – during a jobless recovery to boot.
The Occupy Movement, like the antiwar movement, has a chance to become a prism for that discontent and to focus it where it might do some good. Forget goals, tactics, and disputes about the rules for public spaces for a while; the Occupy Movement is a huge sign that the water temperature has changed, is changing. And that alone is good, and it’s why I was proud to add my name.
In my blog post on Powells.com, Burning Down the House, I wrote that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with money and sex. Both forces make our lives more comfortable – more delicious – when they’re under control. But like the forces of fire and water, when they jump their channels, they flood us out or burn the place down. To those who have complained that Wire to Wire is too raw, too much about lowlifes, I point to the sex- and money-scandal of the week. What’s going on in Wolverine is nothing compared to the financial and sexual misconduct we see in Washington and Wall Street. Cue Bernie Madoff and Representative Wiener.
But it’s deeper than that. The scandal of the week is just about headlines, and the focus is always on a particular miscreant. – a good man, maybe, who grasped for too much, etc. etc. That misses the point. There might be bad guys on Wall Street, but the problem isn’t the players. It’s that the game is rigged.
In 1968, a year before Phil and I and others read the names of the dead in Jackson, I heard a song that shaped my thinking – not just on the war but on that issue of having your life count for something.
The song is 2+2=? by Bob Seger. It still means a lot to me. You can listen to it on the music page of this site, and I recommend you do. In it, Seger sings, “It’s the rules, not the soldiers, that are my real enemy.”
From Vietnam to Wall Street, it’s a line that still rings true.
Harp Maitland is a loner type – I’m not entirely sure he’d join a protest. But if there were protesters in Wolverine, the fictional town of Wire to Wire, he’d definitely be on their side.
Here’s Harp, as he returns to Wolverine from one of his freight trips, walking through the abandoned freight yard that he loves, which is slated to become the site of some new condominiums.
The [caboose] now looked out onto the half-built frame of the Whispering Sands. The work of downstate investors, men who didn’t give a slippery shit about anything, as long as their return on investment was high.
It was pretty clear how things were going, he thought. What used to be the world was becoming the marketplace. Anyone could see it wasn’t square…
In the old days, the land behind the Sawhorse ran to weeds and rusty rails all the way to Wolverine Bay. The emptiness was part of the town and seemed to be fine with everyone. But then money took over, and money didn’t like emptiness. The land behind the Sawhorse wasn’t earning any income, and that attracted bulldozers.
Someday when it’s too late, Harp thought, we’ll all be sorry we didn’t tell money to go to hell.
My take on the Occupy Movement is that it's not too late. In fact, it's time to start.
Think it's time we got together and declared. The Bob Seger System, “Highway Child.” Play it loud.