Rolling Thunder 2014

May 25, 2014

All Posts, Editorials, Features, News

About three thousand years ago a blind skald in what would eventually be called Greece began to recite two poems. The poems are now called the Iliad and the Odyssey. And, what Homer said remains relevant today because his stories are timelessly true. And, the most true thing Homer had to say might have been that fighting the war is only half the story. Because the second and more important of the two poems tells the tale of a hero’s perilous search for a long lost place called home.

Rolling Thunder, the big, loud veteran’s event in Washington this weekend, tells that story too. It is the latest incarnation of the tale of the veteran’s return. It began 27 years ago as a loud and pugnacious protest by war veterans who were both disprized and ignored. It was simply the statement made by an impossible to ignore pack of 2,500 Harleys riding to the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial – a black chevron carved into the northwest corner of The National Mall.


The Wall itself was controversial in 1988. It had been defaced by self-righteous vandals who thought that the Vietnam War was a criminal act and that the Americans who fought there were criminals comparable to the Nazis’ who had murdered millions of innocents a generation before.

One of the speakers at the first Rolling Thunder, a veteran named Marshall Colt, felt compelled to apologize for the war he had not made and politely invited his countrymen to stop blaming him for his service. “I would like to thank our nation for gradually accepting Vietnam veterans and separating the war from the warriors and recognizing that Vietnam veterans honored a commitment to the country,” Colt said. Then, Colt thanked the mostly rough crowd that had ridden to The Wall.  “I am proud of the honorable intentions of you, my compatriots,” Colt said.

Rolling Thunder was mostly the idea of a man who rode in the big pack again this year. Ray Manzo, who was a Marine during the interesting years from 1967 through 1969, was confronted by the Vietnam Veterans Motorcycle Club with the reality that America had abandoned some of her prisoners of war in Vietnam. Manzo now remembers that after attending a VNVMC vigil he became determined to “make right a terrible wrong.”

In 1988, not every attendee of the first Rolling Thunder was as apologetic as Colt or as noble as Manzo. This event was, after all, a half a brigade of rough men with blood on their hands and anger in their hearts who rode in on one of the loudest personal vehicles America has ever made. One attendee called the rally by The Wall, “a show of strength.”

Rolling Thunder was a show of strength, It still is.

Display of Patriotism

But a couple of particularly stupid wars in the intervening years have transformed Rolling Thunder from a gathering of Vietnam Vets who just weren’t going to take draft dodger America’s bullshit anymore into what the Rolling Thunder website now calls “an emotional display of patriotism and respect for all who defend our country.” The man who has overseen this evolution is a Vietnam veteran named Artie Mueller. Mueller has given his life to Rolling Thunder. No one could have done a better job. The annual event, always held on the Sunday before Memorial Day, has become a parade of hundreds of thousands of motorcycles witnessed by hundreds of thousands of spectators.

It is, if nothing else, an annual reminder that fighting the war is only half the story and it is an annual source of annoyance for that class of Americans who stubbornly cling to a child’s view of war and its aftermath.

For example, last year one critic of the event wrote, “We have to admit a lack of comprehension regarding the link between motorcycles and tribute to the dead. We aren’t critical, just don’t understand it.”

Most objections are along the lines of: “It is Memorial Day Weekend, and that means hundreds of thousands of motorcyclists will come to the Washington, DC area to have a nice party. A nice party for them, and another peaceful Memorial Day ruined for thousands of residents and visitors who are forced to endure the hammeringly loud pipes and stinking fumes which have enveloped the city on this weekend for over 20 years.”

A visitor to the Lincoln Memorial, a stone’s throw from The Wall complained, “Apparently, Rolling Thunder takes over every Memorial Day weekend with their own brand of ‘honoring’ the fallen. So there I stood at the Lincoln Memorial, attempting to find the solemn attitude I should have when reading one of my favorite statements…. It was difficult.”

The Prairie Home View

The condescending draft dodger, and PBS America’s most honored humorist, Garrison Keillor wrote the definitive criticism of Rolling Thunder six years ago in an op-ed piece called “A Roar of Hollow Patriotism.”

“A patriotic bike rally is sort of like a patriotic toilet-papering or patriotic graffiti” Keillor wrote. “The patriotism somehow gets lost in the sheer irritation of the thing. Somehow a person associates Memorial Day with long moments of silence when you summon up mental images of men huddled together on LSTs and pilots revving up B-24s and infantrymen crouched behind piles of rubble steeling themselves for the next push.”

“You don’t quite see the connection between that and these fat men with ponytails on Harleys. After hearing a few thousand bikes go by, you think maybe we could airlift these gentlemen to Baghdad to show their support of the troops in a more tangible way. It took twenty minutes until a gap appeared and then a mob of us pedestrians flooded across the street and the parade of bikes had to stop for us, and on we went to show our patriotism by looking at exhibits at the Smithsonian or, in my case, hiking around the National Gallery, which, after you’ve watched a few thousand Harleys pass, seems like an outpost of civilization.”

Keillor suggested that the aging veterans and their supporters might become as informed on the subject of war as he by reading a few books.

“If anyone cared about the war dead,” the humorist advised, “they could go read David Halberstam’s The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War or Stephen Ambrose’s Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany, June 7, 1944 to May 7, 1945 or any of a hundred other books, and they would get a vision of what it was like to face death for your country, but the bikers riding in formation are more interested in being seen than in learning anything. They are grown men playing soldier, making a great hullaballoo without exposing themselves to danger, other than getting drunk and falling off a bike.”

And, then Keillor compared the riders to the draft dodger who lived in the Whitehouse at the time. “No wonder the Current Occupant welcomed them with open arms at the White House, put on a black leather vest, and gave a manly speech about how he’d just ‘choppered in’ and saw the horde ‘cranking up their machines’ and he thanked them for being so patriotic. They are his kind of guys, full of bluster, giving off noxious fumes, and when they leave town, nobody misses them.”

Bush And Obama

One is reluctant to rise to the forty-third President’s defense about anything but in comparing him to Keillor it should be noted that at least George W. Bush had the decency to be ashamed of dodging the draft. At least the younger Bush gave Artie Mueller a few moments of his time each year which was, at least, an act of long overdue contrition and respect. And Bush’s photo opportunities stand in contrast to how Barack Obama has reacted to the annual protest, which is to stubbornly ignore it.

Obama usually flees Washington over the Sunday before Memorial Day. He avoids Artie Mueller and his litany of concerns and his half million followers like that. This Sunday the President fled all the way to Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan where he gave what sounded like a campaign speech. Rather than thanking America’s veterans for their service, rather than lamenting the cost of the nation’s overseas adventures, the Commander in Chief gave a big shout out to his active duty forces. “I’m here on a single mission and that is to thank you for your extraordinary service,” he said. And the crowd of mostly rear echelon troops went wild.

This month Obama has been photographed awarding Medals of Honor to long neglected heroes about once a week. A cynic might observe that these events are bullet proof acts of political theater. It would be very cynical to accuse our leader of trying to steal other men’s valor for himself.  But it is hard not to be cynical about our last three Presidents.


President 44 has had a nasty image problem with the big issue of war veterans the last few weeks. As Captain Renault was “shocked! Shocked to find that gambling” was “going on in” Rick’s Café Américain in old Casablanca, President Obama has been shocked to learn that the Veterans Administration is mostly a racket for the benefit of the people who manage the Veterans Administration.

It seems mistakes have been made. Allegedly veterans have died while waiting to obtain appointments to request aid for their service connected ailments and disabilities. Just yesterday, in his weekly video press release the President declared, “In recent weeks, we’ve seen again how much more our nation has to do to make sure all our veterans get the care they deserve…. As Commander in Chief, I believe that taking care of our veterans and their families is a sacred obligation.”

And then he ran as far away as he could from Artie Mueller’s stubborn idealism, and his army of “fat men with ponytails on Harleys,” and their annoyingly loud protest.

Obama is, like the late and lamentable Woodrow Wilson, a college professor by trade and so he gives the impression of being expertly opinionated about everything. Somewhere in his scholarly adventures he must have run across Napoleon’s cynical observation that “A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.” He has avoided actually articulating that sentiment during his Medal of Honor ceremonies this month but he has probably heard the phrase. He might even have heard how beautiful it sounds in French. Un soldat long et dur combat pour un peu de ruban de couleur.

Can You Hear Now

But even the best educated men have gaps in their knowledge so it would not be surprising if the President has somehow missed Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, one of America’s great contributions to English language prose. At some point in their lives, almost everyone has heard the last bit of it which goes: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

It is also possible that President Obama has run across Lincoln’s words and has simply not found much meaning in them. Jerry Lembcke’s historical revisionism aside, Rolling Thunder was born at a moment in American History just after the moment when it was considered virtuous to metaphorically and literally spit on combat veterans. If nothing else, Rolling Thunder and its constituents who rode in that pack as a “show of force” should have put a stop to that. Alas, it now seems that post draft America has become so alienated from the realities of war and its aftermath that veterans of our most recent wars are now spit on as a matter of national policy.

So these questions naturally arise: What if the problem with Rolling Thunder is something other than that the event is too loud? What if what is really wrong with Rolling Thunder is that it has not yet grown loud enough?


30 Responses to “Rolling Thunder 2014”

  1. rollinnorth Says:

    Once again, well done, Rebel. Thank you.


  2. Not Surprised Says:

    Based on the last (2012) “official inquiry” 22-25 Vets take their own lives each day. It is a national disgrace.

  3. coolhandLuke Says:

    Garrison Keillor possesses strong wit, and a clever command of language. He is often able to find the humorous side of euphamisms (sp?) In what is otherwise a less than humorous topic. Stories from Lake Woebegone are pretty entertaining usually. Unfortunately, as many other men of his profession learn, it is difficult to be so clever, without stepping on their own tongues sometimes. When radio and television characters find a way to bring their talent and wit to the stage, and leave their political views at home, we will be able to call that progress. I enjoy being anle to poke fun at myself, and so I can enjoy when someone else pokes fun. But to attempt fun at the expense of a noble effort, by funning about the appearance of proud humans is poor taste. I hope that our nation will show their appreciation for Mr. Keillor’s sharp wit about proud men, by supporting Rolling Thunder even more. In a time when supporting causes is popular, let us support the one which supports those who fought so that we could support all of the others.

  4. FF Says:

    Once again, another outstanding editorial and commentary, Rebel.

    I dunno, I guess it comes down to this; people create false narratives about things in an effort to forward an agenda of there’s.

    And there is so much subterfuge and obfuscation and propaganda and lies that it’s become nearly impossible to rebut it or explain it rationally. Because the propagandists have boxed us all into corners.

    My criticism of that asshole in the WH aint an endorsement for the Vichy Regime (the republican party) but it’s always going to be framed that way as if the two are mutually exclusive.

    I just try to see things for what they are. And just like I don’t want people putting me in a group and labeling me, I do my best not to do that other people. You know, we’re not monolithic. We’re mobs (or can be with the right fuel)— but we’re not monoliths.

    Unfortunately, the powers that be and their narrative says otherwise, and some people— MOST PEOPLE– they buy right into it. That’s why we aint ever gonna change the status quo.

    They control the narrative and the majority of people in this country are just too goddamned lazy to pick up a fucking book at the library and check it out for themselves.

    I won’t even dignify the worthless bastards in our Executive and Judicial branch or our legislature. By commenting, or responding, or explaining— I’d just be giving integrity to something where there is none. Our federal government is dishonest and criminal. They don’t give a fuck about right and wrong, and they don’t care who gets slaughtered or who winds up in a wheelchair.

    Those men and women who participate in Rolling Thunder do have a sense of right and wrong. They do care. They have my respect. I understand their point.

    As for Garrison Keillor, all I can say is what two monsters fucked and gave birth to that? Fucking asshole.

  5. Rusty Says:

    Memorial Day should be second to no other Holiday this Nation observes.
    Casualties of war are the biggest tragedies in life, and not all casualties are KIA’s.
    I had uncles who came home from WWII missing limbs which were daily reminders to all who met them and themselves of the horrors of war.
    My son left at 18 to serve his country, and now as a 9 year veteran with 3 combat tours and 30 years old, he has yet to return home, and I don’t believe I will ever see the son who left return, the man in front of me now can never return to that innocent young man he was.
    Garrison Keillor and others like him can kiss my fucking ass.

  6. Dave Says:

    No one should be surprised at the actions (or lack of action) of a President who will not stand near the American flag.

  7. Paladin Says:

    Why we continue to allow our children’s lives to be exploited and destroyed for personal and political gain is beyond me. We elect monsters to represent us, and then expect them to have a conscience. How delusional is that?

    Long May You Ride (to those that deserve to),


  8. Done Says:

    I usually read the post, then the comments, then form something to write. The post and comments said it all and I can neither add nor subtract from their value. Well done Don & all y’all.

  9. Not Surprised Says:


    Respect to you and too your son.

  10. jj solari Says:

    expecting hussein obama, who is a muslim jihadist, to be too enamored of anything American is a bit much to expect, wouldnt you say?

  11. 10Guage Says:

    It figures that Garrison Keehler and the rest of these nagging retards would try to visit DC during Memorial Day and be so fucking caught up in their myopic universe that they would actually complain that all the combat veterans paying tribute to all of those who have fraught, been lost, or fallen and we have been proud of and mourned somehow ” rudely interrupted” their quite day-hikes in their Rock Ports, double water bottle fanny packs, and Tilley hats “hiking the National gallery”….disrespectful motherfucker…..I’m gonna take a trip to lake Wobagon and carefully step between all the disgusting, soft, pink, sun worshipers….wade out into the knee deep pristine waters…pull down my Levi’s .and take a huge shit!!!

  12. Road Whore Says:


    I support Rolling Thunder 100%.

    As for Garrison Keillor: he is indeed a disrespectful motherfucker. And to have the gall to assert that battle-hardened vets need to learn about war and how to memorialize the fallen and that these vets who have seen combat are now grown men playing soldier reveals that he is a spineless and cowardly piece of shit, and those that listen to him should be horsewhipped.

    Ride Free

  13. Sieg Says:

    Memorial Day is an American holiday, so of course Garrison Keillor, Hussein Obama, and their ilk can’t understand it.

    And I think Rebel is right, Rolling Thunder isn’t loud enough. No more exhaust needed, let each rider take his personal weapon and his basic load with him…that will turn up the volume right quick.


  14. Meh Says:

    Rolling Thunder was originally more political and less party, so perhaps it’s time to make it more overtly political.

    The military benefit of an all-volunteer force is enormous in terms of maintaining a permanent professional core over decades, but the non-serving public are even further de-linked from war as except as a spectator sport.

    Who better to stand in support of their brother Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines than veterans?

    I know damn well VA support for my generation would be horrific if some Viet Nam veterans hadn’t raised a shitstorm, and I write newspapers and legislators to remind them of their duty to the (now multiple) generations sent to try to make varieties of Muslim kiss and make up.

    The dead have it easy because they are dead. The millions of living vets unserved or underserved can be helped, and leaning on the government to honor its written and moral obligation to those it so eagerly sells on enlisting is part of that.

  15. Dave Says:

    I was enjoying my memorial day, thinking about my family and things I should be thankful for…

    then I get this alert;

    This shit really pisses me off.

    The stupid burns so bright with them.

  16. Paul Says:

    The Marine Corps Museum at Quantico put on a nice tribute concert this Sunday. I’m proud to say my Papa Jack who made it back from Iwo Jima (and still going) had some music they played.

    His way of expressing it and relating it was to compose music, and he got to hear it this weekend.

  17. Phuquehed Says:

    A few years ago unfortunately the fucktard-in-charge of the Rolling Thunder in this part of TN has screwed it all up by making it all a power trip and internal politics bullshit game.

    5 good friends who are all vietnam vets *were* in Rolling Thunder, and active officers, until the ‘president'(?) of this chapter (or whatever it is) decided he wanted to raise dues/fees and be the one and only voice in making any new bylaws etc. They all 5 left that day and all of them were so pissed off I thought they were gonna kill the fucker, because before this asshat took over, they were happy as could be.

    I’m probably missing something else or have things mixed up, but all I *am* sure about is when they told me why they’d quit and the reasons for it and what had happened, I wanted to kill the fucker too…and I wasn’t in Rolling Thunder!

    I guess I can’t despise Rolling Thunder as a whole, but since the Main head dudes of the whole shebang have *NOT* disciplined this asshole, it’s hard for me and those friends of mine to think real nice thoughts of it either. My friends did say they’d never have anything to do with RT ever again. One of those 5 friends is big on this stuff too because he lost his son in Afganistan. His bikes tags are the initials of his boys name.

  18. BMW Says:

    …Rolling Thunder…
    I am not surprised that Garrison Keillor doesn’t understand Rolling Thunder. I am surprised to hear he was stupid enough to publicly describe his self-centered universe doesn’t understand the program. He usually takes pains not to offend, but he pissed me off with this one. His comedy is almost always self-centered, so that didn’t piss me off.

    I’m pissed because he daily takes advantages of the freedoms of an American, claims to be very smart, and can’t see that his entire career is made possible by the sacrifices of those we memorialize on Memorial Day! Many of those vets, who fought to maintain those freedoms, who were skinny kids in 1967, are old fat men these days, making a good living and riding Harleys. He’s as thick as a brick not to understand the sacrifice and those who honor the sacrifice. WTF???

    Today I’m also pissed at Congress, which has reduced the resources of the VA “to balance the budget”, yet those same sanctimonious Congressional bastards who cut the budget for the VA, and have eliminated extended unemployment benefits for the returned veterans (as well as everyone else) claim to support the troops, claim to be shocked at the current problems with the VA, claim to not see the relationship between reducing the VA budget and the subsequent problems, and today, I hear they want the United States to give money to the Ukraine. And today, there is NO talk of balancing the budget! The Congress is willing to balance the budget on the backs of wounded veterans, but still willing to spend money on the Ukraine! WTF???

    L,H&R to all 1% Riders!

  19. Storyteller Says:

    Aloha, Since the VNV/Legacy M/C here are quiet and respectful and don’t like to blow their own horns, allow me. 27 years ago the Hawaii VNV M/C started the “Candle Light Run”into Punchbowl cemetery here in Honolulu. It’s always held the Sunday before Memorial Day. Let’s face it, it’s a long ride to DC from here. :) Since that first run, it has been well attended by brass and hero’s.( General Lee of the US Army and A.J. Kellog(CMH) to name one of each.)Not many politicians. But it has been the veterans, the “black leather and denim clad on steeds of iron” that have refused to forget, and show up every year. Sometimes, it’s the only day we see some of our brothers.
    As for as people,like that “writer” dude, they will never know.
    We will never forget.
    Thanks to all of you, welcome home.

  20. Rebel Says:

    Dear Storyteller,

    The first time anybody said “Welcome home” to me was in 1989. I was standing on a corner in Hermosa Beach and I got into a conversation with Ron Kovic who was sitting there in his wheelchair and he welcomed me home. Kovic was always a little to my left on the subject of Vietnam but I always figured he had earned the right to be wrong.

    Welcome home, Storyteller.


  21. John Deaux Says:

    IMHO, fuck obama, fuck keillor and fuck any anybody else who thinks we can just send our people to war with no thought of them beyond shipping them out.
    If you were in Washington DC and were inconvenienced by the bikes and people on them fuck you too.
    It’s long past time to get the VA in order and get those in need whatever’s needed, if it means cutting welfare, food stamps, public housing to the lazy bastards so be it, our vets earned more than we could ever give them. It’s a national disgrace the way it’s handled now.
    Welcome home to ALL who made it back, THANK YOU.

  22. Kman Says:

    ” it should be noted that at least George W. Bush had the decency to be ashamed of dodging the draft.”
    Rebel you disappoint me. A man who values and speaks the truth could not write those words. Bush joined the Air National Guard and flew fighter jets for Christs sake!If that doesn’t rise to your level of service feel free to say so. There’s not a lot Bush did while in office that I would defend him for, and I’d sure like the 16 months back that I spent in Iraq courtesy of him but you’ve just marked yourself as just another liberal scold. Enjoy your bully pulpit.

  23. Va.Bob Says:

    Kman@ I gotta agree with that.Aviator training is always around a year long minimum.Hardly the work of a draft-dodger.And many wash out; nepotism doesn’t guarantee wings.In addition to the Vietnam deal, there were serious Cold War missions at that time, and the Air National Guard helped out immeasurably.I’m not a Dubya fan, but if you want a textbook example of a CINC draft-dodger, look up William Jefferson Clinton.Hell, he took ROTC bucks before he split for England.

  24. jj solari Says:

    yeah, that lincoln, god bless his little homo heart: he kills millions of his fellow countrymen then he makes a psychotic speech about it in which he makes no mention of himself, oh no, its all just some greek tragedy that is the fault of our stars, after which he should have hanged himself for the deranged sociopath that he was, but no, his little napkin-doddled “thoughts for the day” are cherished and held to the bosom by generations of noodnicks every bit as deranged as he was. people wonder why the intelligent are the first to go insane on this planet. its because they cant believe anything they are seeing – most of which is clearly sadistic and horrifying – as being actually true.

  25. Road Whore Says:

    @ jj solari, who wrote: “people wonder why the intelligent are the first to go insane on this planet. its because they cant believe anything they are seeing – most of which is clearly sadistic and horrifying – as being actually true.”

    Ain’t that the sad, damn truth.

    I remember reading a quote attributed to Baltasar Gracian: “Better mad with the rest of the world than wise alone.” Maybe sometimes that’s the truth too.

    Ride Free

  26. Ed G Says:

    For me, what I don’t like is just the noise. Loud motorcycles are obnoxious. People who like to make noise just for the sake of making noise are jerks. Ever hear the old saying, “Your rights end where my rights begin.”? That sums it up pretty well. That’s why we don’t allow someone to raise pigs or burn trash in a residential area. Why should someone think they have a right to make so much noise that plates rattle inside people’s houses when they go by? Would you be cool with me coming to front yard with an air horn and blast it towards your house as you try to have a nice dinner, or as you sleep at night? There are places for loud motorcycles and motorcycle rallies, just like their are places to raise pigs and burn trash. But a city isn’t the place.

    If the Rolling Thunder folks wanted to show their respect and remember their dead by marching in silence from the Mall to Arlington Cemetery, I’d support it 100% When they choose to make themselves a nuisance by polluting the air with poison and noise, then my opinion of them is much lower.

  27. Shovelhead Says:

    Ed G said:
    “If the Rolling Thunder folks wanted to show their respect and remember their dead by”

    They’re Americas Dead you asshole, not their dead! Men & Women who fought and died for our Country.
    Stop your whining, be a Man for once and appreciate the sacrifice these soldiers made for you and your family.
    Rolling Thunder is just Honoring those Fallen Heroes, you can’t put up with a little Motorcycle noise? I’m sure a lot of these Rolling Thunder members are Veterans who put up with more noise than motorcycle engines. Machine gun fire, IED’s. grenades!!

  28. shoes Says:

    Rolling thunder is to honor and pay tribute to those still missing and unaccounted for and potentially any pow’s. By the way,trumps going to participate on sunday

  29. Just Bob Says:

    @ Ed G
    Go change your tampon.

  30. NCRider Says:

    Ed G,

    Have you ever heard of “civilization”? If you do not want to hear “loud noise”, then perhaps you should live on an isolated island or in a cave. Maybe I don’t want to read your disrespectful, “obnoxious” opinion. Yes asshole, it is my right to ride a loud motorcycle. My uncle is MIA from Vietnam. Any event that is held in honor of him and the many, many others is always meaningful and appreciated. You should be ashamed of yourself.


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