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?