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March 27, 2007

Second Pentagon March

Roy Meachum

St. Patrick's Day March on the Pentagon took place without me. Also missing were the other 47,000 who made the original stroll over Memorial Bridge nearly 40 years ago. The figure generally accepted this year was 10,000.

The number of demonstrators was not the only thing different.

In 1967, my feelings were mixed but generally supportive of the American presence in Vietnam. I worried about the people who would be left behind, the families and individuals who had staked their lives on the promises made first by France's Charles de Gaulle and then U.S. President Dwight David Eisenhower.

Iraq, as readers know, produces no such ambivalence in me. We invaded without real provocation. We went to the help of people who wanted our help chiefly to topple Saddam Hussein and the Sunnis. The bulk of the nation's Shiites desired nothing more than our absence after that.

Islam's majority, by far, were a distinct minority in the nation Britain carved from what had once been Mesopotamia. Long before Saddam appeared the Shiites resented the Sunnis, who were placed over them by first the Ottomans, for hundreds of years, and the British.

No such conflict existed in Southeast Asia. In Vietnam, specifically, the Cold War overlay the plight of people who feared communism and those who, we were told, wanted to make the whole world red.

In 1954 when Dwight David Eisenhower assured written support to the president of the newly formed South Vietnam, this country lay in the midst of a Red Terror Fear. Sen. Joe McCarthy still roamed the land, spying communists under every bush. We saw Ho Chi Minh and North Vietnam as the edge of an encroaching force led by the Soviet Union.

We did not accept reality until 21 years and over 50,000 American lives later. I never liked the war but rallied behind the people who had staked their lives and futures on Washington's assurances.

That was my mood in October 1967, when what I called The Children's Crusade came to town. I was then a reporter/commentator for WTOP-TV, Channel 9. Receiving the assignment earlier that week, I had attended press conferences held by the organizers, who seemed to me professionals or ideologues.

The camera crew and I were in on the beginning, at the Reflecting Pool before the Lincoln Monument, on a day I once categorized: "October mornings start chilly; they toast off early."

For most of the marchers that Saturday was a lark. This is to take nothing from their feelings about Vietnam, but they set off to enjoy the crisp autumn weather...and their youth.

Two-thirds of the crowd seemed under-20 and wore denim, love beads and frizzy hair. Some decided to remedy the old men's speeches by wading into the pool, while their peers cheered. Not until early afternoon did they began to move into Virginia, headed for the building that still epitomizes war. In our Post-Newsweek station's station wagon, we beat them to the Pentagon and planted the camera on the River Terrace, the marchers' target. We waited and waited and finally they appeared, to be met by Military Police their own age.

One girl decided to slip a flower down an MP's carbine barrel, another followed her example and still more thought that was a good idea. The teen-age soldiers glared back at the boys and girls with wild hair and multi-colored clothes.

It was a standoff, so I headed for the side of the building where I discovered a drunken Normal Mailer being led off by federal marshals. He left too early to witness what happened, nevertheless he wrote a best-selling book on that day.

While I was still watching the famous author loading into a van, there came a cry from the River Terrace. I rushed to rejoin the camera crew, only to find my way blocked by a very nervous teen-age boy wearing an MP helmet. I stopped dead. Instinct told me not to argue or brandish press credentials.

About that moment, files of 82nd Airborne troopers poured out of the building; if they used force I never saw it. Although I was told some of the older men, U.S. marshals, clubbed at the kids. There were bloody heads as proof. In the event, peace was restored and never really disturbed again.

The Army's aircraft had counted 57,000 when they were on the move, by the time the night's chill settled in less than half remained. The crew and I stayed until after the 11 o'clock news and returned the next morning at daybreak.

Saturday's joy in their being together and celebration of standing up to the nation's most significant authority had been replaced by something approaching a spiritual hangover. Another attempt at making their point fizzled.

By Sunday evening, the first March on the Pentagon had faded away. Other protests followed, notably a May 1 rally several years later. I had been working in Rome in between and covered the 1970 protest chiefly from a DuPont Circle bar's stool.

You know what followed: President Nixon's flight and Gerald Ford's elevation to the Oval Office. The war wore on, taking lives, American and Vietnamese. By the time choppers had made their desperate pick-ups from Saigon's American Embassy roof, I had accepted colonial wars cannot be won by colonial powers.

Several years in and out of Egypt enabled me to see the individual features behind Arabs' brown faces; I also marveled at rage-contorted features of Bangladeshis, who were even darker than Vietnamese. I came to understand the element racism came to play in the American attitude towards these people, who remain denigrated because of their color.

As I said at the outset: When anti-war protestors marched on the Pentagon St. Patrick's Day, I was absent, still wondering where all those people and U.S. media were before March 19, 2003.

It seemed no one was reading the columns I wrote warning of the certain disaster that must follow invading Baghdad, especially when politicians provided less than half the number of troops the Army's commanding general said was needed to handle Iraq.

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