As the US rattles its sabers at Tehran, echoes of sabers past
Earlier this month, the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group -- the massive aircraft carrier itself with its dozens of warplanes and thousands of sailors and marines, a guided missile cruiser, and four destroyers -- suddenly began to make its way from the Mediterranean Sea into the Persian Gulf, heading for the waters off Iran. Pentagon sources spoke of ominous but unspecified threats. The U.S. military moved into a showy state of readiness, with reports that a force of up to 120,000 troops might be mobilized and sent to the Middle East for a possible future war with Iran.
In the Trump era, such American saber rattling, especially by hyper-hawkish National Security Advisor John Bolton, feels so unnervingly routine that it might not have even made me sit up. Then I read that the latest Middle East deployment included a task force of -- god save us from memory! -- B-52s, the massive strategic bombers dating from the 1950s that wreaked such havoc in the first great war of my adulthood: Vietnam.
Even as that now-ancient national trauma popped back into my mind, I chastised myself. Not every provocative U.S. naval deployment in sketchy waters off some distant coast is a set-up for a replay of the Gulf of Tonkin, that war-igniting North Vietnamese “attack” on U.S. destroyers that never was. I reminded myself as well that just because Bolton is sounding the alarm doesn’t mean his counterparts in Tehran are harmless or that Donald Trump, who years ago warned against a president launching an attack on Iran to win a future election, would be willing to go there. Why, oh why, I kept asking myself, won’t that antiwar trick knee of mine stop jerking?
The Ghost Bomber Flies Again, or 12 Drummers Drumming
But B-52s? I just couldn’t get them out of my mind. How could those aged monsters with their massive swept-wings, eight pylon-mounted engines, and 70,000-pound payloads of bombs still be flying?
B-52s were brought into service in the 1950s as the emissaries of an orgasmic, potentially civilization-destroying nuclear assault against hundreds of cities in the Soviet Union and communist China. Thank god, it never came to that, but then the B-52 was reconfigured as the ultimate instrument of carpet-bombing in Vietnam, leveling vast numbers of mile-square “target boxes” across that land. Its crowning performance, however, didn’t come until near that war’s end: the “Christmas bombing” of 1972. From December 13th to December 29th, over the mythic 12 days of Christmas, like so many drummers drumming, wave after wave of those strategic bombers were sent against previously off-limit targets in and around the North Vietnamese cities of Hanoi and Haiphong. It would prove to be the biggest heavy bomber assault since World War II.
Then an antiwar activist and a priest, I was among those who, as soon as we heard about the bombing campaign, assumed our country was engaged in a war crime of the first order -- a modern Guernica, as the French newspaper Le Monde put it. Events would prove us right and, yes, the B-52 has haunted me ever since. That’s why the news of its latest provocative deployment against Iran takes me back across the years to a set of as-yet-unreckoned-with mistakes -- ones that are distinctly the property of the Pentagon, but also, given the U.S. wars that followed, the American people. That’s why, as recent events began to unfold, I found myself returning to what I still consider my own mistake rooted in the absurdity of that distant moment almost half a century ago, one that I suddenly felt a need to revisit.
The 12 Days of Christmas
The story begins with that Christmas bombing. Here’s my best recollection of what happened. Less than two months before it began, just ahead of the presidential election of 1972, Richard Nixon’s secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, announced that, when it came to the Vietnam War, “peace is at hand.” In that way, he gave his president, if not a partridge in a pear tree, then at least the means to smother Democratic antiwar presidential candidate George McGovern that November. And a Washington-Hanoi peace accord had indeed been agreed to in Paris in October only to break down in December. At that time, the reelected president ordered the most savage bombing campaign of an already savage war, dispatching more than 100 B-52s to drop high explosives on, among so much else, the Bach Mai Hospital in the North Vietnamese capital, Hanoi. Once again, civilians were being killed by American flyers.
At that point in the war, as a member of the Catholic wing of the peace movement, I had been an organizer of numerous antiwar demonstrations and a participant in a handful of civil disobedience “actions,” but something in me snapped on first hearing news of that barbarous burst of yuletide violence. I experienced a jolting urge to escalate myself and immediately thought of a good friend in Washington, another Catholic antiwar organizer and priest, as firmly committed to nonviolence as I was but less in the grip of timidity. He, too, was enraged by the Christmas bombing. “Let’s do something about it,” he said.
The week before Christmas, I travelled from Boston to Washington to join him in shaping a response. By the time I got there, he had already gathered a few other activists, most of whom I knew. I trusted them. We were all old hands at antiwar protests (with small-potato arrest records to show for it). None of us, however, had engaged in the serious kinds of law breaking that had sent other Catholic pacifist-protesters off for significant prison terms. Yet all of us were appalled by the ongoing Christmas bombing, which, for us, felt like a new kind of draft notice.
Our collective urge seemed clear enough: Stop the war! Shut down the Pentagon! The question was: How? Inspired by a plain-spoken fellow whose father had been a teamster and who had himself been a trucker, we were soon hunched over maps of the roadways ringing the Pentagon. A patchwork of clover leafs and ramps brought traffic into its two massive parking lots that accommodated almost all of the 20,000 workers who daily filed into the largest office building in the world. Its five sides enclosed five concentric rings, 17 miles of corridors. Because one of its sides fronted on Arlington National Cemetery and another on the Potomac River, automobile traffic generally flowed in from just two main arteries. Most of those thousands of vehicles passed, morning and night, through a single complex interchange, “the mixing bowl.” A pair of Y-shaped crossings then funneled vehicles into the parking lots, each with its own choke point.
Shut down the Pentagon? Here perhaps was a way to do it: somehow block the traffic at one or more of those congestion points at the height of the morning rush hour and so stop its workforce, however briefly, from showing up to run the American war machine.
A Plunge into the Absurd, or 10 Lords A-Leaping
I recall feeling like I’d been dropped into another reality as I listened to my co-conspirators improvise strategies for blocking those critical roadways, grand designs that seemed so much less cockamamie once our trucker chum took charge. He had determined that I-95, the highway adjacent to the Pentagon, was under construction. Large trucks were already ubiquitous in the area. His idea: we would join them and who would even notice? In short order, we had a plan. He still possessed his “CDL” -- a commercial driver’s license -- which would allow him to rent a set of dump trucks with which we could then deposit something on the highway, shutting things down in the most literal way possible.
It tells you everything about that moment that his plan left us effervescent, even though in any other time it would have seemed imprudent at best and lacking even a modicum of common sense at worst. I then returned to Boston where, within hours, the fantastic unreality, the folly of that plan seemed, to my relief, obvious. No way would it go forward.
As the days passed though and the bombing continued, my Washington-based conspirators began working all too seriously to make it real. Soon, a half-dozen rental dump trucks had indeed been lined up; a demolition contractor, happy to avoid landfill fees, had agreed to load them with concrete debris; and a date had already been set -- the last week of January -- for six teams of us to do practice runs. January 30th was then settled on as D (for “Dump”) Day.
The plan: six dump trucks, each manned by a pair of protesters wearing hard hats and safety vests, would simultaneously roar up to pre-arranged sites. At a synchronized stroke of the clock, the “flag man” would leap out to halt oncoming vehicles at a safe distance, while the driver would flip the tailgate release, raise the bed, and offload several tons of concrete chunks and rubble onto the two key choke-points of the mixing bowl -- enough, that is, to block the entrance ramps to those immense Pentagon parking lots. We would then leap back in the trucks and speed away.
After making a beeline back to the rental lot and leaving the trucks, we would rendezvous at the Jefferson Memorial. There, we would await the police. A friendly lawyer had already warned us that we could be charged with anything from a misdemeanor civil infraction -- blockage of a public passageway -- to (gulp) criminal conspiracy to commit sabotage in a time of war. The police would know to come for us because we would have scattered copies of our manifesto around the rubble piles and it would include the time and place of our projected surrender. A call would also be made to the Washington Post, explaining that we were the ones who had created the massive traffic jam then spreading across northern Virginia. The manifesto was to be headlined “Stop the Bombing!” All well and good until, that December 29th, the Christmas bombing stopped. But that didn’t stop us: we would simply headline the manifesto, “Stop the war!”
By the time I was briefed on the latest iteration of the plan by phone, 11 others had already agreed to take part. I swallowed hard, took a deep breath, cleared my calendar for the last week of January, and said I was in.
Peace with Honor?
But events outran us. By mid-January, peace talks had resumed in Paris between Kissinger and North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho. On January 23rd, President Nixon went on television to announce that a peace deal had been agreed to. A ceasefire was to take effect at once and U.S. combat operations halted. North Vietnam recognized the legitimacy of the South Vietnamese government in Saigon. That government, in turn, accepted zones of communist control in the south. American prisoners were to be released. The Nixon administration claimed the Christmas bombing -- those days of drummers drumming -- had forced the North Vietnamese back to the negotiating table, a case of ends justifying means if ever there was one.
In fact, however, that ceasefire would not hold. Savage fighting would continue for two more years until the Communists finally overran Saigon in April 1975. Still, the U.S. would no longer be a direct combatant. Vietnamese suffering would, of course, continue. For Americans, however, it would prove to be the ultimate not-with-a-bang-but-a-whimper ending. Still, an ending it was.
I recall that moment not as one of joy but of profound relief that the American war was finally over. But I must admit as well that, for me, there was also a sense of deliverance from the coming action at the Pentagon. Only with this turn in the story could I acknowledge to myself the depth of dread into which the prospect of our quixotic plan of faux-sabotage had plunged me.
After watching Nixon’s peace announcement on television, I called my buddy in Washington and he promptly shocked me to the core. He assured me that the president was, as ever, obviously lying. The deal would never hold. The U.S. would soon gin up its war machine again. “Don’t be a sucker, Jim,” he insisted. And, of course, our dump-demo at the Pentagon was to take place as planned. In fact, the dummy runs with the trucks were about to start. Nonplussed, I pushed back. “Our demand,” I insisted, “is to stop the war. How can we go through with this when that’s exactly what they’ve done?”
But he wasn’t having it and promptly put his ace on the table. “You signed up, Jim!” he said.
In the end, only three of the original dozen plotters, including that one-time trucker, saw the thing through. The rest of us dropped out and, though concrete rubble was indeed dumped on an access road to the Pentagon, there was but one measly truckload of it left at a potential chokepoint around 7:30 that D-Day morning, a pile far too small to block even that one road. Other drivers simply swung around it, hurling curses at what they took to be an incompetent construction crew. The few manifesto-flyers strewn about were quickly lost in the wind.
When, having returned the truck to the rental lot, the three would-be saboteurs called the Washington Post and showed up at the Jefferson Memorial ready to be arrested (or interviewed), neither police nor reporters appeared. Not even the morning radio traffic report mentioned anything out of the ordinary around the Pentagon. When my friend went back to the scene of the crime that afternoon, as he later told me, all evidence had already been swept away.
To my surprise, I was left feeling guilty and sad -- and so finally acknowledged the obvious to myself, though not to him: the entire project had been ridiculous from the get-go, Mahatma Gandhi meets the Keystone Kops. And doing it after the American war ended would only have emphasized the absurdity of it all (had anyone noticed). That such a mad action was conceived during the penultimate madness of those grim Christmas bombing days laid bare the madness with which, by then, that war had infected us all.
The War That Began With a Lie Ended With a Lie
In reality, the terms Hanoi agreed to that January were identical to those it had accepted in Paris in October (except for certain sticking points on which the Americans, not the North Vietnamese, gave way). As American negotiator John Negroponte later reportedly put it, we bombed them “into accepting our concessions.”
If the Christmas bombing had any purpose at all, it was, by means of such a brutal display, to pressure U.S. ally and South Vietnamese leader Nguyen Van Thieu into accepting a peace treaty he had not been party to. In other words, the American war in Vietnam, which had begun with a lie, was now ending with a lie. President Nixon had promised “peace with honor.” Now, the Paris agreement was going to deliver a final betrayal of the country’s South Vietnamese allies, who would soon enough be crushed.
In the end, however, the Christmas bombing’s true purpose wasn’t to change the North or even convince Thieu to sanction the deal. It was simply to deliver 12 days of unprecedented violence, a pure spasm of hate and vengeance, a summary act of mass murder directed at an enemy that had refused to be defeated -- simply because it refused to be defeated.
As I recall all of this now, so many decades later, feelings of guilt and sadness swamp me once again, especially as, in the wake of that Christmas-tide spasm of bombing, my friendship with my Washington buddy would never be the same again.
The Last Antiwar Action, à la Doonesbury
If the Christmas bombing was the last direct American military action of the Vietnam War, it is likely that the overlooked single rubble-dump on that road near the Pentagon was the final antiwar protest of that era. And if its memory haunts me, it’s undoubtedly because I can finally see that I was wrong not to join that foolish act of fake sabotage. After so many years of mass antiwar actions that were truly meaningful, even those six dump trucks -- those six geese a-laying their concrete debris on those access roads that morning -- would undoubtedly have had little more impact than that one pathetic dump did. Had the Christmas bombings been ongoing, the Pentagon engine of violence, generally on a kind of autopilot in those years, would surely have continued to purr along. The last anti-war action, if noticed at all, would, at best, have been laughed at. If the Washington Post had taken notice, it would have been in Doonesbury.
The difference would have been in me. I would have actively refused to accept at face value the Vietnam War’s last lie: that those B-52s had brought home a victory of any kind. If I feel differently now, it’s because of the nearly 50 years that have passed since that moment, the equivalent of a cumulative song whose lyrics would have been one lie a-laying after another: that, even with the Soviet Union gone, the U.S. still needed a hair-trigger nuclear arsenal; that NATO must expand, encroaching on Russia; that the threat of terror after 9/11 was existential and endless; that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (or even a program to produce them); that there’s no alternative to a new Cold War with China; and most recently, that the Iranians, thanks to their threatening actions, are bringing us to the edge of another incipient conflict.
To engage in a futile act of war protest, as my friend did then, was still to have refused to be fooled. It was to have done something. As he steered a lumbering dump truck into that Pentagon mixing bowl, I and countless others like me, whether out of hope, fear, or mere exhaustion, were busy detaching ourselves from an unfinished business, an unfinished duty: to actively resist the unjust violence being perpetrated or threatened in our names (and not just in Vietnam either).
During these last 18 years of forever war across significant parts of the planet, such detachment has, in fact, been a striking mark of American life, while policies conceived in, and pursued from, the Pentagon have again and again unleashed havoc -- both in an increasingly rubble-strewn Greater Middle East (and North Africa) and in a Europe increasingly overrun by the desperate refugees from our wars. As American military leaders have failed even to come close to winning those wars (mission accomplished!), our politicians, right to left, have similarly failed to stop them -- have, in fact, often only encouraged them -- even as the wicked futility of such eternal violence has become ever plainer.
Yes, many Americans have come to disapprove of those forever wars, but what have we citizens actually done about them? Have we been waiting all this time for a mode of prudent protest to emerge? Looking for a reasonable way to object, for a realistic method of civic dissent to miraculously appear? Or have we merely been so many swans a-swimming, not caring enough, paying enough attention, to have become half-crazed, as my old friend was so long ago by the ongoing madness of the acts of our government?
Now, those ancient, ghostly B-52s are threatening to fly in yet another possible war in the Middle East, even as the Pentagon’s lies keep coming. Yes, that building has five rings, but they’re hardly golden (as that Christmas song has it). The U.S. war machine keeps chugging along, spitting lead. What can stop it? I ask this, regretting the day I had a chance, however laughable, to lend a hand in putting an obstacle -- if only a bit of rubble, if only for an hour -- in its way.
My three friends -- those three French hens of that Christmas moment -- acted. I declined to do so when still a young man, because it seemed too absurd to me at time. Here’s something far more absurd, so many years later when I’ve become an old man: America’s unending crimes of war have come to feel utterly routine. In our moment, John Bolton’s bloody mischief continues to unfold and even a peep of actual public protest is missing in action.
My foolish friend died long ago. Otherwise, I would call my former fellow turtle dove this very moment and assure him that he was right, that I was wrong, and I would fervently apologize.