This story appears in my book A Creature Wanting Form.
The March Against Death began on a Thursday night fifty-three years ago today at Arlington National Cemetery where they make the graves very handsome.
There are roughly 400,000 ugly bodies in the handsome graves there and fifty-three years ago at least that many living bodies marched on DC that weekend in a series of protests because the dead weren’t available to march for themselves they were otherwise engaged.
This is unrelated but I just thought of a scene in the Watchmen TV show where the main guy is making breakfast for his young children and one of them asks where their uncle figure who was killed is now and the guy goes before he was born he was nowhere and now he’s nowhere again.
Then he made waffles and the kids got invested in that.
Many of the protesters on that Thursday in DC carried signs with the names of people who had killed and been killed in Vietnam and would perhaps have their bones shipped all the way back to the famous cemetery before all was said and done. There was a lot more killing and being killed to do as it was only 1969 and it wouldn’t all stop for another four to six years depending on how you tabulate the accumulation of bodies.
Wait maybe Watchmen is related because the Vietnam War plays a big role in the plot of the comic book.
I think about the Vietnam War sometimes and it seems as distant in history as the invention of the automobile to my life but it wasn’t. I was almost starting to be born a year or two or three or four or five after the last person was killing or being killed there. My mother was a teenager and she was almost ready to have her second baby but this one she would get to hold for more than 60 seconds before the nurses’ mood changed.
They say almost 60,000 of our brave heroic soldiers died over there and people always say we lost that war but around two million Vietnamese died too so I don’t know what it really means to lose under that type of accounting.
Some of the signs the marchers carried also had the names of villages that had been destroyed.
It was cold that day in 1969 and when the protesters marched single file from Arlington across the bridge to the White House they were bundled up pretty good and as they passed the fence around the president’s house they paused and yelled out a name of the dead. Some of them were quiet and timid in doing so and some of them were so angry their voices were hoarse and their bodies shook.
The My Lai massacre had recently been exposed around then and people weren’t very happy about that as you might imagine. We used our helicopter guns against kids.
I understand obviously why machine-gunning civilians to death is worse than machine-gunning “the enemy” to death and I guess the thinking behind that is the civilians aren’t capable of or actively trying to hurt “us” and so there is no justification to slaughter them but I never understand why the people who draw that line don’t also extrapolate it out to its inevitable widening conclusion when it comes to starting the wars in the first place.
“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America,” Muhammad Ali said around 1967 on his refusal to enlist.
“And shoot them for what?”
Elsewhere in the country some of the parents of those who killed and were killed in Vietnam tried to bar the protest group from speaking the names of their dead children.
They didn’t like the idea of their children being used for politics.
One by one each of the protesters deposited their signs with the names of the dead into prop coffins they had set up and Nixon was up late into the night watching it all unfold on TV like a sweaty pervert. I was going to say but thankfully now he’s in Hell with the rest of our presidents but the truth is he’s nowhere.
Nothing particularly violent happened that weekend. At least not in DC anyway. Lots of violent things happened in Vietnam. As the protest grew into the hundreds of thousands the military and the police were standing by with many of them hiding out of sight in case they had to ambush what must have seemed like an occupying force. It’s got to fucking suck to have your city invaded I would imagine.
I’m pretty sure the whole thing about protesters spitting on soldiers when they came back from Vietnam was made up or else greatly exaggerated but if it did happen I bet they all would have much preferred to spit on Nixon they just didn’t have a good sight on him which is exactly how war works. You have to shoot whoever is closest and it’s never the main bad guys.
Nixon was asked a few weeks earlier whether or not anyone from the burgeoning protest movement had convinced him to reconsider the war and he said lol no it’s just the hippies on college campuses he said. It’s not real people. He said it was basically no big deal. Thankfully our leaders don’t treat the left like that anymore.
I read a newspaper story where some people were quoted saying the protesters were all enemies of freedom and so on. You can probably imagine what they said verbatim on your own. It’s funny to think that the Boomers had Boomers of their own who hated them all the same.
On Saturday of that weekend in 1969 around 500,000 gathered across from the White House and lots of performers were there like Pete Seeger and John Denver and Arlo Guthrie and they all sang “Give Peace a Chance” etcetera and maybe it worked I don’t know but around that same time Nixon was escalating our project of carpet bombing the unmerciful shit out of Cambodia and that would go on for a few more years.
Four students at Kent State were murdered by the Ohio National Guard in May of 1970 during protests against that bombing campaign. Neil Young wrote a song about that shooting which you know I’m sure.
One time I was walking across the bridge from Georgetown to Arlington with a girl I had just started seeing. It would have been around 1998. I don’t remember much about the date in question except that we probably had something for dinner that didn’t agree with me because halfway across I was paralyzed by sudden onset diarrhea poisoning. There aren’t many hard and fast rules about the mating rituals of young humans but I am fairly certain one of them is don’t shit your pants in front of the other person and so I smuggled this dark secret of my bowels and its boiling stew across the bridge marching as stoically as I could manage and after what seemed like ten miles a McDonald’s appeared in the distance like an oasis for a guy crawling in the desert and I hustled inside and as I was opening the door to the stall of the bathroom and pulling my pants down in one smooth motion I sprayed a torrent of shit all over the wall like a firefighter who lost control of his hose. Then it was out of me and I felt better. I tried to clean up as best I could but I don’t think I did a good enough job so I am sorry to whoever was working at that McDonald’s that night if you’re reading this.
On my phone just now I saw a nice bowl of moules-frites and a drone photo a guy took of his wife lying on the beach in Puerto Rico and some foliage in Massachusetts and a pop star in lingerie riding a mechanical bull and a rum cocktail someone had poured into a hollowed-out gourd and a sunset on the Florida Keys and the shadow of a figure in the tall grass on a gray marsh and the charred remains of a car destroyed by a fire and an ad for knives and an ad for pants and an ad for sneakers and an ad for blazers and a dancing robot dog with a machine gun on its back and somebody’s dead grandfather and everybody’s dead David Bowie and I thought about how it was all supposed to make me covetous of something I don’t have and then I saw someone in Costa Rica posted a series of videos of some hatchling turtles or tortoises I don’t know the difference and they were crawling out of a hole in the sand confused and blinking in the red light.
Some of them struck out instantly for the ocean instinctively and some lingered and reached out with their flippers to pull the next one close for safety and didn’t seem to know what direction they were meant to go.
My uncle who was married to one of my dead father’s dead sisters was in Vietnam but I don’t know him anymore. He gave me a POW/MIA sticker that I put in my bedroom window when I was a child. I didn’t really understand what the concept meant but I remember Rambo was especially sore about it.
The other day I was talking to my other living father and he told me his dog had died that week. He had rushed her to the animal hospital and they couldn’t save her and he was fucked up about it. He told me whenever he took the dogs walking and running on the fields near the high school where I used to play sports that all the kids would know the dogs and pat them and stuff and I think he was proud that the local student athletes knew who his dogs were.
Then we talked about a high school classmate of mine who had died the day before from an overdose and her husband who had died from an overdose a couple years earlier. My friend who is a firefighter in the town I grew up in said he was on the call to her house the night she died and one of her little daughters was asking him why they weren’t rushing her mother to the hospital the whole time but I’m sure you can figure out why.
My niece had been over at the house hanging out the day before she died and her friend texted her the next day “mom is dead.”
Something about how she didn’t text “my mom” is fucking me up. Just lowercase “mom.” Of course that wouldn’t refer to anyone else in her experience.
Then my living father told me he was doing fine with his leukemia and from the way he tells it he has some sort of luxury leukemia that is basically nothing. I used to freak out about it when he first got it but now I barely even remember he has it. Then he joked about me dying young. Didn’t all your aunts and father die at sixty he said and I said I think so. He told me about when one of my dead aunts was on her deathbed. Her sister went to try to make amends and the first aunt was basically like no fuck you too late for that and she wouldn’t see her and then she died and then not too long after the other one died and then not too long after that me and everyone reading this died.
I don’t know if this is just a Massachusetts Irish thing but a weird part of getting older is finding out just how many of the people who used to watch you open Christmas presents went on to hate each other’s fucking guts.
The last time I saw that aunt she was in a coffin. I hugged her daughters who I was very close to growing up but don’t really see any more and then the next time I saw them it was at the funeral of one of their husbands who died from an overdose a couple years ago.
This is how you know this piece is kind of barely disguised non-fiction because if you made up so many overdoses in a row in a short story it would seem fake but not so in real life.
I haven’t seen any of them since then but probably will at the next funeral. Maybe when I overdose.
I don’t know what type of music any of those people I mentioned just now like or liked besides my living father. He likes Neil Young pretty good I think and sometimes he plays “Old Man” on the piano. I think he likes Van Morrison the best. At one point he must have liked Arlo Guthrie who was at that protest in DC because the first dog of ours I remember loving was an Irish Setter named Arlo and when he died I got pretty fucked up about it. Sometimes he’ll learn like an Oasis or Goo Goo Dolls song or something from the nineties where I am from and play it for me maybe to bond with me and I get the guitar and sing with him but that doesn’t happen as often as it used to anymore.
The last time I saw his mother alive we wheeled her down into the basement of the nursing facility where there was a piano and he played some songs for her while she sat there but I don’t know if she knew anything about it or anything at all.
Toward the end she would confuse him for her husband who had been dead for like twenty years and he would bust her balls about it like joking around pretending to be him and my mom would have to be like hey cut that out.
Everyone has read The Things They Carried the famous book of stories about Vietnam by Tim O’Brien.
I haven’t read it in twenty years or more maybe. Not since that grandfather I just mentioned was alive. I was reminded of it earlier this week when it was Veterans Day.
Even though O’Brien’s book was one of the most impactful collections of short stories I have ever read in my life it’s been so long since I’ve read it I don’t remember many details besides one which is the scene where the guy shoots a water buffalo to pieces bit by bit. He shoots it in the knee then the mouth then the tail and so on but it just won’t die and the rest of the platoon watches him doing it and are like what the fuck is this guy’s deal but they know because it was their deal too.
I remembered this morning that I remembered that scene and you probably do too and I was embarrassed in a way because it’s such a big dangling meatball of a metaphor about mankind’s cruelty and indifference to life like it’s the scene that’s supposed to punch you in the gut but it seems silly that it takes the systematic disinterested and casual slaughter of a dumb brute beast to drive the point home that killing is bad.
Why did I only remember the water buffalo dying of all the things in that book?
The first thing I could think of is that we think that in war the people on the other side are supposed to die and that is the natural order of things but the animal didn’t do anything to deserve its violent death.
I’m not sure why we don’t also extrapolate that out to its inevitable conclusion when it comes to starting wars in the first place.
I looked at my phone again and I saw a lineup of daiquiri shots on a brass bar that I’ve sat at too many times to count and a series of photos and videos of a young mother’s baby either a boy or girl I don’t know the difference and it was crawling around in the grass confused and blinking in the new sun and didn’t seem to know what direction it was meant to go and a bunch of troops sitting on a tank with the caption thank you for your service. Then I saw a football player had posted a series of photos of himself shaking hands with troops in various types of troop hats and a fancy hotel in Newport Rhode Island I stayed in one time offering a holiday special and the gang from the funny improv podcast yucking it up and a sad bowl of miso soup and Rod Stewart looking fashionable in a coat and another photo from the Florida Keys of some scuba divers unfurling a giant American flag underwater at the site of a sunken navy ship at a place I have snorkeled at.
Home of the free because of the brave the caption on the photo read and the flag is billowing out from the focal point of the camera like an enormous poisonous jellyfish and the guys yanking it along all look so proud. They have diving masks on but you can still tell they’re smiling and really happy about what they did here.