This weekend in Washington several hundred American citizens were beaten, tear-gassed, and incarcerated by officials and soldiers whose salaries they help pay. It was the bloodiest clash in the nation's capital since General MacArthur's troops routed the Bonus Army at Anacostia Flats in 1932.
Unlike the World War I veterans who wanted their government checks during the Depression, the 70,000 or so peace marchers who descended on Washington were not hungry, dehumanized folk. On the contrary, those who marched from the Lincoln Memorial to the Pentagon were predominantly well-educated, well-fed, rational people.
Because of their impotence they marched--and many were beaten. For three years, they had watched their President step up a wretched war he had promised not to escalate. They had participated in teach-ins, marches, and election campaigns, only to see the Administration widen the war as their protest increased.
Finally, dozens of anti-war groups--under the leadership of the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam--decided to march on Washington and "confront the warmakers." Plans were made for a vague sort of civil disobedience, something that transcended burning draft cards. The marchers were finally permitted to demonstrate in a marked-off area close to the Pentagon, within sight of the E Ring where the Joint Chiefs of Staff plan the bombing raids over North Vietnam.
A few more oil dumps and rickety railroad bridges were undoubtedly added to the bombing lists Saturday. But if the brass hats took time to look outside, they would have seen their charges--National Guardsmen, paratroopers, and MPs, aided by Federal policemen--flail about with billy clubs at unarmed citizens who crossed an imaginary line.
Sadly, the soldiers forgot that their superiors believe in "flexible response" these days. Instead of using only the force required to attain their objective, the helmeted troops, harked back to the 1950s and opted for "massive retaliation." That's why all the blood flowed, even though the few hundred dissenters who crossed into forbidden territory could easily have been removed without much violence or injury.
Armed authorities usually over-react to civil disorder. But this is no excuse for the behavior of many of the troops this weekend. They should have known that the demonstrators were not lawless thugs, bent on ravagaing the insides of the Pentagon. More important, the troops and officers should have realized that their brutality--and implicitly that of the government--will only spur on further illegal acts of resistance to the war.
In fact, the spectacle Saturday will have the more disturbing effect of decreasing the respect many moderate Americans have for their public institutions.
Nor will the demonstration by itself yield beneficial results for the anti-war movement. The war will not be brought to a close by draft resistance, civil disobedience, marches, and peace vigils. Confrontations are matters of individual conscience, not political expediency. Every demonstrator this weekend should realize that his protest is fruitless unless he returns to his community determined to organize voters against the war.
The war will end when a dogged President decides to reverse his policy, or, failing that, when the electorate throws him out and chooses a wiser man in his place. Symbolic acts, like marches and civil disobedience, will sway few votes. They do, however, dramatize political impasses, and in this respect, the peaceful assault on the American capital was a success.