Reflections on Rolling Thunder

WASHINGTON – It is all too clear why we can’t seem to protest our way out of this war.

And as a result, the war itself may never end. In fact, Gen. Stanley McChrystal recently suggested that “Operation Enduring Freedom” in Afghanistan may be just that – “enduring” – for a very, very long time.

But what is just as important as what the generals say is what the public says, and after spending time with Rolling Thunder over the Memorial Day weekend, it is clear that the national identity is still so dependent on the military and war and the iconography of sacrifice, that to penetrate it with a message of anything otherwise continues to be nearly impossible.

Except for a few stray years after Vietnam, war is and has been the apotheosis of what it means to be an American, the lifeblood of our collective experience, the test of our strength of a nation. It’s a religious experience, one that demands sacrifice and unconditional faith and a set of beliefs. It provides idols and saints and holy days, too.

Rolling Thunder has become the ultimate pilgrimage in this regard, even though it was founded at first to demand accounting for American prisoners of war and the missing in action in Vietnam. It soon evolved, naturally, into an annual cathartic event for Vietnam veterans who long felt rejected and forgotten by the American public, in large part because their inglorious war had become a stain on the national war canon.

But after 22 years, Rolling Thunder has not only grown and taken firm root in Washington’s Memorial Day calendar, drawing more than a quarter of a million veterans and friends on their motorcycles each year, it has emboldened a change in the way the Vietnam experience is viewed. Not only could we have “won” Vietnam – if it weren’t for all those Democratic defeatist bureaucrats and hippie protesters – but “never again” now means never denying the military carte blanche to meet perceived security threats to our country with force.

“Any enemy of the U.S. should be killed – at least twice,” exclaimed Jack Quigley, founder of the national ‘Nam Knights Motorcycle Club, which was started by police officers in New Jersey. They don’t truck much with dissent, and it’s pretty clear who they pull the lever for on Election Day.

“We need as many troops as it takes to accomplish the mission in as short of a time as possible,” said Quigley. When asked about the idea that more troops and more force may not ultimately win a non-conventional war against a stateless enemy, he was aghast that such thinking might exist. “There is no room for the gutless in our ranks,” he said.

Other responses were just as aggressive. “I think we should have bombed them back into the Stone Age,” one rider from the Viet Nam Motorcycle Club said of the Taliban. He suggested nukes. “Turn the desert into a glass factory.”

When I pointed out that the Taliban lives and operates among the population we are supposedly trying to secure in Afghanistan, another shrugged and said, “There’s always going to be collateral damage.”

Ironically, it was “collateral damage,” an estimated 72,000 civilian casualties during the U.S.-led “Rolling Thunder” bombing campaign against North Vietnam from 1965 to 1968, that helped to tarnish the military’s reputation back then, especially since the U.S. did not ultimately “win the war,” but instead sent home 58,000 dead Americans, leaving behind our pride and more than a million dead Vietnamese, plus millions dead in neighboring Laos and Cambodia, a scorched earth, and a communist government in the north.

Twenty years ago, Vietnam veterans were more prone to blaming a government that had “lied” about the true threat of communism, that had taken advantage of their patriotism and willingness to serve as sons of the “Greatest Generation,” in order to engage in an elaborate geo-political chess game with Russia and China.

But that talk is largely gone among the Rolling Thunder crowd – which is arguably more mainstream, more reflective of the aforementioned national identity, despite their leather and long beards and tattoos, than ever before. In retrospect, it is not that the government “lied” but that the “generals’ hands were tied.” And, as if to make up for this malfeasance in Vietnam, they insist the same thing won’t be tolerated in Afghanistan by any red-blooded American today.

“It’s exactly the same, there is no difference” between the Washington bungling of the war in Vietnam and the operations overseas today, said a Vietnam veteran named Ray from Louisville, Ky. “If they just stopped their damned PC [political correctness] … we could finish it.”

“I’m frustrated by the political correctness, it’s not allowing us to fight the war the way we ought to,” said another vet. “It’s become a PC war.”

“It’s all political bullsh*t,” said another. “You send them there to fight, let them fight. Let the generals do their jobs.”

Now while the “hands tied” thesis has always been popular, today it takes on special significance in that the current crop of “counterinsurgents” (or as Andrew Bacevich calls them, “crusaders”) among the military power elite have used it to advance their own counterinsurgency agenda in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their theory follows a similar vein – that counterinsurgency in Vietnam was beginning to work until Washington pulled the plug. In essence, the generals who had “figured it out” were circumvented by public emotion and skittish bureaucrats, foiling what could have been a great military success in Vietnam and suppressing the military’s development of counterinsurgency doctrine for decades to come – until now.

The accuracy of this interpretation of Vietnam, of course, is in dispute. In fact, writer Nick Turse has called out this reshaping of military history as a conscious movement led by top military players like Gen. David Petraeus as a convenient way to sell and justify the current Long War. Writer John Prados has referred to this as not mere “revisionism,” but “neo-orthodoxy.”

The manifestations of this are clearly felt in places like Rolling Thunder, which now incorporate multiple generations of veterans, including new vets from Iraq and Afghanistan, who enshrine the battles of Fallujah and Nasiriyah on their leather vests and in air brushed tributes on their fuel tanks just like their Vietnam predecessors did for Khe Sanh and Tet. Their cries are not about why their brethren have fallen, but what they can do to fight harder, in order to make the current sacrifice worth something.

This is a natural, human response that cannot be dismissed as contrived. As one Vietnam vet with two sons currently in the service told me, “To say the war wasn’t worth it would be to say they all died for nothing.”

But this natural defense has had deleterious effects. It has fed and reinforced a religious nationalism based on military prowess and the unquestioned sacrifice of generations of men and women to prove our dedication.

The Republican Party has artfully appropriated and suffused these impulses with their own political agenda, creating for itself an oversized, misplaced masculinity, which it uses to shame and belittle opponents and in the last 10 years, fight for more war, more weapons, more tax dollars to grow the military-industrial complex and American military influence abroad.

(Though Rolling Thunder riders will say it is a nonpartisan event, it’s safe to say President Obama was the least popular guy there on Sunday, save for “Hanoi Jane” Fonda, who remains, after 40 years, a pariah among Vietnam veterans.)

Sure, Republicans hardly account for a little more than a quarter of the American electorate today. But they have managed to set the tone by taking such a firm, proprietary grip of our proud military touchstones, effectively intermingling our definitions of patriotism, freedom, and even independence with support for the military. All this, made real in such large gatherings as Rolling Thunder, is difficult to penetrate.

And it is sanctioned by our civic institutions – the Pentagon allows Rolling Thunder to stage in their parking lots, the city of Fairfax and the state of Virginia shut down entire stretches of roads and highways each year to accommodate the riders – indicating this is more than a partisan enclave, but a mainstream ratification.

There was one Vietnam veteran who did not want to give me his name who had a slightly different point of view Sunday. “I had a funny feeling about it from the beginning. I don’t think we should have gone over there [Afghanistan] in the first place. Let them kill each other. When we leave it’s just going to go back to the way it was.”

But this vet spends a great deal of his spare time attending military funerals, and, like several veterans I spoke to Sunday, he felt that truly supporting the troops meant remaining neutral, if not outright supportive of the Washington policies that sent them off to war in the first place. In fact, their patriotism depends on it. “I may disagree with the policy, but we’re always ready to serve,” Ernie Sheldon, a veteran from of North Carolina, told me.

That is what the Washington national security establishment is counting on: a population that is willing to support and serve the war machine, irrespective of the policy’s virtue. It has become part of our identity as Americans to think this way, and for this reason it has been difficult for the antiwar movement to compete.

Yes, there was one victory to come out of Vietnam, and it was the battle against dissent. And for that, despite the nobility of Rolling Thunder’s original charge and the earnestness of most, many of its tens of thousands of bikers are doing victory laps around the war memorials in Washington each year.

(All photos by Kelley Vlahos, 2010.)

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.