Yeah, we’re in disparate times here, we all know that, right? Disparate and desperate. And the fascinating part about it all (or, for some, totally motherfucking depressing) is that even with the recent leaps and bounds we’ve made in communications technology, the Left appears to be nowhere near as unified, mobilized, active, and, frankly, pissed off as they did forty years ago during the Vietnam era. Is it a polarization, a shift in cultural acceptance that makes what’s going on now in Iraq something markedly different and more okay than what was happening in South Vietnam for, say, fifteen years or so? Have the masses just been lulled to sleep with Ipods and PSPs? Is it simply, as many critics claim, the lack of a draft that has kept the people from a focused and ultimately meaningful dissent? Talk abounds, but we really haven’t done much in the past few years that remotely equates with the massive and volatile Days of Rage protest in 1969, right? Why, why is that?
Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t have any definitive answers to any of it. But I do know that if the publisher’s timing of Sing a Battle Song wasn’t intentional, then they lucked out. Because there really couldn’t have been a better time to release this thing. Despite that aforementioned lack of mobilization, there are enough corollaries present between the cultural and political hotbed of the1960s and present time to make a book like this more than apt.
Sing a Battle Song is an anthologized collection of the poetry, communiqués, and periodicals released throughout the 1960s and 70s by the Weathermen, later known as the Weather Underground. If you’re not familiar, said group were a more hardline and militarized faction that was originally founded (I believe) from an offshoot of the SDS, Students for a Democratic Society. They were some pretty goddamn serious and motivated young people, ultimately becoming a loose knit and clandestine organization that was committed to a quid pro quo kind of retaliatory activism towards the U.S. government and its policies. Simply put, the Weathermen were a constantly fluxing group of individuals, at times numbering in the tens of thousands, sometimes dwindling to the hundreds, who scared the living shit out of policy makers and government administrations in this country. They were serious—promoting a violent revolutionary overthrow of the government to the point where the Weather Underground’s spokeswoman, Bernardine Dohrn (a contributing editor to this book) was eventually rocking the number one slot of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. Promoting a “guns and grass” kind of ideology, the Weather Underground was, among other things, staunchly committed to racial and gender equality and the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of U.S. forces from Southeast Asia. And they were, again, serious.
An example: on May 4th, 1970, the National Guard kills four students at an anti-war demonstration at Ohio’s Kent State University.
And on May 10th, the Weather Underground plants a bomb in the National Guard headquarters in DC in retaliation.
Quid pro quo.
Again, the content of Sing a Battle Song is made up of (gulp) poetry, original communiqués released to the media, and self-published manifestos and periodicals from the ‘60s and ‘70s as well as, most interestingly, new prefaces and editorials by quite a few key members of the Weather Underground. It’s these prefaces and editorials that I really found fascinating: overall, the editorials provided a ton of information about the Underground’s history, where the movement fucked up—but why it still remains an entirely valid and important movement—and why it’s one that can still offer newer activists some kind of working template, despite its faults, bravado, and eventual dismantling. Whether you consider yourself resolutely anti-violent (and the Weather Underground later retracted their statement that an armed revolution was the only means of a valid and worthwhile dissent) or not, Sing a Battle Song serves as a kind of heartbreaking history lesson of possibility; a snapshot look into what was an incredibly volatile and probably incredibly hopeful time, as odd as that dichotomy sounds.
One of the most stunning features of the book is the timeline at the beginning—a timeline that lists, month to month, the citizenry’s rebellious acts regarding the U.S.’s involvement in Vietnam, gender and racial equality, class and prison issues, and the government’s reactions and retaliations to said rebellions. Starting with the McCarthy Hearings in March of 1954 and ending with the dissolution of the Weather Underground in December of 1976, it’s an incredible and succinct distillation of a period of time that was, as I said before, probably both frightening and wonderfully promising.
In closing, it’s a huge book, and not always an easy one to plow through—the rhetoric gets a bit heavy at times, but what were you expecting?—but it’s a fascinating read overall. The editors of Sing a Battle Song, all key members of the Weather Underground at one time, have given us a document that allows us to look back on what may well be the closest to an armed revolution this country may ever come (and you can look at that as bad or good, depending.) And they’ve tempered it with their own recent recollections of that time, intelligent (and a bit sad) recollections that only a distance of years and experience can provide. Fascinating for its attempt to capture and reexamine such an incendiary time is the country’s history, and emotionally wrought with hope, idealism, a little bitterness that things turned out the way they did, and above all (as crazy as it sounds) a resolute respect for life and the potential for possible justice and fairness in the world. –Keith Rosson (Seven Stories Press, 140 Watts St., NY, NY 10013)