Peter Lennon, The Guardian, Friday 24 January 2003
Some time in 1969 in Paris, I first read Armies of the Night, Norman Mailer's account of the anti-Vietnam war march on the Pentagon. We had been aware of that 1967 affair, but it paled by comparison with the glorious events of May 1968 in Paris. American protesters did not rate highly for us.
They were, many felt, winsome flower-power kids who needed a joint even to invade a campus. But now journalism as I had never experienced it conveyed the truth about an astounding episode in US history. Americans of all shades - radicals, soft liberals, good Christians, salon socialists and anarchists - agreed to make common cause and fling themselves bodily at the Pentagon. Many of these crazy thousands intended to storm and halt by occupation the greatest war machine in the world.
Time magazine had attempted to bring distinction to journalism with a mannered style. But Mailer (co-founder of The Village Voice) got into the ring like the pugilist he is, with a reckless confidence that intuition was the equal of any "facts". His is reporting with a swagger, but unlike the tabloid variety, swaggering its way past conventions to identify and illuminate truths. It was visceral stuff, which conveyed not only the facts but the fear, brutality - the taste of the affair.
It was mesmerizing, and to re-read it today is to experience an additional punch: the one that verifies that history repeats itself as (malignant) farce. Page after page you have the impression that he is commenting not on Lyndon Johnson's shameful war, but George Bush's corporate-powered skulking towards another self-serving war.
Mailer was lured into the march by "a good friend and a lugubrious conscience", the poet Mitchell Goodman. "When," he at first blusters, "was everyone going to cut out this nonsense and do their own real work. One's own literary work was the only answer to the war in Vietnam." He not only joined the movement but went to the front lines and was the second person, of thousands, arrested by Pentagon marshalls.
On the march he is reporter, analyst, impressionist. He exposes America's ignorance and fear; brutality and evil, decency and foolhardy heroism. He reflects on the hatred of authority among the young generation (he was then 45). "Authority was the manifest of evil to this generation... The authority had operated on their brain with commercials and washed their brain with packaged education, packaged politics." Now he reaches a very precise topicality: "Authority had lied. It lied through the teeth of corporation executives and cabinet officials and police enforcement officers and newspaper editors and in its mass magazines where the subtlest apologies for the disasters of the authority... were grafted in the best possible style into the ever-open mind of the walking American lobotomy: the corporation office worker and his high-school son."
Now he reaches the symbolic core of evil itself: "The Pentagon," he writes, "rose like an anomaly out of the sea from the soft Virginia fields [they were crossing a park], its pale yellow walls reminiscent of some plastic plug coming out of the hole made in flesh by an unmentionable operation".
Mailer makes it plain he is not anti-war; he believes there can be such a thing as a good war. But "certainly any war was a bad war which required an inability to reason as the price of retaining one's patriotism?"
Armies of the Night supports the theory - more resonant now than then - that perhaps the most ruthless and prolonged jihad in history has been that of the American fundamentalist Christians, which began towards the end of the second world war. "A consensus," Mailer says, "of the most powerful wasps in America - statesmen, corporation executives, generals, admirals, newspaper editors..."
They were powered by the fanatical conviction that capitalism was the best and only solution for the Asian peasant (and American interests). They decreed that communism must be defeated at whatever cost. So we got Vietnam, Cambodia... no liberal then dare voice a secret belief, he says, that perhaps, initially at least, communism might actually have been better for the Asian peasant.