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Monday, August 23, 2010

The Wisconsin truck bomb: forty years later, the same old thing

Monday, August 24, 1970,  3:42 a.m.

I was trying to sleep in my cabin in a pine forest along the Wisconsin River between Spring Green and Lone Rock.  This is where I went on most weekends to get away from weekday worries, devote attention to practicing forestry and enjoying nature, and try to find some peace in a very turbulent time to write and work.  We were spending an extended weekend in the forest before I returned to my home and got ready for college classes to start up.  At that time, college campuses were not peaceful places. Protests against the Viet Nam War made it hard to keep students and many faculty focused on course work.  In May of that year, four students were killed and another nine wounded by National Guard arms fire at Kent State.  The pine forest was where I  came to work, but the distractions were increasingly difficult to get away from. 

I heard a very distant rumble, like thunder that morning.  For some reason it was a disconcerting sound, because it seemed to break all the patterns of nature.  The pine lands are in Sauk County, the Sand County of Aldo Leopold's  Sand County Almanac.  Storms are fairly frequent and welcome because they were quickly absorbed by the sandy soil and helped the pine trees to thrive.  But this early morning, there  were no follow-up rumbles, and as the sun came up, it shined on a blue, clear day.

Sterling Hall where the bomb was planted.
During breakfast that morning, a radio newscast informed us that Sterling Hall at the University of Wisconsin, forty miles away, had been blown up by a Ford van packed with a fertilizer-diesel fuel bomb.  One man, a post- doctoral researcher, who was working in the physics lab had been killed.  I felt a kinship with the man because we were both in Wisconsin doing academic work, but I was able to do mine from a briefcase and a portable typewriter, while he was in the lab that morning trying to finish up some experiments before he left on a late summer vacation. I was doing what he was preparing to do.

Although I knew many people at the University of Wisconsin, I did not know this man, but I could relate to the all night work sessions as one tried to get caught up and arrange to spend time with one's family.  I also knew the kind of work he was doing.  At the University of Iowa, I knew many of the graduate students and researchers in physics.  When I stopped for a brew, it was usually at the place near the physics building where they hung out, and a man who commuted with me for a time was pursuing graduate work in physics.  I stopped by the physics building to pick him up and often chatted with the students and professors there.  I understood the intensity and nature of the work they were doing.  When this man was killed at the University of Wisconsin,  I felt a strong sense of loss to his profession and to his family.

But there is another aspect of the Viet Nam War protests that this incident reveals.  That is how obscenely stupid some of the protests were.  This was the most obscene and stupid.  I, like many people in the U.S., was uncertain about the Viet Nam, until the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that got us into the war was revealed as an utter fraud. Sen. Wayne Morse was opposed to the resolution saying that the incidents that were the basis for declaring war never happened, and that the reports from navy commanders whose ships were involved said as much.  As time went on, academics were conducting teach-ins and journalists were probing documents which indicated that the U.S. really had no military business in Viet Nam.  The opposition to the war caused Lyndon Johnson to withdraw as a candidate for president, and the turmoil mounted.  When Daniel Ellsberg leaked Pentagon papers to the New York Times in 1971, after the U. of Wisconsin bombing, the lying and deceit that got us and kept us in the war in Viet Nam was documented.

The outrage was justified. We had been deceived and betrayed.  And young men were being drafted and fed into the killing machine that eventually took more than 50,000 American lives for no valid reason.  What is worse is that returning veterans were despised and publicly abused for serving as required by law.  Eventually, the veterans were acknowledged and honored.  But Viet Nam left a stain on the country that is seldom acknowledged, except among veterans when they are with each other.  That stain is a distrust of the democratic processes driven by a civilian population that could be so duped and blithe about sending so many to their deaths. 

That was a big factor in making the war protests so stupid.  The protesters were abusing the wrong people.  And that is what made the U. of Wisconsin bombing so obscene.  The target was an Army laboratory in Sterling Hall.  The bombers made no distinction between the people who contrived the war and the people ordered under penalty of law to carry it out.  And they obviously gave no thought to the fact that totally innocent people could be in that building.

Of the four bombers, three were eventually caught, tried, and convicted.  One of those has died.  And a fourth has never been caught.  These people are of the same mentality as those who plant truck bombs in Iraq or crash airplanes into New York skyscrapers and Pentagon offices.  They do not bring peace.  They are a major part of the war.  They keep wars going. 

They were obscenely stupid.  And so here we are again in another war contrived on  false information and "supporting" those who die in it. 

In the past 40 years since that truck bomb ripped through an August morning at the University of Wisconsin, we have learned nothing.  And young people are being sent to die, not for our freedom, but to satisfy the need for blood of those who want war, no matter how unjustified. 

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States