Yesterday, nearly a million sunburned Americans converged on Washington DC’s National Mall for the Rolling Thunder Run, a combination memorial event and motorcycle rally held since 1988. Hundreds of thousands were mounted, roaring one at a time along the nation’s front yard; more than half a million watched from sidewalks, ice cream in hand, yelling and cheering from the sidelines. Wives rode pillion, and flags snapped and streamed behind the bikes: the Stars and Stripes; POW/MIA flags; Navy unit crests; Marine Corps colors; Ranger flags; the yellow and black of the Airborne.
Devoted to good Detroit steel and unmuffled V-twin combustion from Harley Davidsons built in the heartland America of small-town Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Missouri, these veterans celebrate every year, in booming engines and determined presence, the American fighting man. Rolling Thunder began when three veterans decided they had had enough of Vietnam veterans’ being ignored and shunned, tainted by their association with a lost war in a lost cause. The country has swung full circle: Washington can now barely contain the bikers and the crowds who come to celebrate them.
The rally began as a way to remember those lost and missing; it has evolved into the only real national celebration of our fallen. Tattoos and beards and black leather out in the sun, those men are all of us. These are our mounted patron saints, America’s own motorcycle gang, the best of who we are.
Why Do Americans Enlist?
War is always appealing to those who have never seen it. People join the military for reasons profound and pedestrian: some are driven to build money toward a college fund; some think the uniforms look cool; some are offered Hobson’s Choice: the Marines or jail. In the teenage years everyone is immortal, and some young people, in the words of Vietnam infantry officer Phil Caputo, having known nothing but security, comfort, and peace, hunger for danger, challenges and violence. Some really believe the Super Bowl ads: Be All You Can Be. Do you have what it takes to be a Marine? Don’t you want to be part of the global force for good? Wouldn’t it be cool to fly a fighter for the Air Force?
Some buy in at the recruiter’s office, with the poster of a SEAL glaring down. Some get religion at boot camp, others aboard ship; some the first time they wear a uniform among old high-school friends; fewer while crouched behind a mud wall in the Third World, under fire and among their newest and closest brothers. By raising your right hand, you become part of an unbroken line of warriors reaching back to George Washington. You become part of something larger than yourself.
If you have served in the American military, you are relieved of at least one burden the teenager carries: you never have to prove anything to anyone again. You stood up and answered when the nation called. As the nation becomes softer, you have proven that you can be hard. As your peers take the easy way out, you went the other way. You stood to the test.
Kipling’s “women and horses and power and war” attract plenty of young men to that cause greater than themselves. Not all will see the elephant. Many will join, serve, and leave quietly. Others will never leave at all. In the end, people sleep peaceably in their beds at night because Orwell’s rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf. Those rough men, their duty done, drove motorcycles down the Mall yesterday.
Follow Me Down the Riders’ Road
They started gathering early Sunday morning in the parking lot of the Pentagon, that building which sent them to war and their friends to early graves. Looking up from the rally point, these riders could see the Arlington gardens of white stone, thousands of acres of perfect, serried ranks where their brothers lie. Standing sentinel above those rows of crosses and Stars of David, looking out at Washington, is the house which came through the Washington family to Robert E. Lee, and which the Union took from him, its land appropriated for the graves of the Union fallen in the War Between the States.
Low and right of that house, riders could just see above the trees the American flag flying above the Iwo Jima Memorial, Joe Rosenthal’s photo come to life, commemorating the fallen of the Marine Corps’ wars. Carved into black stone on the base of that monument are the dates and wars in which Marines have fought….but only wars which are complete. Iraq and Afghanistan are absent.
The riders mounted up and roared into action at noon. Swinging out slowly, by the tens of thousands they streamed across Memorial Bridge, over the river George Washington knew as the Potowmack. Up that river came British warships during the War of 1812; down it floated the dead from the amphibious battle of Balls Bluff in 1861, some of whom washed ashore at Mount Vernon. It provides the backdrop to the Kennedy family’s celebration of their brother, the Kennedy Center for the arts, and it separates three states from one another and the Pentagon from their civilian masters. The Potomac flows around the memorial to Medal of Honor winner Teddy Roosevelt—his own island—and past the one to his cousin Franklin. It flows quietly past monuments to the U.S. Navy, to Lady Bird Johnson, to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to Thomas Jefferson.
The Harleys flowed, too. They passed monuments to America’s best moments and her worst: the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, the National Museum of African American History under construction, the White House, the Capitol, the National Museum of the American Indian. Black leather, black bandannas, black helmets, black motorcycles, black POW/MIA flags snapping in their breeze, they motored past the quiet white buildings of the United States: government agencies, art galleries. They passed within feet of the National Archives, engine noise thrumming in the rooms that hold the Declaration of Independence and the Magna Carta. They passed the block-long glass of the Air and Space Museum, the busiest museum in the world, a monument to the strength and can-do know-how of Americans who conquered the skies, won our wars and put men on the moon.
All of this is America. The roads of Rolling Thunder– Independence and Constitution – are bookends to the ideals for which these men joined and fought, and for which their friends died.
If war is attractive to those who have never seen it, it is even more attractive to those who know they never will: the old people who send young men to fight and die in foreign lands. For the American military, every event is an away game.
Our sepulchers to the fallen are therefore in foreign lands—and they are not graveyards. Our cathedrals are the Omaha and Utah beaches, the towering cool trees above the battleground at Chateau Thierry, nameless patches of Vietnam jungle, San Juan Hill, the seawall at Inchon, the ocean below Leyte Gulfm the trenches still visible in the Argonne Forest. It is the lot of our fighting forces to go to where the war is—ones ongoing, ones we started, ones we must end. That war is in another land, every time, a land where we understand neither the people nor the culture, nor the language nor their gods.
The essence of the American military is one question: Who were you with? Not What unit were you attached to? or Which service were you in? That word—who—is the key. The military is people, and a 92-year-old wheelchair-bound veteran of the 82nd Airborne’s jump into Normandy is blood kin to the beefy 82nd Airborne veteran of Vietnam, and to the skinny young man who just joined the Screaming Eagles last week. They are members of the tribe.
The Veterans Return Home
Returning to Virginia, the bikers did what Americans do. They shut down the bikes and men, women, and engines cooled. They gathered. Some went to visit their brothers in Bobby Lee’s backyard, leaving totems atop the cool white stone: rocks and unit patches and jump wings and bottles of Jack, cards and boots and bullet casings. They turned for the cameras and left space for their brother between their knees. They put their arms on one another’s shoulders and looked at the frozen lives, carved now into the nation’s stone. And they wept.
They laughed and drank, and as night wore on the stories grew more intense and farther away, and those who were not there drifted to the side to watch as these men relived who they once were. They held each other, their bonds forged in Vietnam and Iraq and Lebanon and Afghanistan deeper than those to wives or children.
These are brothers from birth—the birth into adulthood. Joining the military is the last rite of passage to manhood in a country with precious few remaining, the last place to turn in the emasculated present to prove that you have what it takes. On being inducted into the tribe these men are pulled into a band of brothers. They participate in rites centuries old, sing hymns to fallen warriors, speak idiomatic shorthand only each other can understand. They burn ink into their bodies celebrating units and teams; they dress exactly alike, members of the tribe; they raise glasses in candlelight to the valor of men and machines in fights both celebrated and forgotten.
In fights abroad these men turn to one another, to the other Americans sent to put things right, brothers shoulder to shoulder. It is a precious thing, to be part of a tribe. The experience cannot be bought. The causes grow more opaque with each new war; the tribe, therefore, grows more tight and strong. Americans fight for country, which means this: they fight for each other.