Easy Rider Meets Easy Company
It’s Memorial Day here in the Nation’s Capital and the motorcycles have once again arrived to remind us of something. Just exactly what remains unclear.
Tens-of-thousands of doo-rag wearing white-haired Vietnam era Veterans and their legions of followers careen hither and yon in the costume and style of motorcycle club/gang culture. The Harley and the patch bedecked leather vest are the latter day symbols of the Vietnam Veteran, in an ostentatious display. The mass effect can be menacing as the visual and auditory message hardly conjures up social harmony on a broad scale.
Motorcycle culture first and foremost has a strong element of the “bad boy” about it and so its selection by aging veterans is fascinating and curious. Did WWI, WWII, or Korean Veterans adopt a similar cultural vessel as a way of expressing their solidarity, community or patriotism?
To the extent that the motorcycle is literally a modern version of horse power, perhaps these vets are either cowboys expressing their “outlaw” side or their Army cavalry heritage as they bring the Wild West to Washington, DC, at least for the weekend.
In a post 9/11 city where the police nearly outnumber the citizens and any perceived infraction is quickly pounced upon, it’s interesting to watch everyone politely stand aside as men of a certain age dressed as Hell’s Angels stand-ins swagger about evincing a 21st century version of patriotism.
The Vietnam War is famously remembered as being unpopular, nationally wrenching and a losing endeavour. Those who served there were derided as they fought and when they came home. They endured public cynicism and the absence of the hero’s welcome upon their return. To have risked one’s life repeatedly and to be thus repaid must have been a deeply galling experience. Perhaps this unusual expression of emotion and our stand-aside reaction to it is the continuing national attempt to come to terms with the Vietnam War and its aftermath.
Amidst the Memorial weekend crowd the moto-costume serves as potent visual evidence of membership in an ever more exclusive club as the years pass by. It can even convey a sense of ownership in a place like the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial (V V M) or other public spaces. It makes the ordinary citizen suddenly the “other” as if our presence is a social gaffe or intrusion. But the V V M and other war memorials serve as national meeting places where we can gather to remember, reflect and pay homage to those who served and sacrificed. In this context the motorcycle regalia is all the more perplexing as it makes it harder to thank a veteran who looks like they might be seconds away from violence. Such is the inevitable visual shorthand of the “gang” stereotype.
On Saturday, while leaving Arlington National Cemetery, I witnessed an exchange which seemed to sum up the confusion and ambiguity of costume, culture, and the War, at least for me. Tour buses leaving the Cemetery were lined up waiting to pay for parking at a kiosk as they made their exit. Behind the buses were ranks of Rolling Thunder motorcyclists upset that they were not being let in ahead to exit. One rider sidled up next to a tour bus driver and called him an “asshole.” Unbeknownst to the cyclist, the bus driver served three tours in Vietnam, receiving the Bronze Star for valor. Then and now he was simply doing his job.
The road to reconciliation and understanding is long and winding, indeed.