Pat Schneider: Moved by Bill Newman’s homefront account of Vietnam era

Last modified: Friday, June 27, 2014

AMHERST — Today I am reading Bill Newman’s book, “When the War Came Home.” It is a portrait of a generation, written not in reflection long after events, but in immediate responses as journalist, memoirist, commentary, poet.

Newman takes us a breath away from the defining moments of the 60s and 70s in America. It is profoundly moving to be back there in the intimacy of a journal entry prose poem he wrote as a college student May 17, 1970, after Nixon announced “the incursion” into Cambodia:

“In step with the darkness the drummer plays on. Play on, drummer, play on. Play on, drummer, play on. Play for the revolution. Play with the tired darkness. Play for the revolution. Play on, drummer, play on. Streaks appear in the sky and thin rattles play on. Play on, drummer, play on. Play to announce the revolution. Or at least the coming of dawn.”

For those of us who lived through those days, the early chapters seem just a breath away from the events themselves and so offer a kind of déjà vu to the “coming home” of the Vietnam war. That immediacy continues throughout the book in chapters of memoir and newspaper columns on more current issues.

As a private lawyer and then as an American Civil Liberties Union attorney, Newman interpreted to our community what was happening in the world. His earlier columns in the Daily Hampshire Gazette are as fresh today, and — in many cases, sadly, as relevant — as the day he wrote them.

“When the War Came Home” takes us “up close and personal” to execution, rape and suppression of dissent, as well as to celebrations of gay pride and the exhilaration of effective protest.

I first met Bill Newman in a training for civil disobedience given by our local American Friends Service Committee. I got arrested; Newman represented in court some others who were arrested. I “represented” myself, and the story of that aborted experience is in my new book, “How the Light Gets In.”

I am appreciating in Newman’s book his open humanity — the complexity of decision-making in a time of war: he was only 18 when he had to decide whether or not to burn his draft card, as some “principled anti-Vietnam War activists” did. He is blunt about his own privilege in being a college student: “In the end, ... race and class determined who lived and who died. To the Selective Service System, all men were not created equal.”

“When the War Came Home” is a book for us at home in the world. It raises crucial questions. Newman has touched so many of us through his direct action as lawyer and as activist. He is a drummer who has played on. The news yesterday was teetering on whether we will or will not be at war again in Iraq. The question is before each one of us — will we or will we not take a stand? Will we beat the drum? Will we play on?

Pat Schneider of Amherst is a poet and the founder of Amherst Writers & Artists.


Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061


Copyright © 2020 by H.S. Gere & Sons, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy