Bombing the Pentagon


Everything was absolutely ideal on the day I bombed the Pentagon. The sky was blue. The birds were singing. And the bastards were finally going to get what was coming to them.

I say "I" even though I didn’t actually bomb the Pentagon — we bombed it, in the sense that Weathermen organised it and claimed it — but I’ve had difficulty writing this, and I thought if I just said it boldly — "I bombed the Pentagon" — that might liberate me to go on.

There’s a necessary incompleteness in this account, an incoherence which is in part an artefact of those times and that situation. Some details cannot be told. Some friends and comrades have been in prison for decades; others, including my wife Bernardine, spent months and months locked up for refusing to talk or give handwriting samples to federal grand juries. Consequences are real for people, and that’s part of this story, too. But the government was dead wrong, and we were right. In our conflict we don’t talk; we don’t tell. We never confess.

When activists were paraded before grand juries, asked to name names, to humiliate themselves, and to participate in destroying the movement, most refused and went to jail rather than say a word. Outside they told the press, "I didn’t do it, but I dug it."

Even all these years later I look at it — a bomb inside the Pentagon — and my breath catches, I tremble a bit. I used to say, "Those who tell, don’t know, and those who know, don’t tell." It was a clever way to keep the bastards guessing. But I do know this, and I’m going to tell. In my way.

Why did you bomb the Pentagon? My dad wants to know.

He was once offered a Cabinet position and was once considered for Secretary of the Army. He knows that I bombed a lot of things — Those were crazy times, he says, better forgotten — and he knows, too, that Diana Oughton, whom he liked, is dead — "She was older", he says now, "and she led you astray." He’s stuck in other patterns as well — "You need a haircut", he says automatically, and, "You’d better cover that tattoo in front of Mother" — and now he wants to know why I bombed the Pentagon.

I didn’t really think that a kilo of dynamite would knock it down or even do much damage — although it turns out that we blew up a bathroom and, quite by accident, water plunged below and knocked out their computers for a time, disrupting the air war and sending me into deepening shades of delight.

I didn’t think that our entire arsenal, 57 kilograms of dynamite, would actually count for much in a contest with the US military, but I was never good at maths, and I did think that every bomb we set off invoked the possibility of more bombs, that the message — sometimes loud and clear — was that if you bastards continue to wage war, we’ll go into places you don’t want us to go, places like the Pentagon, and we’ll retaliate, and soon — who knows? — you might completely lose control.

The Pentagon was ground zero for war and conquest, organising headquarters of a gang of murdering thieves, a colossal stain on the planet, a hated symbol everywhere around the world.

I thought about the justification for each action. Sometimes I answered technically: we worked hard and did our best to take care, to focus, to do no harm to persons and no more damage than we’d planned. The psychological answer, I think, was that we were young with an edge of certainty and arrogance that I would be hard-pressed to re-create or even fully understand again.

The moral justification requires remembering the context of the times. I could barely justify eating my own breakfast because it seemed a kind of inaction or a kind of moving along blindly, as if normal life included unending slaughter. I went for days on end with nothing to eat, no money of my own, no change in my pocket, thinking only of how to stop the war, how to make the price for continuing the war great, how to reach out to the victims of the war and stand alongside them and experience something of what they were experiencing. I wanted intimate knowledge of their situation, of their suffering.

I’d marched on the Pentagon more than once, scaled its walls, confronted armed troops there, and even peed on its side. If I could have, I’d have duct-taped it shut, or put it in a trash compactor, but the closest I could come was a tiny bomb in a toilet drain.

We’d already bombed the Capitol, and we’d cased the White House. The Pentagon was leg two of the trifecta.

Millions of people had died in the war by now as the United States rained millions of tons of explosives on Indochina. Where was there room for all those bombs? I imagined I could taste the ash in my mouth, smell the acrid smoke from something still smouldering in my chest. Ho Chi Minh had said long ago: "Neither bombs nor shells can cow our people and no honeyed words can deceive them. We Vietnamese are resolved to fight till not a single US aggressor remains on our beloved land." He was right.

We were mostly into armed propaganda then, propaganda of the deed, guerrilla theatre, invisible resistance. Our bombings were less frequent, but we were not done with bombs. We reserved big attacks for big targets and big moments. We knew they would come.

President Nixon ordered the systematic bombing of Hanoi and the mining of the port of Haiphong in an operation code-named Linebacker, a nod toward the president’s preferred football metaphor. So we decided to answer that terror bombing with a tiny surprise, this one inside the Pentagon itself, the five-sided behemoth serving as the nerve centre of American military might, the most hated symbol throughout the world, we thought, of America’s bloody global mission. Some of us wanted to flatten the place outright, sick of our restraint until now.

We pulled together a special group that scouted the Pentagon irregularly for months. When a new escalation in Vietnam became imminent, my associates Anna and Aaron and Zeke got a storage locker outside DC, moved some explosives in, and then found a cheap apartment nearby and rented it by the week. Their reconnaissance led them deep into the bowels of the Leviathan, and they soon knew every hall and stairway, every cul-de-sac and office and bathroom. Everything was elaborately mapped, and their apartment began to look like an alternative war room, the dark mirror-image of the Pentagon itself.

Anna, her fingertips painted with clear nail polish to obscure the identifying marks of her naked hand, and heavily disguised in suit and blouse and briefcase, dark wig and thick glasses, began entering the Pentagon every morning with hundreds of other workers. She walked the halls, ate breakfast in the cafeteria, and left by 11:00am. She was never challenged.

I can do it, she said finally, pulling out her sketches and maps. Here — she pointed to an isolated hallway in the basement of the Air Force section — I’ve been here four times, never seen another person, and there’s a women’s room halfway down, right here. She made an X on the map. There’s a drain on the floor, narrow but big enough, I think, she said. One more visit was planned in order to unscrew the cover and take the dimensions of the space.

Anna was in the next day at 9:00 am, and was in the women’s room and the stall by 9:10 am. She locked the door, hung up her jacket, and pulled plastic gloves, a screwdriver, and tape measure from her briefcase. The grated cover was gunky but easy to pop off once the screws were out, and there was a comfortable 4-inch diameter that ran down for over a foot. Anna replaced the drain cover, wiped the area down and was back at the apartment by 10:00 am.

A delicate and complicated series of phone calls built a consensus from all quarters to go forward. Aaron was a specialist, and Zeke assisted as he customised a sausage 12 inches long and three inches around, with a tiny timing device at one end and a suspension arm fashioned from fishing line and hook at the other. Aaron packed the thing into a briefcase beneath official-looking papers and personal effects, and Anna successfully planted it.

All that long day Aaron worked to close down the Washington operation, emptying the storage area, cleaning out the apartment, and paying the remaining bills. Aaron was stocky and muscled, closemouthed but even-tempered, deeply confident without a hint of arrogance. He was also the backbone of the group — entirely committed and trustworthy, hardworking and dependable.

Aaron had been an emergency room nurse and a lumberjack, a guy we all believed could easily survive in the Australian outback or the Siberian wilderness for weeks with nothing but a pocket knife, or the streets of Greenwich Village with only a couple of dollars in his pocket. Aaron was smart but never showy, steady and able to improvise when necessary — the model middle cadre.

At 11:00am, Aaron pulled on plastic gloves and taped a statement about the impending attack beneath a tray in a phone booth across from the Washington Post offices. He then moved across town, and at 11:30 called the Pentagon emergency number. "In 25 minutes a bomb will explode in the air force section of the Pentagon", he said calmly. "I’m calling from the Weather Underground, and believe me this is no prank. Clear the area! Get everyone out! You have 25 minutes. Vietnam will win!"

He moved two blocks away and called the local police station, repeating the message, and then moved once more to call the Post, directing the night operator to the statement in the phone booth explaining it all. Comrades in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco simultaneously directed local newspaper operators to copies of the political statement taped neatly in nearby phone booths. And then Aaron, too, was off.

Although the bomb that rocked the Pentagon was itsy-bitsy — weighing less than a kilo — it caused "tens of thousands of dollars" of damage. The operation cost just under $500, and no one was killed or even hurt. In that same time the Pentagon spent tens of millions of dollars and dropped tens of thousands of pounds of explosives on Vietnam, killing or wounding thousands of human beings, causing hundreds of millions of dollars of damage.

Because nothing justified their actions in our calculus, nothing could contradict the merit of ours.

This is an edited extract from Fugitive Days – Memoirs of an antiwar activist by William Ayers, copyright © 2001, reprinted by permission of Beacon Press, Boston

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