The Woodstock Festival took place over 40 years ago on a farm in Bethel, New York. Longhaired, flower-wielding youths came from all over the country to camp and dance and listen to music on a wide expanse of farmland in the Catskills. They brought guitars and acid and free love. They twirled, they smoked, and they arrived by the hundreds of thousands for three days of promised “peace, love and music.” When I think of that time, images come to mind that are hazy and light, earth-toned and effervescent like a slew of Polaroid photographs baking in the sun.
Just yesterday, a chilly Sunday morning, I was curled up in a studio in the actual town of Woodstock, a small but charming bohemian village. It was my last day of a month-long artists’ residency, which was housed in a rickety old villa up in the hills. I spent my days writing. I spent my nights reading and cooking and eating with nine other artists who were there to write, paint and compose. It was quiet and calm, filled with the sounds of crickets and owls. The landscape was clear and cool, drenched in the burnished greens and reds of a coming autumn.
The distance between Woodstock and Bethel is relatively small. Only 70 miles or so. And though the iconic festival didn’t actually take place in Woodstock, the town bears a legacy that represents a culture that defined the time. Its residue can be seen everywhere. On my late afternoon walks, which I took to clear my mind of excess words and occasionally talk to Matt on the phone, I saw middle-aged men with gray hair cascading down their backs and roadside booths selling more tie-dyed t-shirts than I knew existed. The main street was exploding with yoga studios and Tibetan souvenir shops. Bob Dylan once lived up the dirt road that runs in front of the studio where I worked.
One Friday a few weeks ago I saw a movie with a handful of the others in the residency. We saw “Taking Woodstock,” an Ang Lee film about a family who ran a motel close to the concert and their son, who played a role in bringing it to Bethel. It was fun and happy, but filled with stereotyped characters that grated on me by the end. I can’t say I recommend it highly. It did make me think, though.
In the movie, a young scraggly-haired man named Billy functioned as the token veteran. He wore his olive drab uniform blouse unbuttoned over blue jeans, and constantly sipped a beer. His eyes were glazed and vacant. He thought of going back for another tour of duty, because at least he wasn’t “weird” in Vietnam. In one scene, Billy has a flashback of a battle and wanders through the forest, crouching and looking for enemies.
It made me think about a different kind of distance. One far larger than 70 miles. I know it's not a surprise, but I’ve been thinking about war.
The Woodstock festival took place at the height of the Vietnam War. Young men died every day. Veterans returned with minds and bodies bearing the scars of battle. And in the 60s, men didn’t have a choice. The war touched all Americans because each man’s number might be the next. Anyone could be wrenched from his life, like Matt was from his, and sent to fight an “enemy” who was not clearly defined or understood.
Then, the youth culture came together in protest. The Hippie movement wasn’t born of solely of the war in Vietnam, of course. It was an outlet for many things. But it rose alongside the Viet Cong and the Tet Offensive and resulted in a wild energy, intense togetherness and desire for peace.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that energy—one that perhaps died with my parents’ generation. Now, as our country fights two wars that have dragged on for almost as long as Vietnam, there is a familiar underlying hopelessness. But there’s also an apathy. One that I’ve seen in myself, and one that I couldn’t help thinking about as I walked among the retail shops there in Woodstock selling coffee mugs painted with peace signs.
I protested the Iraq war in 2003. It was a huge demonstration, coordinated in cities around the world. I was a college sophomore and hitched a ride to New York City from Providence with a friend. We marched down First Avenue in a biting winter wind. There were speeches near the UN, which we listened to while eating bagels and sipping cups of coffee. I felt part of something large in that moment. I was proud of myself for making the trip. But then I went back to school and turned my attention to other things. I read the paper; occasionally I attended events like peace vigils on the campus’ main green. When I moved to New York in 2006 the protests were nothing more than a memory. The immediacy of the conflicts abroad had faded bit by bit, for me and my family, for many of my friends.
I know that I was out of touch. There have been many protests. Dissent—and also support—has been voiced and covered widely by the press. I’ve read the books and the editorials. I’ve seen the movies. I’ve seen cars with “Support our Troops” bumper stickers on the highways around Boston. But the wars didn’t touch my life, really, until I met Matt.
Matt volunteered for the Army when he was 18. He chose to go to West Point. He began as a cadet before the Towers fell, yes, and the invasion of Iraq came as a surprise to him, too. But by putting on that uniform and earning his degree he promised to see it through to the end. When Matt invaded Iraq in 2003, right around the time I was eating bagels outside the UN, he and everyone else in the military was there of their own volition. The men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan today made the choice on their own.
The all-volunteer force today means that large swaths of our country have no connection to the wars. It means that it is entirely possible to sit at home in suburban Boston, in Northern California, in Manhattan and to view the conflicts we’ve been fighting for the last eight years as merely peripheral to daily life. For many, war takes place on television and in the newspapers, somewhere incomprehensible and very far away. Before I met Matt, war didn’t cross the boundary of my daily life. The subject hardly ever came up at the dinner table. I could ignore it, and I did.
I spoke to my mother on the phone as I walked into town to get some coffee a few Saturdays ago around 10 a.m. I could see my breath in the air and a group of deer paused to stare at me from the forest nearby. The sun sliced through the trees in sheets, hitting the pavement like painted lines. I told my mom about “Taking Woodstock,” which I’d seen the night before, and what it made me think.
We talked about the striking similarities between Vietnam and Afghanistan. About the length of the war and the endemic hopelessness. My mother remembered the draft.
The climate in our country would be so different if our brothers and husbands and sons had no choice but to go to war, I told her.
Everything would be different, she agreed.
I walked downtown, and bought an iced coffee at a bakery. I wondered what would happen if the young man behind the counter had to go to war. I walked towards the library, and wondered what it would be like if the teenage boys riding skateboards on the other side of the road had an older brother or two fighting abroad. I walked back towards home and I wondered what it would be like if I had to go to war, if all the writers and artists at this residency had to go to war. What if my brother, Ben, was drafted? Or the sons and daughters of our leaders in Congress and the Senate? What if those young men and women were torn from their lives, like Matt was from his, and had no choice but to fly to Kabul and then take a convoy to Gardez. I often wonder what it would be like if this was America’s war.