During Vietnam protests, Warfield showed compassion

October 07, 1999|By Michael Olesker

THIS ONE'S for Edwin Warfield III, a major general in full military uniform who gazed across a sea of anti-war demonstrators three decades ago and understood with a father's instinct what he beheld: children frightened and enraged by an endless war, trying to stop it in ways both noble and naive.

Memories of Warfield's composure in that time, and his strength and heartfelt humanity, came rushing back the other day with the news that he'd died of congestive heart failure at age 75, after a lifetime in the military, and in journalism and politics, and some anxious moments when the war in Vietnam might have taken lives in Maryland.

For three springtimes in the early 1970s, when he headed the Maryland National Guard, Warfield was ordered to take his troops to the University of Maryland in College Park and keep the peace.

It was happening on college campuses across America: student demonstrators, many of them draft-vulnerable, many who weren't but were furious with the nation's war involvement, going face-to-face with National Guardsmen equipped with rifles and tear gas.

At Kent State University, they killed four kids in the midst of one confrontation, and then more kids were killed at Jackson State. Those in the White House were calling such demonstrators "bums." It sounded like a tacit declaration of permission to those ordered to keep things quiet: Do whatever you have to do.

At the University of Maryland, 2,500 students held candles and marched silently across campus one night. They were peaceful, but a 9 o'clock curfew had been declared, and it was Warfield who had to tell everybody to go home or face arrest.

The moment was ripe for something dreadful to happen. I was covering the story for The News American and found myself a few feet from Warfield as he waded into the big crowd sitting on the grassy mall near the school's main administration building.

Behind him, National Guardsmen moved in wearing riot gear. They carried clubs and wore gas masks. And then came a moment that transcended all show of weapons and all endless political debate about American war policy. It was the voice of a boy sitting on the grass with a candle in his hand.

"Leave us alone," he hollered. "Go away. Please don't hurt us."

The words made you want to cry. They reminded you: These were children, and they were vulnerable to getting their heads busted by their countrymen for sitting on a college campus after dark and declaring themselves against war.

Warfield, in that moment, had to find the right response -- one that showed his authority, one that confirmed the state's right to establish its curfew, but one that didn't make a tense moment worse.

And now it became even more emotional, for the crowd began to sing softly, like something out of a movie scene, the anthem of that time:

All we are saying

Is give peace a chance.

To which Warfield, standing there in his general's uniform, standing as the immovable father figure to kids rejecting all generational authority, declared:

"We are asking you to disperse. We happen to believe in peace as much as you do."

"Then join us," somebody in the crowd hollered back. And more voices followed, until it became a chant: "Join us. Join us."

Warfield was visibly moved. I couldn't swear to it, but I thought I saw his eyes well up. This was a terrible time in the nation's history, when people chose up sides over Vietnam, and some desecrated the flag and others had it draped over their coffins.

And Warfield, a veteran of World War II, a man whose plane was struck over Japan but kept it in the air for nearly an hour and then bailed out over the Pacific, who kept himself alive for four days until rescued, a man who knew war in ways that few of these kids ever would -- said to them:

"We are your brothers."

The air itself seemed stunned for a moment: We are your brothers, all these armed National Guardsmen who were barely out of school themselves, who were just as confused by the endless war, and just as scared of it, too.

"We are your brothers," Warfield said again.

The tension eased a little. The demonstrators didn't move, but Warfield had sent a signal, not only to the students, but to his troops: Let's be as civilized as we can.

In a few minutes, some of the crowd dispersed. For those who didn't, Warfield ordered arrests, because the law had to be upheld. But I heard him tell arresting officers, "Without roughing 'em up."

In his life, Edwin Warfield survived that plane wreck in the Pacific. He served a couple of terms in the Maryland General Assembly and helped run the Daily Record newspaper. He lived a full 75 years.

But those parents of a certain generation, whose children went to the University of Maryland at College Park and found themselves distraught over the war in Vietnam -- they should remember Warfield today with tenderness.

He was a soldier who looked at thousands of angry and frightened and confrontational young people and refused to see an enemy. He saw their children.

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