It’s a question that comes vividly to life watching The War at Home, a documentary co-produced and co-directed by Glenn Silber and Barry Alexander Brown and first released in 1979. Silber was a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the late ’60s. At the time the campus was a hotbed of student activism and political protest. But UW-Madison became a national flashpoint on Aug. 24, 1970 when a bomb exploded near the school’s Army Math Research Center, killing a postdoctoral researcher in the school’s physics department. Students Karleton Armstrong, Dwight Armstrong and David Fine were eventually arrested and sentenced for the crime. The War at Home lays out, in chronological order, the events surrounding Madison’s history of student protest and its descent into more violent resistance. A wealth of news footage from the time lays it all out clearly and vividly. And much of it—from the lazy obfuscation of government officials to the complicity of the mainstream media to the frustrations of the young people whose futures are most on the line—feels uncomfortably relevant to today’s America. Silber and Brown’s film went on to win the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary.
Silber, who now lives in Santa Fe, recently dug up the original 16mm negatives of his film and decided it was time for a digital restoration. Late last year the upgraded version—funded largely by a successful Kickstarter campaign—premiered at the New York Film Festival. It’s been playing select engagements around the country since then and hits Albuquerque’s Guild Cinema this Friday, Oct. 4.
Alibi took the opportunity to chat with Silber about his film and its history.
Weekly Alibi: You attended college in Madison during this time period. What were you like at the time, and what was the university like at the time?
Glenn Silber: I enrolled as a freshman at the UW-Madison in the Fall of 1968. I came from a sheltered New Jersey suburb and knew next to nothing about the war in Vietnam, even though there were 545,000 US troops there by that time.
My parents and sister drove me out there and we were all blown away by this beautiful Big 10 college campus. Mom and Dad dropped me off and told me to go “get a good education.”
The very next day, the Wisconsin Draft Resistance Union slipped a leaflet under my dorm room inviting me to come to a meeting in the dorm to learn about the draft. My political education was about to begin.
By the fall of ’68, the UW-Madison already had a sizable antiwar movement. I didn’t know much about that when I applied, but would learn about it soon enough. It was quickly becoming a very “political" campus.
How close were you to the protest movements that were happening?
During my first year at the UW, I wasn't very involved. I was still a naive 18-year-old, adjusting to the freedom and campus culture at the UW: I had a nice girlfriend, started smoking pot, immersed myself in what we now call “Classic Rock,” was studying Film 101 and started learning about the war. The big political action at the UW that year was the Black Student Strike. The National Guard was called in. I got somewhat involved, but it was also a pretty confusing time for me.
When did you decide to make a movie about this specific time/place?
By the time I graduated the UW in 1972, I had become more politicized as the war in Vietnam ground on and on, literally killing millions of Vietnamese. Upon graduation, I decided I was not interested in becoming a lawyer like everyone else in my family. I’d been making 16mm films at the UW and committed to becoming a documentary filmmaker.
My stated, somewhat joking, goal in life at that point was “to save the world making epic documentaries.” In 1975, as the war in Vietnam was finally ending, I reflected on my years in Madison—and how many of the dramatic events in the Madison Antiwar movement—many of which you see in the film—had unfolded. I knew it was a great story that had to be told on film. And I wasn’t going to wait around for someone else to do it. This was our story—and I wanted to show how all those years of struggle against the war did make a difference. It had also transformed me from the naive 18-year-old who’d arrived at the UW and was a totally different young adult—with a plan to make an important film about this period in our lives.
I didn’t want to go to NYC or LA to start a film career by being someone’s assistant, so I stayed in Madison and made a commitment to make what turned out to be, 4 1/2 years later, The War at Home.
In the early/mid-’70s, a lot of these student protesters were still seen as villains by mainstream America. How did you view them at the time, and how did your perspective change in making the movie?
I don’t agree with your supposition that student protesters were seen as “villains” by the mid-’70s. I felt very good about being a very small part of the Antiwar Movement. We helped stop an unjust war that killed millions, including 58,000 American troops. But my perspective did change once we committed to researching the ’60s and ’70s and seeing how the Madison Antiwar Movement started so small in 1963, and how the most committed organizers played a critical role in terms of helping people like me develop a political consciousness that, ultimately, would transform our lives at the time.
What effect do you think these protesters and their actions had on the war itself and on the post-war narrative?
There’s no doubt in my mind that the Antiwar Movement in places like Madison and hundreds of other colleges around the US played a critical role in building a movement that eventually became a majority movement against the war.
Things in the ’60s started slowly, then were speeding up in reaction to the escalation of the war. Radical change was in the air. Still it didn’t happen overnight and people tried all kinds of tactics; e.g. from supporting Gene McCarthy running as a single-issue, antiwar candidate for President, to more violent forms of Resistance that backfired. The Antiwar Movement was absolutely desperate to stop the war.
I think the postwar narrative is simply that the Antiwar Movement was right. The war in Vietnam was not just a “tragic mistake” as it was often portrayed. If you study the way it was prosecuted by Secretary of Defense [Robert] McNamara, Presidents Johnson and Nixon—with horrific chemical defoliants like napalm and agent orange, with tens of millions of bombs dropped by B-52s and antipersonnel weapons, against a peasant population—it became a criminal enterprise.
The Antiwar Movement, both in the streets here at home—and in the Army in Vietnam—made the political cost of continuing the war untenable, which is probably why Johnson was unwilling to give General William Westmoreland permission to move atomic weapons into Vietnam when he requested them in 1968. It took the US public several years to realize we could never win in Vietnam. The war polarized the nation as much or more as it is today. But we were right to resist the war in Vietnam and help bring it to an end.
Obviously, there are a number of similarities between the late-'60/early-'70 and today's political climate. What do you think the lessons to be learned from this earlier time are?
I think the lessons of the 1960s and ’70s are to show the kind of commitment it takes to build a political Resistance Movement, which is something that takes many years, whether you're trying to stop an unjust war or trying to wake the nation up to the harsh realities of the Climate Crisis—which has, like the Vietnam War, escalated fast and is also going to take a mass movement to transform our dependence on dirty energy. Like the war, what’s needed is education, commitment and a lot of organizing to build a moral movement to save the planet and up to a million species that are facing extinction because of it. I was part of the organizing for Climate Strike 9/20 in Santa Fe. And I was somewhat encouraged by it; but what's been missing is the kind of smart, nonviolent civil disobedience and direct action that became the hallmark of the Civil Rights and Antiwar Movement. We’re facing an intractable enemy (i.e. the fossil fuel industry). Short term gain by the fossil fuel industry has put short term greed over a sustainable future. They’re poisoning the planet and they have to be stopped. That’s going to take a mass movement.
Do you see similarities between the radical organizations of the '60s and the political protest groups of today (like ANTIFA)?
I was never a fan of groups like the Weather Underground. I thought they were super committed but were never going to overthrow the US military. I don’t know anything about ANTIFA or their tactics, but my impression based on what happened in Charlottesville is that they are a courageous group of young people who took a stand against Neo-Nazis, and the Charlottesville police allowed things to get out of hand. But in a post-9/11 world, I don’t think resorting to violence is an option. It just triggers repression.
What made you want to restore and re-screen this film 40 years after its release?
I decided to restore The War at Home from its old 16mm film origins to a new 4K Digital Cinema Package because after Trump somehow got elected—and the Resistance picked up quickly—I could see that we were entering another phase of “the war at home”—and was pleasantly surprised by how relevant the film Barry Alexander Brown and I co-produced exactly 40 years ago, is again. When you see the film today, it’s amazing how many of the tactics and strategies used to build a mass movement can be employed to fight back against an autocratic, evil president like Trump and his corrupt administration. And I think it’s good to be reminded that we’ve been in very dark places, politically, before. And that when millions of people become educated, organized and committed we can—and will—win, and take back our Democracy before it’s too late.