Monday, November 12, 2012

Six Song Six-Pack: Veterans Day

Every year Veterans Day comes and goes and every year it seems like there's less and less of an attempt made to give some sort of weight to the tradition that, for many people, is just a day off for government workers and school children. I'm not one to shake my finger at people about forgetting the old ways, but it does seem to me that the lessons of November 11th are probably worth remembering.

In an era of instant connectivity and information, it's paradoxical that we're often far less connected to reality than were generations of the past. November 11th was originally known as Armistice Day, celebrating the end of the most calamitous and pointless wars of the modern era, World War I, which ended on the 11th minute of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. It was a fittingly pointless ending that cost a final few needless lives, chasing the deaths of needles millions over the preceding five years.

Hailed at the time as "The War To End All Wars," Americans saw their entrance into World War I as a noble enterprise to make the world safe for democracy and ensure that hereafter we would no longer need to send troops across the world into harms way. Most Americans in 1918 would scarcely believe that less than a century later America would become a global hegemon, spending more on its military than the next ten countries in the world combined. Veteran's Day grew out of the Armistice Day celebrations as a way to honor those who had sacrificed their bodies, youth and, potentially, lives in what they saw as service to their countrymen. It was also a reminder of the cost of war and the need to avoid at all cost both conflict and those things which make conflict more likely.

In hopes of escaping the mistaken paradigms both of those who blame the warriors for the wars, as well as those who would equate questioning the mission with demeaning honest service, On Warmer Music hereby presents a series of songs that I hope will help, in some tiny way, illustrate the burdens of war and how they are born by those who fight.

1. That Man I Shot - Drive-By Truckers  Buy Brighter Than A Creation's Dark
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been particularly difficult for their veterans not because they've been divisive amongst the civilian population but rather because they've been more or less invisible in everyday American life. That lack of visibility takes an especial toll on veterans returning to civilian life. Re-entry is yet another battle, waged mostly alone in the dead of night. The toll can be seen in the staggering rise in PTSD and veteran suicides. The Drive-By Truckers bring this nightmare to chilling life in "That Man I Shot," following a vet as they relive a killing from his wartime experience. I can think of no better illustration of the painful failures of the Bush doctrine than the line here explaining, "that man I shot / I was in his homeland / I was there to help him / he didn't want me there." All the song's protagonist is left with is his family, whom they hugs close to help ward off the nightmares about what he was asked to do. Though it's left unresolved  we the audience can only hope that this is enough to soothe his inner torment.

2. The Band Played The Waltzing Matilda - The Pogues  Buy Rum, Sodomy & The Lash
World War I was the conflict which gave us Veterans Day, which is fitting because it is perhaps the greatest example of industrial-style war on the industrial scale of foolishness. Immediately after war broke out in 1914, Australia, located about as far away as one could get from the Western Front, declared war on the Central Powers in due deference to the will of its colonial rulers and began drafting the flower of its manhood for service in a bloodbath utterly removed from its own interests. Most ANZACs (as men from the British Antipodes were known) were sent on one of Churchill's fool's errands to capture the Dardanelles Straights at a Godforsaken beach, Gallipoli where the colonials faced Turkish troops deeply entrenched in the rocky high ground who slaughtered them like hogs. The Pogues covered the great Australian folk song about the assault on their classic 1985 album Rum, Sodomy & the Lash and perfectly capture the heartbreaking bravery and blind sacrifice that practically doomed a generation of Australians.

3. Sam Stone - John Prine  Buy John Prine
Drug addiction is by no means a problem unique to those who served but one can easily understand the appeal of escape for people who've seen things too horrible for most civilians to imagine. John Prine's "Sam Stone" tells the tale of a soldier generic to be many mother's son or widow's husband who went to war, came home and couldn't manage to come back to life after what he'd seen. Released in the dying days of the Vietnam War, the lyrics are vague enough to refer to nearly any conflict after WWII, describing a vet unable to handle what he saw retreating into heroin until his body finally gave out. It could be read as the logical end of someone like the singer in "The Man I Shot," showing that, without help, even those who can stand up to terrorists, artillery and deadly opposition can often still need help processing what that task requires. Forty-some years later that tingling guitar and resigned lyrics still raise the hairs on the listener's spine and bring a tear to their eyes.

4. I Bombed Korea - Cake  Buy Motorcade of Generosity
Of course, not every veteran who's seen hard service becomes a nervous wreck. Many (most?) return to civilian life after the war profoundly touched but still productive members of society raising families and building homes. The singer in Cake's "I Bombed Korea" is just such a person. Although he goes to the bar and (presumably) maintains his status as a healthy member of the community, he still grapples with the reality of what he did. "I didn't know if it was wrong or right" he notes, "I bombed Korea every night." It's the lament of the modern soldier. Our democracy relies on an impartial, dedicated military, ready to go anywhere and do (almost) anything at the president's command, yet most service people, after the fact, are bound to question the rightness of their actions. Can dropping explosives in civilian areas weaken resolve and, thus, ultimately lower casualties? This isn't for the individual pilot to decide, not that he could do so objectively if given the opportunity. Even so, years after his service, he must live with his actions, nursing a drink in a bar, hoping it was all worthwhile.

5. Soldier's Requiem - Naked Raygun  Buy Jettison
On some level, there is no way to know which wars are just and which aren't. We all would like to believe what we are told and sometimes those things might be true. Sometimes the cause is just (or at least more just than the opposition's), sometimes it's not. Sometimes history proves that neither side is ultimately right. Chicago punks Naked Raygun were a thoroughly Cold War band who loved nothing more than decrying militarism. Yet even they knew that, on some level all soldiers were victims AND heroes, no matter what their flag. The reason it is called "the service" is that people join to protect others. Almost all soldiers march to their death not directly for ideals or causes but for their family, friends and fellow and recruits. The willingness to die for something greater than oneself is eternally noble, so long as it's pure. Even when the powers-that-be dupe people into dying for a cause unworthy of their blood, let it not be forgotten that, though exploited, those people meant to serve a cause. Or, as Naked Raygun would say, "let valor erase / the lies that sought to deceive them... like tears in the rain / there is no shame in your death."

6.  The Day After Tomorrow - Tom Waits  Buy Real Gone
Another Iraq/Afghan war song, "The Day After Tomorrow" was a tune I first came across via's 2004 election year album, Future Soundtrack For America. Hearing Tom Waits' dilapidated voice exhaling valiantly as a frightened, mournful soldier did help me, a young college student, internalize and process the reality of what many young men my age were being asked to give while I sat at home watching tv and surfing the web - it hit hard. Waits does an incredible job distilling the experience of war into its only important elements for most soldiers - the personal ones. Set in no specific conflict, Waits sings about a soldier fighitng for nothing more to be allowed to return to Rockford, Illinois and do yardwork as if nothing had ever happened. All five years of my college life (I student taught after my senior year, smartass) I would drive through Rockford from Beloit to Chicago right around November 11th and play this song. It had a way of turning those NPR stories and memorial photographs that would otherwise slip into the background of 21st century life into something almost-tangible. It helped me remember that "tragedy" is, for many people, not a concept but a reality. Most of all it made me hope for just a brief second, in that naïve, collegiate way, that whatever I did with my life could help make that sort of sacrifice unnecessary. I'll get back to you on the success of that particular mission.

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