Thursday, January 13, 2011

Left behind

I heard a radio program of songs from the Vietnam era, both for and against the war. I was surprised at how many of them focused on women and children. The pro-war songs paint them as the ones who must be protected, and the anti-war ones paint them as the victims who have to go on living after their men are killed.

This trope has been going on for a long time. (We can also see the universal constant that all soldiers are called Johnny.)

During the Civil War Patrick Gilmore wrote When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again" for his sister, who was awaiting the return of her fiancé. He promises
The village lads and lassies say
With roses they will strew the way,
And we'll all feel gay
When Johnny comes marching home.

But an older version of the song comes from Ireland, where they've been resisting English drafts for quite some time. They didn't have a name for post-traumatic stress, but clearly they knew it when they saw it.
Where are your eyes that looked so mild,
When my poor heart you first beguiled?
Why did you run from me and the child?
Johnny, I hardly knew ye.

150 years later, John Prine described the homecoming of another veteran:
There's a hole in Daddy's arm
Where all the money goes.

"Traveling Soldier" is probably the most famous of the girlfriend-waiting-for-soldier songs.
Crying all alone under the stands
Was a piccolo player in the marching band
And one name read but nobody really cared
But a pretty little girl with a bow in her hair.

The remarkable thing about this type of song is that both pro- and anti-war people love them. The disagreement is on whether the death was necessary, and the songs usually don't address that. One ambiguous song is "Warrior", which describes a woman burying her man and planning for their son's life as a soldier. With lines like "We must kill more people," I think it had to be meant ironically. Then again, Bob Hope had them perform it for troops, so somebody must have missed the irony.

My favorite of the songs was recorded by a Motown girl band, Martha and the Vandellas. It rejects the "they're fighting for you" rhetoric.
I was under the dryer when the telegram came:
'Private John C. Miller was shot down in Vietnam.'
And they say that I should be proud; he was fightin' for me
They say that I should be proud, those too blind to see
But he wasn't fightin' for me, my Johnny didn't have to die for me.

One great songwriter of a different era expressed the same message in prose. Julia Ward Howe wrote the fiery pro-war "Battle Hymn of the Republic", but recanted after seeing the carnage of the Civil War. In her Mother's Day proclamation of 1870, she framed war as a women's issue.
"Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country,
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."

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