Merle Haggard, Neil Young: Soldiering On
Ubiquitous nickel-plated bracelets. In the workplace. In the schools. Celebrities and politicians wore them. The guy delivering pizzas wore one. The bracelets made no fashion statement, but they did speak loudly for U. S. soldiers who were prisoners of war or missing-in-action while serving in the misbegotten Vietnam adventure. Those soldiers’ names were engraved on the bracelets.
Daily observance provided the impression that the bracelets were primarily worn by people at-first supportive of the Vietnam War, but endorsement of America’s role in Southeast Asia had become a secondary matter in a war-weary country. To the average American, the most vital concern regarding the war by the early ’70s was the safe return of all the soldiers sent to Vietnam. Bring the boys home. Changes in war policy could’ve helped with that. Yet homecoming for the soldiers held prisoner or gone missing was something Americans sought through their hopes, prayers and symbols, like the bracelets. Many people, whether supporters or opponents of the war, set aside their differences on the killing – and the reasons for the killing- to do what they could for the men who had fewer chances of getting out alive. So, amazingly enough, more than 5 million Americans spent a little money ( the bracelets were priced around $2.50) and some effort to express concern for men in deeper peril than imagined.
The POW/MIA bracelets adorned wrists on the right and the left, be they political foes Richard Nixon and George McGovern or film stars John Wayne and Dennis Hopper. Then there was Merle Haggard, arguably the most popular artist in country music, voicing his support for the POW’s in his song, “I Wonder If They Ever Think of Me.” Released in December ’72 and topping the Billboard Hot Country Singles charts the following February , “I Wonder If They Ever Think Of Me” proved even more timely than Haggard, who had already alluded to the war in Vietnam on previous hits, might have thought when recording the song a few months earlier. For as the song climbed the charts, Americans got great news. On January 27, 1973, The Paris Peace Accords were signed by the United States, the governments of North Vietnam and South Vietnam as well as the Provisional Revolutionary Government representing the indigenous South Vietnamese revolutionaries. Finally, there would be the long-awaited homecoming, which included 591 POWs held in North Vietnam
Turn Back The Years . . . Haggard’s POW song introduces the subject gently. A sympathetic Haggard sings, “There’s not much a man can do inside a prison.” This sounds like familiar territory. Haggard’s legacy not only included writing great songs (“Mama Tried,” “Life In Prison,” “Branded Man,” “Sing Me Back Home”) about time spent behind bars, but also his first-hand knowledge of California penal facilities. A free man for more than a decade, Haggard could still relate to the loneliness of being held prisoner, that is, in the conventional sense, after one has violated another person’s safety or property. In “I Wonder If They Ever Think of Me,” the prisoner was in North Vietnam, held captive by the forces he had been fighting. As Americans learned soon after first hearing Haggard sing about life as a POW, the prisoner held by the North Vietnamese would find a stint at San Quintin much preferrable. Also, the POW knew, unlike prisoners in America, he couldn’t shave time off his sentence for good behavior. Who knew how long he would be there? Haggard puts his message across clearly in “I Wonder If They Ever Think Of Me.” It’s a sad story he conveys, but without a maudlin approach or any of the catty sloganeering that pervaded his ’70 hit, “The Fightin’ Side of Me.” Empathy in this case was meant to be non-partisan and Haggard made it so.
I Wonder If They Think I Died . . . Haggard’s POW sits in “this rotten prison camp in Vietnam,” thinking of his mother, his girl, and the friends he used to run around with, wondering if they believe him gone from this world. In the last verse, the POW remembers his daddy saying he’ll “come back a better man,” a line in the song that’s hardly political, yet curious. Perhaps the father’s summation was a reflection of his own service in uniform a generation back, or maybe it was just wishful thinking. It’s likely the young man’s father wanted to keep the worst things that could happen out of everyone’s minds.
One thinks of fathers and sons when considering the protracted and widespread dismantling caused by the Vietnam War. Fighting over fighting the war not only divided the country’s political base, but also families. Hawks and doves under the same roofs went at it with the type of zeal commanders looked for in soldiers.
In his brilliant ’84 memoir, In The New World, journalist Lawrence Wright presents a sad story regarding he, his father and the generational divide over the war in Vietnam. Wright’s father, having served in the military when there was far less ambiguity about the wars being fought, looked upon those protesting America’s role in Vietnam or dodging the draft as traitors and worse. Conversations between Wright and his father were volatile. The subject of Vietnam was inevitable; from different perspectives, the war defined what each thought was wrong with America in the ’60s. Neither one, even with their relationship on the line, could avoid the subject. Wright reveals the pain and exasperation.
We no longer spoke to each other, except in the most perfunctory fashion about my education. We were too indignant to talk about ordinary subjects, so either we said nothing at all or one of us would discharge about the war, the country and who we really were……
We had each glimpsed in the other the boundaries of our love. That was the cruelest revelation of the war. In my father’s mind I was either dishonorable or cowardly. He could not love that part of me that refused to serve our country. As for me, as I listened to the words we threw at each other in our endless argument, I realized that my father was humiliated by me, and I began to think he would rather see me dead in Vietnam than alive and shouting in his living room.
Wright agonized over service in a war he found unjust; he thought it unlike World War II. The country wasn’t under attack. The adversaries in Vietnam were hardly threats like Hitler or Hirohito. Wright felt compassion for those killed in the battles or who met similar fates as the character in Merle Haggard’s song, yet he was still determined not to take up arms in that place and that time. No matter how much it might’ve pleased his father, he wouldn’t risk a tour in Vietnam to come home in a box.
Living With War . . . Ironically, it was Richard Nixon, the president so reviled by the anti-war movement, who eased the minds of people in the same shoes as Wright by ending the military draft. The last men were drafted in December ’72. Nixon was no fool. He realized it’d be easier for the Commander in Chief to conduct wars if a vast segment of the nation’s youth had no fear of being pulled into action. Presidents, with great affection for their office, and thoughts toward the years and decades ahead, often do great favors for their successors. In 2003, President George W. Bush was likely grateful for Nixon’s favor. With an all-volunteer army, he could conduct his war and the soldiers would just have to, if all went well, live with it.
Neil Young, like Merle Haggard, has included social and political concerns in his songs in the four-plus decades of his recording career. Both artists have taken on their concerns in subtle and direct ways. In January ’70, Haggard released his love- it -or- leave- it anthem, “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” a bristly follow-up of sorts to his “Okie From Muskogee.” Haggard’s take on protesting the war, pacifism and draft-dodging had much in common with the views of Lawrence Wright’s father.
I hear people talkin’ bad
About the way we have to live here in this country
Harpin’ about the wars we fight
And gripin’ about the ways things oughta be
Four months later Neil Young wrote “Ohio,” a response to the killing of four students at Kent State University during a mass protest against the United States’ invasion of Cambodia which grew out of the Vietnam War. Young’s anger and sorrow over Kent State was as sure as the faith in the nation’s leadership that Haggard voiced in “The Fightin’ Side of Me.” For people who listened to both artists, the two songs indicated what a toll the fighting thousands of miles away was exacting on America.
Both Haggard and Young have covered a lot of ground on the political map. Though Haggard spoke up for Nixon and voted for Reagan, he endorsed Hillary Clinton for President in his 2007 song, “Hillary.” And while Young inveighed against Nixon in “Ohio,” he did voice support for Reagan in the ’80s as well as for The Patriot Act upon its introduction in the wake of the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001.
Fighting The Age Old Battle . . . On that horrible September day, Americans took in the tragedy and set aside political bickering in order to display solidarity to a candid world. President George W. Bush, after a dull first eight and a half months of his presidency, now had the nation’s back. For a brief time, there weren’t any Democrats or Republicans, just Americans. Yet Bush and his administration couldn’t help themselves. In March 2003, The United States preemptively invaded Iraq, a country not involved in the 9/11 attacks, but a country stuck in the craw of Bush, Cheney and neo-conservative leaders. So much for solidarity.
Four years later the words of Merle Haggard would target those who conjured America’s latest war. In an article by Joe Klein in the October 10, 2007 issue of Time, Haggard showed disgust with what was happening in his country, saying, “I supported George W. I’m not exactly a liberal. But I know how that Texas thing works, with those oil folks and what they wanted in Iraq.”
Haggard may have accepted the reasons for war in Vietnam, but life is a continuous learning experience. He told Klein, “The thing that gets under my skin most about George W. is his intention to instill fear in people. We’re changing the Constitution out of fear.” Things were still getting on Haggard’s fightin’ side; and it’s likely he and Neil Young were finding common ground.
Flags Of Freedom . . . It took Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young less than a day’s time to record “Ohio” in May of 1970. Having quickly written the song, Young showed it to his band mates, and the urgency took hold. The single was in stores less than a month later. A similar passion gripped Young 36 years later with his Living With War album. Written and recorded in the space of nine days in the spring of 2006, the album at times sounds like a rush job, but most importantly, its nine original songs, often rocking at full tilt, project anger and despair over the deceptive manner in which the country was led to war in Iraq and the loss endured because of that deceit.
With no draft and President Bush wrapped in the flag, protests against the coming invasion of Iraq were no match for the PR push engineered by the White House and its supporters. After all, there were Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, and the desire to take out that cruel despot, Saddam Hussein. It was hard to find anyone who spoke kindly of Hussein but contemplating the price of capturing him was something that eluded many Americans. The White House PR blitz was an unqualified success.
The countdown was on. U.S. forces were ready to move into Iraq. Hussein wasn’t going to back down and the administration hoped he wouldn’t. That would have broken Cheney’s cold heart. Also much of the country was ginned up for war. Despite the attacks on Afghanistan, which received bipartisan support in the wake of 9/11, some Americans were thirsty for more revenge and more carnage, and if the bellicosity faltered as men came back home in boxes, at least the White House wouldn’t allow the boxes to be photographed upon arrival.
With the invasion just days from commencing, Old Glory seemed to be waving from as many homes and automobiles as right after the terrorist attacks. How odd. The work in Afghanistan was hardly over. Bin Laden was still on the loose, yet some Americans went hook, line and sinker for expanding the war on terror. People who consider a country’s strength best measured by its military’s successes were whooping it up. Now Iraq. Maybe Iran would be next.
The jingoistic-fueled patriotism seemed festive to its participants. Their excitement was more akin to the build-up for a big football game than a war. That’s because they put off thinking of war’s downside. There’s little reflection at a pep rally. That comes later, with scenes like the one presented by another great songwriter, Elvis Costello, in his ’84 recording, “Peace In Our Time.” As a war with huge costs and many downsides is played out, Costello offers a pair of poignant lines that make reflection most vivid.
And a man sits alone in a bar and says,
“Oh God, what have we done?”
On “Flags Of Freedom,” perhaps the best song on the Living With War album, Neil Young provides a look at the somber mood subtly becoming evident during a military parade. With at least a couple of nods directed at Bob Dylan’s classic, “Chimes of Freedom,” Young presents a family watching a son go off to war. They’re cheering all the soldiers on, but it’s no pep rally.
Today’s the day our younger son
Is going off to war
Fighting the age old battle
We sometimes won before
Flags that line old Main Street
Are blowin’ in the wind
These must be the flags of freedom flyin’
. . . .
Church bells are ringin’
Their families stand and wave
Some of them are cryin’
Cause the soldiers look so brave
Lookin’ straight ahead
Like they know just where they’re goin’
Past the flags of freedom flyin’
Sister has her headphones on
She hears the music blastin’
She sees her brother marching by
Their bond is everlasting
Listenin’ to Bob Dylan singing in 1963
Watching the flags of freedom flyin’
She sees the president speakin’
On a flat screen TV
In the window of the old appliance store
She turns to see her brother again
But he’s already walkin’ past
The flags of freedom flyin’
With this song, Neil Young isn’t running the country down as Haggard accused war protesters of doing in “The Fightin’ Side of Me.” He’s reporting on what ‘s happening to people in the country; his observations are focused and they’re prayerful. He seems to care more for the people of the country than a young man, who during the Vietnam War cleverly managed to avoid the draft. That young man, Dick Cheney, commented on it some twenty years later, saying, “I had other priorities in the ’60s than military service.” The soldier marching off to war in “Flags of Freedom,” perhaps not thinking of the politics behind his service, had priorities as well: fulfill his obligation and come home alive.