This Means War!”   2 comments

I was thinking about the military-industrial-oil-communications complex, as I am wont to do, and, of course, it made me think of all the wars, conflicts, interdictions, interventions, and liberations we have inflicted on the world over the past century.  I found myself humming “I Didn’t Raise My BoyTo Be A Soldier” by the Peerless Quintet (1915), which in turn, made me recall the article I  was writing when I discovered it.

The article presented songs of war  that had a great impact on me in how I view the practice.  I also asked the readers to offer their own examples,  which were presented at the article’s conclusion.

So, now, it’s time to revisit the article and see who comes up with new entries.  No prizes will be awarded.

Originally posted in Victory Review Magazine (  December 2009


Songs that define war for me…

I was playing John McCutcheon’s classic, “Christmas in the Trenches,” an account of the legendary moment in WWI when British, French, and German soldiers laid down their arms and celebrated Christmas together.  I was trying to decide if it was my favorite song about war or Christmas.  Christmas won.  The war angle started out as a four-way tie.

“Christmas in the Trenches,” was based on a true story.  Separated from the enemy by only yards of bare terrain called no man’s land, German soldiers began setting little Christmas trees in the mud above their trenches.  Then they began singing Christmas songs.  Some held up hand-lettered signs in broken English requesting “no fight.”  It wasn’t long before both sides, slowly at first, climbed out of their muddy holes and as McCutcheon describes:

frontline“Then one by one from either side

We entered no man’s land

With neither sword nor bayonet

We met there hand to hand

We shared some secret brandy

And we wished each other well

And in a flare-lit soccer game

We gave ‘em hell!

This fraternization was condemned by the brass of both sides, for obvious reasons.  They correctly surmised that once enemies came to know each other as people, their effectiveness as killing machines would be compromised.  In fact, for days following the truce, when ordered to shoot at each other under the penalty of court martial, many of the participants fired their rounds well over the heads of the “enemy.”  Sadly, this was the first and only truce of its kind during that entire conflict.

Phil Ochs’s “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore” was an anthem that prompted me and many of my peers to respond to our consciences about Vietnam and the draft.  It was a challenge.  It was not merely a condemnation of war but a call to action…or inaction.  The verses recall the bloody battles and wars, internal and external that have defined our history, tied together with a sobering statement and question:

“It’s always the old who lead us to the war

Always the young to die

Now look at all we’ve won

With a saber and a gun

Tell me is it worth it all?”

Think of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Robert McNamara calling the shots…and who has consistently benefited sufficiently to determine it was “worth it all”?  The soldiers? Their families?

I got out of the draft.  Nobody got out of the war.  Not those who fought or those who fought against it.

Ironically, there was no mention of Vietnam in the song.  When Phil died, many of his fans realized that he had left us an unfinished masterpiece.  I know I wasn’t the only one to add verses that included Vietnam and the Middle East debacles.  Perhaps that’s the song’s greatest legacy, the sense of universal ownership, the eternal message, and the sad realization that it never will be finished.

World War I, “The war that was bound to end all wars,”has been pretty much relegated to the backseat of history.  Its once noble status (Anyone remember Armistice Day?) now seems to have become “World War II: The Prolog” or “The Hobbit” to “Lord of the Rings.”  So it is surprising that three of my favorite four war songs refer to that particular conflict.  We have already mentioned McCutcheon’s “Christmas in the Trenches.”  The other two were the works of a single person.

I was dozing on my sofa one evening a few years ago, listening to the Three Irish Tenors’ Ellis Island ConcertcrossRonan Tynan’s solo was the story of a contemporary tourist, resting beside the grave of a fallen WWI British soldier, one among thousands in a military cemetery in France.  He tries to flesh out who this guy was.  Midway through his journey, I found myself actually leaking tears.

“And I see by your gravestone you were only 19

When you joined the glorious fallen in 1916,

Well, I hope you died well and I hope you died clean

Or, Willie McBride, was it slow and obscene?”

He wonders if Willie left someone behind who would eternally remember him as a 19-year-old?  Or was he forgotten, merely an unidentified stranger in yellowing photograph inside an old family album?  Did he really believe that his martyrdom would end war?  Because, as he laments to the dead soldier, “it all happened again, and again, and again, and again, and again.”

Each verse is followed by the haunting chorus:

“Did they bang the drum slowly, did the play the pipes lowly?

Did the rifles fir o’er you as they lowered you down?

Did the bugles sound The Last Post in chorus?

Did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest?”

I eventually learned the title of the song was “The Green Fields of France[1]” by Eric Bogle, a transplanted Scotsman living in Australia, writing and performing some of the best folk music in the world (

The other Bogle song on my list was one I had heard decades ago by the eclectic, to say the least, Irish-British folk-punk group, “The Pogues.”  I had also heard a Joan Baez cover.  “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” is the story of a young free-spirited wanderer who gets drafted into the Australian army and sent to fight in the historically calamitous campaign against the Turks at Gallipoli in 1915.  His ship is launched amid loud and enthusiastic “flag-waving and cheers.”  Each verse is a chapter of his story that heads relentlessly from the exuberant patriotism that launches each war…to the inevitable destruction and disillusion that inevitably overtakes it.

“How well I remember that terrible day,

When our blood hit the sand and the water

And how in that hell that they call Suvla Bay

We were butchered like lambs at the slaughter.

The title of the song, also begins each chorus, and describes the results of the previous verse:

“(And) the Band Played Waltzing Matilda

As we stopped to bury our slain

We buried ours…the Turks buried theirs

And it started all over again.”

Bogle’s soldier falls victim to a shellfire, wakes up in a hospital bed to learn his legs have been amputated, and is returned to Australia with his fellow casualties “the legless, the armless, the blind, the insane” where there is no flag-waving and cheers.  Instead, the few who are there to witness the casualties carried down the gangway can only “turn all their faces away.”

Did I say four songs?  Writing about the physical and emotional damage suffered by Bogle’s Australian soldier, made me think of another broken veteran, this one from the Vietnam War, John Prine’s break-through “Sam Stone”.

“Sam Stone, came home,

To his wife and family,

After serving in the conflict overseas.

And the time that he served,

Had shattered all his nerves

And left a little shrapnel in his knee”

Of course the pain was best treated by the inevitable morphine drip which escalated into full-blown addiction as described in the chilling refrain:  “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes….”  Sam’s ultimate fate and that of his family is better related by Mr. Prine than me.  It was a song that broke my heart and forever placed John Prine among my pantheon of songwriting gods.

Did I say five songs?

Anyone ever hear of the Peerless Quintet?  Neither had I until I stumbled on an original gramophone recording of their 1915 hit, “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier.”[2].  While all the previous songs were reflections back on the various struggles, this was actually a pre-emptive strike against America’s participation in WWI.  At that particularly time in our history, isolationism was the overwhelming sentiment in our country and the song’s immediate and immense popularity reflected it.

The chorus says it all.  It is told in the person of a woman, a mother, nailing the real meaning of war… not glory, heroics, or brass bands…but sons killing sons.

“I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier,

I brought him up to be my pride and joy,

Who dares to put a musket on his shoulder,

To shoot some other mother’s darling boy?

Let nations arbitrate their future troubles,

It’s time to lay the sword and gun away,

There’d be no war today,

If mothers all would say,

I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier.”

To hear the original, undigitalized recording, scratches and all, visit :

So, what does this collection of poetry, music, imagery, and emotion add up to?  When you eliminate the the slogans, jingoism, yellow journalism, FOX Newsism, and all the other hyperbole glorifying armed conflict…this means war!


Did I say six songs?  There are countless others that I could have included such as “Where Have all the Flowers Gone?”“ Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” and “If I Had a Hammer” (Pete Seeger), “The Willing Conscript” (Tom Paxton), “Draft Dodger Rag”, “White Boots Marching in a Yellow Land”, “I Declare the War is Over”, and “Is There Anybody Here?” (Phil Ochs), “My Uncle” (Flying Burrito Brothers), ad infinitum … but which songs moved our Victory music family and friends to confront war?  Here’s what folks sent in: (the full lyrics can be found at the linked websites.)

Volkert Volkersz:  “The Universal Soldier” by Buffy Sainte-Marie (made famous by Donovan) and “I Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag,” by Country Joe McDonald (and the Fish).

Colleen Conroy: “With God on Our Side” by Bob Dylan and the Irish version of “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye.”

Steve Peterson:  “Heaven Help Us All” by Ronald Miller as performed by Joan Baez.

Thaddeus Spae:  “The Story of Isaac” by Leonard Cohen.

Michael Fleckenstein:  “With God On Our Side” by Bob Dylan as recorded by Joan Baez.

Mike Buchman:  “Masters of War” by Bob Dylan and “Eve of Destruction” by Barry McGuire.

Gary Kanter is a writer and songwriter who performed at his first Open Mic in Manhattan in the early 70’s, receiving just enough encouragement to inflict his songs and humor on audiences in the Canadian Maritimes, Nashville, and the Pacific Northwest.  He has recorded two CD’s “Gary Kanter’s Senior Moment Comeback Tour (Live)” and “Good-Bye, Dr. Laura!”

[1] Some versions of this song are titled “No Man’s Land.”

[2] Lyricist: Alfred Bryan; Composer: Al Piantadosi

Posted August 16, 2012 by garykanter in Uncategorized

2 responses to “This Means War!”

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Last night I had the strangest dream, I ever dreamed before;
    I dreamed the world had all agreed, tout an end to war.
    I dreamed I saw a mighty room, filled with women and men;
    And the papers they were signing said,they’d never fight again.
    And when the papers all; were signed, and a million copies made;
    They all joined hands and bowed their heads, and grateful prayers were prayed.
    And the people in the streets below, were dancing round and round;
    And swords and guns and uniforms,were scattered on the ground.
    (Repeat first two lines)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: