The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Monday, November 18, 2013
Music ... Society ...

I was thinking today about my religious heritage, and it reminded me of a song. For the most part, my religious heritage is . . . well, nothing and everything! I grew up in the Roman Catholic tradition, and I remained loyal to that faith well into my 30’s. For various reasons, I became a “roam-in catholic” after that, roaming from religion to religion. I committed myself to the Episcopalians for a few years (not much of a commitment, I guess), sat with a Quaker congregation on and off for about a year, went to a Unitarian church for a few weeks, visited a few Buddhist groups, and for the past 3 years have been a part of a Zen sangha. Furthermore, my initial DNA ancestry results indicate that my paternal grandfather may have hailed from a Jewish family. If this evidence holds up, I may need to somehow honor the Jewish tradition in my old age.

I’ve also read quite a bit about all of the major world faith systems, and include many of their sacred writings within my evening prayer routine. I even give atheism it’s due; I feel that faith and doubt are two sides of one coin; they are part of a yin-yang complementarity, like the quantum wave-particle dualism of light. Without a legitimate atheist shadow in our lives, we could never take God seriously. I think that God wants us to have our doubts, even though it causes a deep existential longing, a sometimes painful longing. No pain, no gain.

But that aside, the song that came to mind today was “Universal Soldier“, which was originally written and recorded in 1964 by Buffy Sainte Marie, a Canadian folk singer that I’m not otherwise familiar with. I remember “Universal Soldier” because I used to watch the Glen Campbell show back in the late 60’s and early 70s, and Glen frequently sang that number. The line from it that I like goes like this:

He’s a Catholic, he’s a Hindu, an atheist, a Jain
A Buddhist, and a Baptist and a Jew

But the lyrics aren’t exactly a celebration of spiritual diversity; the next lines go:

And he knows he shouldn’t kill
Bit he knows he always will
Kill you for me, my friend, and me for you

The interesting thing about this song is that it pins the blame for war on the actual low-level foot soldier. To wit,

But without him, how would Hitler have condemned them at Dachau?
Without him Caesar would have stood alone

He’s the one who gives his body
As a weapon of the war,
And without him all this killing can’t go on.

He’s the Universal Soldier and he really is to blame,
His orders come from far away no more,
They come from here and there and you and me,
And brothers can’t you see,
This is not the way we put the end to war.

Yes, this is a real anti-war song, as it blames it all on anyone who joins the military. Fast forward to today, to the “support our troops” attitude that pervades popular culture from the heartlands of the Midwest, Mountain states and South, to the quasi-socialist realms of Vermont, New York City, San Francisco and coastal Oregon. We argue over the need for military action in Iraq, Afghanistan and maybe even Iran; but no one in his right mind would go on TV and say or sing that our never-ending involvement in war stems from the willingness of the young men and women to serve in our military. Even Bob Dylan, an icon from the anti-war 1960’s, made a Pepsi commercial in 2009 using his song “Forever Young”, which features scenes of returning military men hugging their kids.

So you don’t hear “Universal Soldier” that much anymore, even though an odd act (such as First Aid Kit) does a cover of it now and then, perhaps as an ironic curiosity. It’s interesting how public attitudes change. I could go on ruminating about the social, historical and political factors and demographic changes that may be reflected in all of this, but for now, I will just give you a link to Glen Campbell singing this song. It’s still a nice tune, in my book, and it still reflects a commendable naivety and an utterly impractical idealism about the terribleness of war and what to do to stop it. So enjoy this tune for what it’s worth; however, the “Universal Soldier” spoken of is really NOT to blame, not any more or less than any and all of us who live in an imperfect world and contribute our own imperfections to it.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 5:20 pm      

  1. Jim, In some ways you are right, but I think you forget what happened after the Vietnam War. I’ve known Vietnam veterans who still deeply resent the fact that when they came home from that war, they were spat upon and treated less than graciously, to say the least.

    I tend to think this is one thing you cannot pin on *one* group of people. Sure, it’s correct that if everybody chose to go to jail rather than go to war, it would be difficult to actually *have* a war. (I forget who said something like, what if they gave a war and nobody came? Now there’s a tho’t along the same lines.) But it’s not that simple: How about the ones who are in charge and actually *decide* to make war? Who has the greater blame?

    And yes, people like the Berrigan Brothers, and those part of their group, are certainly heroes who are much to be admired; they certainly put their money where their mouth was. Perhaps more like people those individuals are needed to prevent war.

    Today I found myself wondering about the way we are making war nowadays – people sitting in a room thousands of miles away, looking at a screen showing pictures from a drone, pressing a button, and killing who knows how many, perhaps, innocent people. The destruction of life loses its immediacy and responsibility. Then too, war does something to people; they are actually taught to kill. I watched “60 Minutes” Sunday night; there was an interview of a civilian who is part of the mercenaries who are employed by our government. The gentleman said, if I remember correctly, that all of those who are part of his civilian group/organization are former military. I guess it’s a matter of get used to killing and it becomes what you do for a living and think no further about it.

    But then I find myself thinking of gangs in cities and how young people are taught to randomly drive around, killing (or shooting guns at) people they have no clue about. Exactly how is that different from going to war? Which is worse?

    Somehow or other our society has come to make the killing of others something that has no direct effect on the individual, almost like a game of some kind that is being played. Reset and start again when someone goes down. I find myself wondering: How come no one writes songs about the people who make the games people play or the movies people watch where people are killed and all the “messiness” of the killing is dispensed with; it’s a “bad guy” who was killed so no one grieves, no one cares. It seems sometimes the bodies are magically buried or dissipate into the air somehow.

    While I appreciate the song by Buffy Sainte Marie, I still think something surely is wrong with the entire picture of killing as it’s presented in our society in this technological age. I’m not sure how to fix it; it seems that a whole culture shift will be needed, a whole paradigm shift needed to change the picture. Perhaps the Berrigan Brothers were right – someone has to start somewhere. Perhaps one person starting a change, objecting to the whole “our country right or wrong” attitude is what is needed.

    Then again, in today’s paper there was a picture of the highest military members – a whole row of white, gray-haired, older men (and I am not disrespecting being white, gray-haired, or older as I am all 3 myself – but I am a woman) sitting in a row. All I could think of is: Where are the women? Perhaps a woman here or there with some influence over these men might take a different approach to war. There’s another tho’t that might be worth lingering over for a while. MCS

    Comment by Mary — November 18, 2013 @ 7:55 pm

  2. Jim, Then too, I think of what was done after WW II when it came to laying responsibility for the war crimes committed then. It was not the ordinary soldier so much who was held responsible for his actions; but it was the people in charge who, for the most part (there were some exceptions) were the ones convicted of war crimes.

    So perhaps it should be the generals who are in charge of what goes on during a war who should be the responsible parties. Then, of course, here comes the “but”: Is it not the responsibility of those in charge to keep the public safe? What would people be saying if those in charge allowed ordinary people to be killed in attacks, such as those on 9/11? There are times I think that “getting” Osama bin Laden was just and right; some people would not agree that he be killed. I find myself wondering: Is there *ever* a time when killing someone is justified?

    Sometimes I find myself thinking that all oil should be taken away from the military – the military in *all* countries, not just some few countries. If the military couldn’t “go” anywhere, what would be the result as regards war? I wonder. Would war stop? Then too, how about taking away from *all* military throughout the world all guns, ammunition, any kind of metal used to make military vehicles or weapons. (I remember during WW II when cars and things made of metal were extremely difficult to get, almost impossible; all metal was directed to the “war effort” at the time.) Why not try that for a stop to war? I think such an action would put a serious kink in the ability to wage any kind of war. Yet, here comes the “but”: What to do about suicide bombers who can inflict serious damage to innocent people? They hardly need military materials.

    Perhaps the *real* solution is to begin to examine the collective unconscious of humanity and figure out the reason for all the anger and need for violence in this world. Maybe searching *there* would be a better solution to war.

    So many questions and so many viewpoints arise from this piece you wrote. Maybe there is a simple answer to “no war”: Was it John Lennon who sang/said something like: What if they gave a war and nobody came? Then again, while it would be wonderful if the answer were so simple, likely the answer is *not* quite that simple. MCS

    Comment by Mary — November 19, 2013 @ 2:23 pm

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