In the early 1970s, when the Vietnam War was still raging and I was 16 years old, I attended a Phil Ochs concert in a cramped courtyard at Chicago’s Northeastern University.
In his black leather jacket, T-shirt and jeans, and his slick-backed ebony mane, movie star good looks, and defiant in-your-face smirking manner, Ochs was the coolest cat I had ever seen. He sang all the protest folk hymns of that time: "The Ballad of Joe Hill," "Draft Dodger Rag," and "I Ain’t Marching Anymore."
"It’s always the old to lead us to the war.
It’s always the young to fall.
Now look at all we’ve won with the saber and the gun.
Tell me is it worth it all?"
Folk singers were the vanguard of the antiwar movement and, as I came of age during my rebellious teen years, they became my heroes. Their songs were coursing through the American bloodstream, reverberating through rallies and sit-ins, in the parks and coffeehouses, and on mainstream radio. I recall listening to Tom Paxton sing the gut-wrenching "Wake Up Jimmy Newman." One soldier is trying to rouse his wounded roommate, only to realize he had died from his injuries.
Around the same time, Country Joe broke out his sarcastic "I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die-Rag" at Woodstock:
"Come on mothers throughout the land
Pack your boys off to Vietnam
Come on fathers, and don’t hesitate
To send your sons off before it’s too late
And you can be the first ones on your block
To have your boy come home in a box."
Motown’s Edwin Starr penned the powerful "War," with the not-too-subtle lyric, "War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing."
John Prine wrote tenderly of a veteran’s heroin addiction in "Sam Stone," and of a returning soldier’s guilt in "Take the Star Out of the Window."
"And it’s hello California
Hello Dad and Mom
Ship ahoy, your baby boy
Is home from Vietnam
Don’t you ask me any questions
‘Bout the medals on my chest
Take the star out of the window
And let my conscience take a rest."
We’ve come a long way from such evocative lyrics to Toby Keith’s patriotic blabber, "We’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way."
Some people might say that today we are a better nation – more "pro-soldier" and less antiwar. Yet the songs I mentioned were never protesting the soldier. In fact, I would argue, they were more supportive of our military than anything the Nashville corporate songwriters churn out today as we continue to be a nation perpetually at war, with our most recent endless and costly excursions in the Middle East.
The yellow ribbons and homecoming parades for our veterans have been a necessary corrective to the scorn that our Vietnam veterans received when they returned. But where is the pushback from the music industry against the policies and the politicians that send our young men and women to wars that are in most cases unjustified and only benefit the usual profiteers?
Where are the songwriters willing to risk their careers as Pete Seeger did when he wrote "Bring ‘em Home"?
"If you love your Uncle Sam
Bring ’em home, bring ’em home
Support our boys in Vietnam
Bring ’em home, bring ’em home
It’ll make our generals sad, I know
Bring ’em home, bring ’em home."
I am grateful to have cut my teeth on the protest lyricists of the 1960s and 1970s. That experience has led me to always question the cheerleaders for death and devastation and the defense contractors that continue to lobby to keep the weapons industry churning out weapons of mass destruction.
Those factories were top of mind when President Trump refused to punish Saudi Arabia for killing journalist Jamal Khashoggi by voiding an arms sale that he said would hurt the American worker.
"We have a country that’s doing probably better economically than it’s ever done before," Trump boasted. "Part of that is what we are doing with our defense systems and everybody is wanting them, and frankly, I think that would be a very, very tough pill to swallow for our country."
A tougher pill to swallow is the idea of yet another foolish excursion into the Middle East, and another generation of young men and women who will pay the ultimate price at a cost that is measured in heartbreak and loss.
Phil Ochs’ words continue to age all too well.
Stephen J. Lyons is the author of four books of essays and journalism. His most recent book is Going Driftless: Life Lessons from the Heartland for Unraveling Times. Visit his Twitter feed.