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How music awakens us to the human cost of armed combat
I’ve been asked to appear on the Radio Kingston (WKNY 1490 AM/107.9 FM) show, “The Long Way Around,” hosted by Malcolm Burn, a Canadian-born music producer, recording engineer and musician. The show will air live, from 8-10 pm ET, on Sunday, January 22.
I appeared on “The Long Way Around” last year, and at that time I was asked to submit a ten-song playlist that would provide musical accompaniment to the interview. I put together a list of ten songs that captured specific periods of my life. Apparently both the playlist and the interview were a hit.
I’ve been asked by Malcom to submit another playlist, but this time the task is more daunting, since Malcom wants to address “Ukraine and other topics as they may arise during the course of a conversation.”
I’ve chewed over this request for two weeks, and after much thought, I’ve compiled seven songs that would go well with such a serious topic. Here they are:
#1. The Variag, performed by the Red Army Choir
Russophobia has been around in the US for decades. Back in 1962, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, my father was attending the University of Florida. He had a radio show on the University radio station, and one day he decided, given that the entire country was focused on the potential for a war with Russia, and that Florida would be ground zero for such a conflict, to expose his audience to Russian music. He had an album of songs performed by the Red Army Choir, and he proceeded to play the first side, non-stop. Within minutes, the station was flooded with calls from the local John Birch Society that either my father be removed from the air, or else they would come down and lynch him. That was the end of my father’s broadcasting career! (He went on to take his commission in the US Air Force after graduating the next year, and served for 25 years, including a couple of tours in Vietnam. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, John Birchers!)
The Red Army Choir album remained in the family collection, and as a child I would often put it on the turntable and listen to these strange voices singing so melodically in a foreign tongue. One song in particular stuck with me—The Variag. I had no idea what the men were saying, but the strength of the emotion contained in the fifth verse moved even a young eight-year-old.
Later, I studied the origins of that song, and learned the story of the Russian Cruiser, the Variag, and how, rather than surrendering to a superior Japanese naval force during the Russo-Japanese War, its Captain and crew sallied forth to attack their foe, displaying unimaginable courage in the face of certain death and destruction. The courage of the Variag was such that later, after the war, the Japanese awarded its Captain with their highest award for courage.
I also went about learning the words to the fifth verse:
Goodbye, comrades, to God - hooray!
The boiling sea below us.
Didn’t think, brothers, you and I yesterday,
That we’re going to die under the waves.
The crew of the Variag was drawn from the expanse of the Russian Empire—there were Russians, Ukrainians, and other nationalities on board.
Russians die hard.
So do Ukrainians.
This should never be forgotten as this tragic war between these two brotherly people drags on.
#2. A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, by Bob Dylan
The live performance in Japan in 1994 is the best version of this song, in my humble opinion. Soft, accompanied by a haunting orchestra.
This song brings to mind the movie, Ballad of a Soldier, a 1959 Soviet film directed by Grigory Chukhray and starring Vladimir Ivashov and Zhanna Prokhorenko. The opening scene is crushing—a lone middle-aged woman, clad in black, slowly walking to the outskirts of a village, passing young children playing, and a couple carrying a newborn child. She makes her way to the edge of the village, before stopping.
“This is the road to town,” the narrator says, “Those who leave our village, and those who come back home, depart and return by this road.”
We see the woman’s face, a portrait in pain and sorrow. “She is expecting no one,” the narrator continues. “Her son, Alyosha, did not return from the war.”
The movie recounts the tale of Alyosha, a young man who turns down a medal for heroism in exchange for a three-day pass so he can visit his mother. His adventures getting home are many, and in the end he has only minutes to hug her and tell her he loves her, before he makes his way back to the frontlines, never to return.
When I listen to Bob Dylan sing this song, I have this woman’s face in my mind’s eye, asking her son the questions she was never allowed to ask, while being spared the answers no mother wants to hear.
Where have you been? I’ve been 10,000 miles in the mouth of a graveyard…
What did you see? A newborn baby with wild wolves all around it…
What did you hear? I heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter…
Who did you meet? I met a young woman, her body was burning…
What will you do know? I’m a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’…
The song literally breaks my heart every time I listen to it.
#3. Powderfinger, by Neil Young
The version performed on his 1979 live album, Rust Never Sleeps, is the go-to version of this song.
In America, we are taught to put the notion of the individual above all else—if society cannot protect the rights and freedoms of the individual, then it has failed in its collective responsibility.
War, however, is not about the individual, but rather the collective—the team. People who try and act as individuals end up dying.
I’m always struck by the fantasy life many Americans seem to live in—especially those who are vocal proponents of the Second Amendment—where they believe their possession of firearms somehow imbues them with super-hero characteristics that will enable them to overcome the tyranny of a government backed by a national security structure encompassing the most heavily armed, highly trained professional practitioners of violence the world has ever seen.
Ironically, this worship of firearms leads many Americans to join the military, perhaps not fully comprehending that they are joining the very institution that would be called upon to crush them if they ever acted on their “sovereign man” fantasies of violently resisting and/or overthrowing the US government.
Neil Young’s Powderfinger is the antidote to this fantasy, a song about the futility of individual violence in the face of overwhelming force.
“Look out, Mama,” Young opens the song, “there’s a white boat comin’ up the river.
With a big red beacon and a flag and a man on the rail.” Young goes on to observe that this boat has “numbers on the side and a gun, and it’s makin’ big waves,” adding that “it don’t look like they’re here to deliver the mail.”
Left to his own devices (“Daddy has gone, my brother’s out hunting in the mountains,” Young laments. “Big John's been drinking since the river took Emmy Lou”), the 22-year old hero in Young’s song takes solace in his Daddy’s rifle which, in his hands, “felt reassuring.”
He raised the rifle to his eye, never stopping to wonder why.
“Shelter me,” Young sings, “from the powder and the finger. Cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger.”
Just think of me as one you’d never figured
Would fade away so young
With so much left undone
Remember me to my love
I know I’ll miss her
But it was too late for Young’s young protagonist.
Wisdom in war always comes too late.
#4. Unchained Melody, The Righteous Brothers
In February 1991, I was stationed in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where I worked as an intelligence officer assigned to the Intelligence Staff of US Central Command. One of my jobs was to come up with ways to interdict Iraqi SCUD missile launchers which were firing their modified Soviet-made SCUD missiles into both Israel and the Arabian Peninsula.
Most of my work was conducted behind the safety of a desk situated deep in an underground bunker in Riyadh. However, having conceived of a special reconnaissance mission requiring US special operations personnel to investigate locations inside Iraq where the US Air Force had claimed to have destroyed Iraqi SCUD launchers and missiles, I found myself attached to the SEAL team which was assigned to carry out this task as a “technical expert.”
This was all fine and dandy during the conceptual phase of the mission. I flew down to Dhahran Air Base, where Colonel Jesse Johnson, the commander of all special forces units assigned to US Central Command was headquartered, and I pitched the concept to Johnson and the SEALs. Johnson and I then flew back to Riyadh, where General Norman Schwarzkopf gave his approval for the mission after being briefed.
While I awaited the word to join up with the SEALs, I was in contact with a number of people back in Washington, DC, who were affiliated with the US intelligence community, ferreting out specific information, both in terms of visual and physical samples, that I would need to collect once the SEALs got me to the target.
One analyst, who had worked with me during my time as an inspector implementing the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty in the Soviet Union before the war, was shocked to hear that I planned on accompanying the SEALs. “Why?” she asked. “This isn’t worth your life!”
The next day I was scheduled to fly back to Dhahran, and then on to Al Jouf, where I would join up with the SEALs before launching on the mission, which involved being inserted into Iraq onboard a helicopter, before proceeding to the target using souped-up dune buggies known as Fast Attack Vehicles, or FAVs.
Like most American servicemen stationed in Riyadh, I was billeted in the village of Eskan, on the outskirts of the Saudi capital, and was driven to the bunker in downtown Riyadh in a blue Air Force school bus that operated on a regular schedule.
I took my seat in the bus, which was about half-full. I was dressed in my desert camouflage utility uniform, sporting a night-desert smock over which my web gear was worn, an Alice pack by my side, cradling an M-16 rifle.
Around me, other men and women, each dressed in the uniform befitting their service and role, sat.
The bus radio was tuned into the local Armed Forces Radio and Television Service channel, and halfway through our trip, the song Unchained Melody, by the Righteous Brothers, came on.
Far from home, removed from friends and family, everyone went silent, trapped in a world of their own private thoughts as the song played.
Lonely rivers flow to the sea, to the sea
To the open arms of the sea
Lonely rivers sigh, wait for me, wait for me
I'll be coming home, wait for me
I was going through a divorce at the time, and suddenly it dawned on me that there was nobody at home waiting for me.
I had been in contact with a lovely young lady whom I had met while working in the Soviet Union, but our correspondence had been cut short by the war. Indeed, I had been unable to tell her that I had been sent overseas. She had no idea where I was, what I was doing, or even if I intended to continue to stay in contact with her.
It struck me that I was heading off on a mission where I had a good chance of not returning, with no wife, lover, or girlfriend to mourn me if I passed. I started feeling sorry for myself, which is absolutely the last place your mind needs to be in time of war.
That song, sung at that moment in my life, broke my heart. It still does, to this day.
War is a lonely business.
(Postscript: The mission with the SEALs was canceled at the last second, as was a follow-on mission with Delta Force. Like Lieutenant Dan in the movie Forrest Gump, I was denied the opportunity to die for my country. Unlike Lieutenant Dan, I came back from the war intact.
I went on to marry the young lady I had met in the Soviet Union. Thirty one years later, we are still together, having raised two lovely daughters.)
#5. The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, by The Pogues
Written by Eric Bogle, I find this version, performed by The Pogues, to be as raw its subject deserves.
I was first introduced to this song by Senator Bob Kerrey, a Democrat from Nebraska, who sang it in front of a crowd in November 1988, after learning he had won his election. As Kerrey informed the crowd that he was going to sing, his family and friends, gathered behind him, are alive with laughter and smiles.
Then Kerrey starts to sing.
As the words to the song play out, the crowd grows silent. Behind Kerrey, the smiles disappear, replaced by vacant stares and eyes brimmed with tears. Faces grimaced as Kerrey sang the words, “And I looked at the place where my legs used to be…never knew there were worse things than dying.”
In 1969, Bob Kerrey was a Navy SEAL serving in Vietnam. In a fierce firefight against the Viet Cong, Kerrey was severely wounded. Despite his wounds, he led his men to victory in an action that resulted in him being awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor—the nation’s highest award for valor in combat.
Bob Kerrey lost part of his right leg in that fight.
Years later, I played the version of this song performed by The Pogues to my daughter, who was asking me questions about what war was like. When the song got to its second verse, my daughter’s face was aghast:
And how well I remember that terrible day,
How our blood stained the sand and the water
And of how in that hell that they called Suvla Bay,
We were butchered like lambs at the slaughter.
Johnny Turk he was waiting, he’d primed himself well
He showered us with bullets, and he rained us with shell
And in five minutes flat, he’d blown us all to hell
Nearly blew us right back to Australia.
“Oh my God!” she said. “That’s horrible!”
No, my darling girl.
#6. A Rebel Song, by Sinead O’Connor
Another song that rips me apart every time I listen to it.
A few years back, I had the honor to meet and work with Betty Williams, a remarkable lady who, in 1976, shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Máiread Maguire, a fellow activist from Northern Ireland. After bearing witness to a clash between Brtish soldiers and the IRA which resulted in the deaths of three innocent children, Williams and Maquire—both mother’s themselves—founded an organization known as “the Peace People” to advocate for an end to the Northern Ireland conflict.
Betty often told a story about how her activism drew the attention, and hostility, of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), who dispatched a gunman to kill her. Betty confronted the gunman with love and caring, befitting her real-world role as a mother and caregiver to her family.
The gunman not only decided not to kill her but went on to serve as her bodyguard.
In 2006 Williams joined Maguire and fellow Nobel Peace Prize winners Shirin Ebadi, Jody Williams, Wangari Maathai, and Rigoberta Menchú to found the Nobel Women’s Initiative. I had the privilege to work with this group on several occasions to help promote their message of peaceful coexistence.
As someone steeped in the military tradition of violence and war, I found working with these women to be a remarkably calming experience. There is something about the love of a woman, whether a mother, wife, or friend, that literally soothes the savage beast.
Sinead O’Conner’s song epitomizes the frustrating role women play in a troubled society, trying to talk common sense into men who so causally engage in acts of mindless violence. One verse in particular hits home:
Ah, please talk to me Englishman
What good will shutting me out get done
Meanwhile crazies are killing our sons…
Betty Williams passed in 2020 at the age of 76. The world could do with more women like Betty Williams.
#7. Racing in the Street (outro), by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
There are many versions of this classic song; I just happen to like the live version from the September 9, 2016, concert in Philadelphia the best.
While the lyrics are great, I like to start listening to this song at five minutes and twenty seconds in, once the singing stops and the E Street Band’s pianist, Roy Bittan, begins playing what turns into an extended outro.
Music touches people in different ways. For me, this outro is the perfect musical encapsulation of the journey of life, with Roy Bittan’s melodious piano solo taking the role of the individual, starting life’s journey alone, only to be joined by other instruments (people) met along the way, their separate chords combining, becoming deeper, more complex, and more beautiful as the song—life—progresses.
Throughout the song the piano is working to be heard, the constant struggle of the individual to set his or herself apart from the crowd, only to find that it (he/she) is in fact inseparable from what is, when all said and done, the magnificent concert of life.
The outro runs for a full five minutes, each sound as beautiful as the one that preceded it.
If the average life well spent approximates 80 years, then every 45 seconds of this song represents ten years of life.
The average age of a soldier who dies in battle is around 20 years.
Now imagine this outro cutting off at the one-and-a-half-minute mark, and think of all the beauty that would have been left unheard, never to be experienced.
That is what war does to a life—cuts it short, with all the promise and potential left unfulfilled.
What a waste.