I was invited to participate on a panel of veterans at an anti-war event. I recently started to sing, so I asked if it would be ok to perform Bob Dylan’s “John Brown” as part of my ten minutes. This is a most powerful song about a mother who proudly sends her son off to war. He returns as so many sons and daughters do, damaged almost beyond recognition. Dylan wrote this in 1963. Some things don’t change.
I discussed this song selection with many people beforehand, and got mixed reactions. Most understood my belief that the only way of ending war is to get people to see the reality of it before it is too late. Songs like “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” make powerful statements, but simply do not portray the reality of the damage war brings to society, family, and individuals. I’ve heard too many stories from veterans who describe the moment when they first realized war is not a movie or a video game. I began to wonder what it takes to get people to understand this before they go to war, or before they send their son or daughter.
I haven’t found the answer. But I do think a song with the brutal, honest reality of “John Brown” can get people’s attention.
Others didn’t like my choice. During my years as a peace activist, I often came across people who seem to know the reality is out there, but do not want their days ruined by having to think about it. Others seem to want to continue to believe the lies – that there is some nobility in what we have been doing in Iraq. Or that the military machine is a good thing for their son or daughter to be part of. Travel! Adventure! College paid for!
I decided it might be good to talk about the lies of war and the recruiting system before singing the song. I believe it is these lies that can cause a mother to proudly send her son or daughter off to war. The following is my message on that day. At the end is a link to a video of the song.
I was in the Army from 1977-80. I was spared first hand knowledge of being shot at, or having to kill others. I’ve now been involved in the peace movement for six years. I learned about the pain of war through reading and talking with war veterans, especially Vietnam veterans. I also learned about the lies that contribute to the continuation of war. I believe that, without lies, war would not exist. Or at the very least, we would not go into it as casually as we do.
For several years I was heavily involved in the demonstrations and all the work done to bring attention to the truth about war, especially Iraq. I protested, wrote articles, managed an anti-war band, and did whatever I thought might make a difference. In 2004, I attended the Veterans for Peace convention, where I met Kevin and Joyce Lucey. They sat behind me at a PTSD seminar. It had been only a couple of months since their son’s suicide, and their story was not yet public. When they shared it with me, I had no idea the ending would be Kevin finding his veteran son, Jeffrey, hanging in their basement. This story haunts me. As many of you know, they have now spent years working to bring their truth to the world. They recently won a wrongful death suit against the US government.
This is one of the core reasons I do what I do as a peace activist. I want to try to bring the truth to people who don’t see it.
Have any of us figured out what works? I sure haven’t. I’ve found that people who don’t already understand the horror of war, don’t even want to hear the message. When I talk with Vietnam Veterans, over and over I hear the same thing – they maybe had already arrived in Vietnam when, – “then it hit me – I could get killed. ” Somehow – this message does not come across as real to many people until it’s too late. The soldier often believes he or she is special. They are smarter and/or stronger than everybody else. Their training is good. God will protect them. “Don’t worry ma, everything will be ok.”
I learned these are all lies. I learned that death and injury in a war zone is a lottery. First prize may be a college education. But second place is getting physically or emotionally wounded for life. Third place is death.
With all the signs and banners I saw at demonstrations, this message, for some reason doesn’t come across as strongly as it should. Conservatives see a group of protestors and assume we are all nut jobs, and won’t even pay attention to the signs. They don’t want to read about the pain and damage war inflicts on all parties involved. When I tried discussing the damage our invasion of Iraq would cause on its civilian population, a friend of mine yelled at me, saying “I don’t want to hear about that! Don’t ever bring it up again.” Her strong Christian faith led her to believe this kind of killing is ok. Our friendship ended.
Those of us in the peace movement know we have a formidable force to overcome. This is the billion dollar machine known as the military recruitment system. When has more taxpayer money been spent on more lies?
Think about these words – the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
The recruiting system leaves out the second part of this. Recruiters talk about travel, adventure, skill-training, and getting your college education paid for. They don’t mention that the travel and adventure may involve being in 110 degree+ temperatures, loaded up with gear, sleeping in tents, having your life threatened on a daily basis, and maybe not even having enough clean water to drink. They don’t mention that the skill-training is usually not transferable to a civilian job, or that some of the skills taught include how to be a prejudiced, hate-filled, bigot, who can be capable of killing another human being without feeling. They don’t explain that the military will teach a person to hate when he or she enlists, but doesn’t teach love when the soldier returns. And they certainly don’t mention that only 14 percent of soldiers who sign up for the GI Bill use the benefit.
The lies of omission often go further. A recruiter may promise a job as a pilot, knowing the soldier won’t qualify and will possibly end up as a truck driver in Iraq – one of the most dangerous jobs. A prospective Navy medic may not understand that he or she may end up in a combat zone since they are the ones who take care of Marines. Or the biggest lie of all – they convince the soldier he or she is signing up for three years, and don’t point out that these days, with the stop-loss program in place, the enlistment agreement (note I don’t use the word “contract”) currently commits the soldier potentially to a life sentence.
But you know what, these are only a few of the lies involved in keeping a war machine going. The bigger ones come from society itself. That war is a good thing. That movies and video games represent reality. You get killed in a video game, press a button, and start over. You don’t lose a friend, body parts, or your mind.
How many of you know about Army Experience in Philadelphia? This is a 14,000 sq ft, $12 million tax payer funded video game. You get to play a game to make believe you are in a war, even try out Apache attack helicopter flight simulators. Wow – who wouldn’t want to try this? I spent ten years of my life helping to build Apache helicopters. The flight simulators, even for employees, were off limits. How’s this for a lie? – the Army experience is staffed by 20 trained recruiters, but it is NOT a recruiting center.
Here are some quotes from an article about this program:
“The Army Experience Center offers visitors the opportunity to virtually experience many aspects of Army life, while evaluating new marketing strategies.
They want to “make the Army accessible to visitors.”
Oftentimes people have a negative perception of the Army, but the negatives are a very small part.
We want to give people the opportunity to experience the Army for themselves.”
Don’t be ridiculous. You can’t possibly experience the real Army until you have at least faced a drill instructor and learned your life is no longer yours. You can’t experience the real war until you witness it.
Where is the lie here? They are not presenting the “whole” truth. If they were, they would have a final stop on the tour. They would have a room for a group such as Military Families Speak Out (www.mfso.org) to allow mothers and fathers of dead soldiers to share their stories. They would have a room full of the boots used in the Eyes Wide Open display (www.afsc.org/eyes/ht/d/sp/i/38782/pid/38782). They would show SOMETHING of this truth. Only then might visitors come to understand the gamble. They might realize there are other ways of traveling and getting a college education besides putting their life and soul at risk.
I read a story about a young man who was in the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003. He was standing on a roof in Baghdad, very visible to the opposing forces. The journalist pointed out that he was putting himself at risk. The soldier replied with a grin, “I want to see what it feels like to be shot!”
This is the lesson our children learn. The possibility of death and injury is not real. This is the lesson we must counter.
I only started singing two years ago. I came to realize the power of a song. People will listen to a song with words they wouldn’t want to read or hear in a speech. I realized if I am going to invest my time in learning a song, it should be one that might make a difference. One that might wake up a soul or two. That might touch people in a way to at least plant a seed in their soul that maybe there is more to this war thing than pressing “reset” and starting over.
When I first heard the song, John Brown, it smacked me awake, and woke me up to a new reality. He wrote it in 1963, years before the Vietnam War peaked, although talk of it was in the air. It is a timeless message. And a painful one. I think it carries a message that many of us would like the world to know. It’s a message we’d like other mothers, fathers, sons and daughters to understand BEFORE it’s too late.
It’s one thing to go to Vegas and drop a chunk of money on slots or blackjack. The gambler at least knows the worst case possibility of how much he or she may lose. It’s important for enlistees and their parents to truly understand that enlistment in the military is a gamble, with the highest stakes imaginable. The enlistee is agreeing to gamble on the loss of his or her mind, body, and soul.
DIANE REJMAN served in the US Army from 1977-80. She is a lifetime member of Veterans’ for Peace. She holds a MBA from the Thunderbird School of Global Management, and has been listed in Who’s Who in America. She also spent 10 years supporting the building of the Apache attack helicopter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
John Brown went off to war, to fight on a foreign shore,
his mother, she sure was proud of him!
he stood so straight and tall, in his uniform and all,
His mother’s face broke out all in a grin.
”Oh son, you look so fine, I’m glad you’re a son of mine—
You make me proud to know you hold a gun.
Do what the captain says and lots of medals you will get,
We’ll put them on the wall when you come home.”
When that old train pulled out, John’s ma began to shout,
Tellin everyone in the neighborhood:
“That’s my son that’s about to go, he’s a soldier now, you know,”
she made well sure her neighbors understood.
She got a letter once in a while, and her face broke into a smile,
As she showed them to the people from next door,
And she bragged about her son, with his uniform and gun,
And this thing she called “a good old-fashioned war.”
“Lord, lo-ord, good old-fashioned war.”
Then his letters ceased to come, for a long time they did not come
They ceased to come for about nine months or more.
Then a letter finally came: sayin “Go down and meet the train—
Your son is coming home from the war.”
She smiled and went right down, she looked up and all around,
But she did not see her soldier son in sight.
but as all the people passed, she saw her son at last
And when she did, she could hardly believe her eyes.
His face was all shot up, and his hands were both blown off,
And he wore a metal brace around his waist.
He whispered kind of slow, in a voice she did not know,
And she could not even recognize his face.
“Oh, tell me my darling son, pray tell me what they’ve done.
How is it that you come to be this way?”
He tried his best to talk, as his mouth could hardly move,
And his mother had to turn her head away.
“Don’t you remember, Ma, when I went off to war,
You thought it was the best thing I could do?
I was on the battleground, you were home acting proud.
Thank god you wasn’t standing in my shoes.
And I thought when I was there, ‘God, what am I doing here?
I’m tryin’ to kill somebody or DIE tryin’.’
But the thing that scared me most, when my enemy came close,
I saw that his face looked just like mine.
Lord, lo-ord just like mine!
Then I could not help but think, through that thunder and the stink,
I was only just a puppet in a play.
And through the roar and smoke, that string, it finally broke,
And a IED blew my eyes away.”
As he turned away to walk, his ma was still in shock,
Seein the metal brace that helped him stand.
But as he turned to go, he called his mother close,
And he dropped his medals down into her hand.
Lord, lo-ord, down into her hand.
Copyright © 1963
“John Brown” by Bob Dylan. Sung by DIANE REJMAN and Trond Toft