The Weekly Standard’s Ethan Epstein is upset that a power rock trio of Bruce Springsteen, Dave Grohl, and Zac Brown belted out a rendition of the Credence Clearwater Revival classic anti-war song “Fortunate Son” at a Veterans Day “Concert for Valor.”
“Freak out” would be putting it mildly.
Who would have thought that that Bruce Springsteen, Dave Grohl, and Zac Brown, accomplished musicians all, would be so, well, tone-deaf? But how else to explain their choice of song—Creedence Clearwater’s famously anti-war anthem “Fortunate Son”—at the ostensibly pro-military “Concert for Valor” this evening on the National Mall?
The song, not to put too fine a point on it, is an anti-war screed, taking shots at “the red white and blue.” It was a particularly terrible choice given that Fortunate Son is, moreover, an anti-draft song, and this concert was largely organized to honor those who volunteered to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq.
On a musical level, “Fortunate Song” is not a bad song—that’s one hell of a riff. But the “Concert for Valor,” a Veterans Day event sponsored by HBO and Starbucks, in front of the Capitol Building, was not the place for it.
Considering the part that Vietnam veterans played in ending that war, it was not only appropriate but necessary to honor them by playing that song. Forget John Kerry and his “Vietnam Veterans Against the War” group. The vast majority of veterans against the war in Vietnam did not throw their medals away, or make false testimony about the actions of their comrades. Most of them were ordinary grunts who realized as most thinking Americans did by 1970 that the war could not be won in any conventional way and it was time to make peace and bring the boys home.
“Fortunate Son” is more about class than patriotism. It’s a touchstone for the time it was written, and sounds very dated today. But the lyrics speak to a generation that opposed the draft, which they viewed as patently unfair and discriminatory.
The lyrics paint the picture clearly:
Some folks are born, made to wave the flag
Ooo, their red, white and blue
And when the band plays “Hail to the Chief”
Ooo, they point the cannon at you, Lord
It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no senator’s son, son
It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate one, no
Some folks are born, silver spoon in hand
Lord, don’t they help themselves, y’all
But when the taxman comes to the door
Lord, the house looks like a rummage sale, yeah
It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no millionaire’s son, no, no
It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate one, no
Some folks inherit star spangled eyes
Ooh, they send you down to war, Lord
And when you ask ’em, “How much should we give?”
Ooh, they only answer “More! More! More!”, y’all
It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no military son, son
It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate one, one
It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate one, no, no, no
It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate son, no, no, no
John Fogerty, who wrote the song, was drafted in 1966 and served in the military as an Army reservist. Like almost everyone of that age, he opposed the draft largely because of the deferment system which allowed those who could afford it to go to college and avoid serving. The ranks were filled with the poor (of all races), and other marginal kids who dropped out of high school or couldn’t cut it in college.
It’s different today, of course. Today’s Army is more egalitarian, smarter, and more technically savvy than the Army that fought in Vietnam. Generous benefits, including college tuition and vocational training, that weren’t available to the Vietnam generation are available today. These inducements have forged the greatest army in history, with every race, every class represented.
In a 2007 interview with the music e-zine Pitchfork, Fogerty reveals a side of himself that some of his contemporaries might be surprised at:
I think at times the very strong feelings I have about my country coincide with my musical ability, and I’m able to actually turn it into music, a song or even hopefully a memorable song, sometimes. You may find it surprising, but I’m a very intense, proud American. I love being an American. But I come from a generation that came of age in the 60s, so that intense pride sort of comes out a little differently in me than it does in, say, John Wayne. Now that I’m a lot older, I certainly revere John Wayne as an icon. Heck, he was a cowboy, and I love cowboys. But during the Vietnam era, he was too dang right wing. He was status quo, everything’s great. He was against the protesters and for the Nixon White House, and his politics I think– I think– tended to be quite conservative. He could have almost uttered the phrase “stay the course.” [laughs]
I’m just made differently. Man, I just love being an American, I love my country. But it happened to me during the Nixon time, especially pre-Watergate, that as I watched Nixon for the first time in my life I felt shame. I had to analyze myself. What is this emotion? I realized that my government was separate from my country. It was the first time I ever felt ashamed of the government, not the country. I felt that the population as a whole, of which I am one member, I was proud of that. I was proud of our history, all the things that have lead us to where we are and what we stood for and stand for still– I hope. But there was a distinct difference. That was the first time I could see that what the government was doing was not necessarily what my country wanted to have done. Which is probably how I feel now. That pride as an American comes out a little bit different. I can salute the flag. I can totally support the troops. And yet I am against what my president is doing with those troops.
I daresay that are many on the right who feel the exact same way about America and the Obama administration.
But though his criticism is, I believe, misplaced, Epstein raises a point that needs to be addressed: is being anti-war the same as being anti-military?
The argument made by the left during the Iraq War was that you could be anti-war and pro-troops. The counterargument on the right was that in order to be pro-military, you had to support the mission. In an all-volunteer army, that is a perfectly acceptable argument to make in that ostensibly, everyone serving knew what they were getting into when they enlisted — if the commander in chief said the nation was going to war, you saluted and did your best to carry out the mission. That doesn’t make the anti-Iraq war activists un-American or unpatriotic. But it does call into question their support of the troops who volunteered to be the sharp end of the stick of American foreign policy.
But Vietnam was different. To be sure, there were many who volunteered for duty, believing their country had called them to service. But the vast majority of draftees — especially after 1968 — did not want to go, and did not want to be there. Fogerty is arguing that his advocacy to bring the troops home was an extension of his patriotic belief in the country, not the government. That’s a perfectly legitimate argument that the Founders would have approved. They believed that the sovereignty of the United States did not rest with the government, but with the people. Opposing the government to support the people in their sovereign right to express their opposition to a war is as American as apple pie. This doesn’t make anti-war activists then or now necessarily right. But it legitimizes their stand as equally patriotic as those who support the war and the government.
It seems to me that an anti-draft song is a good choice to honor the volunteers. Read the lyrics here. The singer complains that he has to do the fighting because the sons of the men who decide when wars will be fought manage to evade the draft. I don’t see how that’s generically anti-war. What it’s against is a particular political dysfunction that has been corrected. So it’s a complaint that doesn’t hold up anymore. You don’t have to be a “fortunate son” to avoid the military. You can do what you want. Every single person who serves chose to serve.
It is often said that there is no more of an anti-war group in America than the U.S. military and their families. They’re the ones who have to bear the burden of fighting and dying to carry out the mission assigned them by the government. This should — and does — given them a special status as patriots whose sacrifice and dedication go beyond what most of the rest of us are able to give.
But it is possible to hold sacred that sacrifice and dedication while opposing their mission. The two are mutually exclusive concepts and shouldn’t be confused as one and the same.