So “Was It Worth It?”: The Funny Pages and Rock Songs Get Their Say
As part of two weeks of strips about the wind-down of American troops in Iraq, Garry Trudeau has used Doonesbury to present veterans confronting the inevitable “Was it worth it?” question. The second strip settles for a TSA joke (because B.D. and Ray—or at least Trudeau—don’t know how to defend their position), but in the first, Mel’s response points out something a little … unseemly about the way the question is likely to be asked. What, exactly, does one get at by asking whether it was worthwhile, or stating simply that it wasn’t—not generally, but to that segment which has actually sacrificed for the war?
I’ve been thinking about this while listening to the Drive-by Truckers lately, and planning to write about it when I found the time. DBT was, inevitably, going to have to address contemporary veterans and wars—their storytelling purview is the working-class South. On 2008’s Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, they present a kind of wartime trilogy with “That Man I Shot,” “The Purgatory Line,” and “The Home Front.” (The middle track, admittedly, is not necessarily about war orIraq—it only takes on shades of that meaning from its position on the album. If you listen carefully, you can hear that it rises from the final notes of “That Man I Shot”—the bass notes of one turning into those of the other—and flows into “The Home Front.”)
The first and the third of these songs are based on letters from fans who were serving or had served. “That Man I Shot” gives its voice to a veteran trying to grapple with his memories of killing. Patterson Hood writes in the online notes to the album:
The man in That Man I Shot probably doesn’t agree with a lot of my viewpoints, but I tried to be true to what he said and how he said it. You don’t have to agree with someone to respect them and that seemed to run both ways with us. As a writer, it’s not my job to agree or disagree and certainly not to judge. It is my job to be as true to the character’s voice as humanly possible and to tell the story accordingly.
What this leads to is the wholly unironical plea, “I was trying to do good / I just don’t understand.” The lack of irony is one of two features that define their treatment of veterans. They’re allowed to be sincere in a way that does not lapse into the kitsch of, for example, country radio.
“The Home Front,” as its title suggests, focuses on a wife and (infant?) son of a soldier. The song, and the attitude toward “Was it worth it?” questions, turn on the following lines:
Now they’re saying on the flatscreenThey ain’t found a reason yetWe’re all bogged down in a quagmireAnd there ain’t no end to itNo 9-11 or uraniumTo pin the bullshit onShe’s left standing on the homefrontThe two of them alone
Blame and anger toward those who fabricated reasons for going to war in the first place are certainly present. But there is also a critique of those who make grand declarations about the nature and meaning of war from the relative safety and sterility of a cable news studio. For the wife and child, the war has very little to do with nuclear weapons or terrorists—it is defined by the fact that “She can’t even get to sleep / Since Tony went to war.” War as a part of everyday, domestic life is of an entirely different kind than war as a part of national life. And this quality is what demands an ethics, rather than a decorum, or a method of questioning.
The critique is sharpened by the similarities to two lines from Tom T. Hall’s Vietnamera “Mama Bake a Pie (Daddy Kill a Chicken),” which the band covered on The Fine Print:
Lord I love her so much that I don’t think I can drink her off my mindAnd I can see it in the paper where they’re saying that the war’s a waste of time
This song, unlike those written by Hood, drips with irony—but these two lines are (at least delivered by Hood) pure bitterness. He lost the use of his legs, which led to the loss of the girl he loves, and now newspaper editors are going to tell him that everything was for nothing? Vietnam is not a national tragedy for him—it’s a private, domestic one. And the way in which the national discussion about the war occurs, from the perspective of the speaker, leaves something very much to be desired.
Moreover, he’s become a kind of symbol to those around him: hero, victim, charmer, object of pity. (The first words of the song are “People staring at me…”) This turning of individuals into symbols is the target of former band member Jason Isbell’s “Soldiers Get Strange.” The speaker comes home, but hardly feels at-home. Though he’d like to try out civilian life, everyone is “scared” of him—because “soldiers get strange.” He has his share of problems—but no one sees his problems; they see a soldier returning and fit him into their pre-cut narrative. Hence the three, variant chorus stanzas:
It’s not the time that makes it go badIt’s not the thought of what you could have hadIt’s not the way that her figure has changedIt’s just that a soldier gets strangeIt ain’t the time that makes it go southIt ain’t the liquor that burns in your mouthNearly nothing around here’s changedIt’s just that a soldier gets strangeIt’s not the dreams that keep you up lateIt’s not the world you saw incinerateIt’s not the way her figure has changedIt’s just that a soldier gets strangeMost of all you got strange
To say that “a soldier gets strange” is to ignore the soldier—even a troubled one—as an individual. This, for example, is the overwhelming problem with True Blood’s Terry: he’s strange as hell—but he’s an Iraq vet, and soldiers get strange. You can see this also in the strangeness of films like Rambo or even Apocalypse Now, which I would oppose to the very human aftermath of The Things They Carried. The former, however, dominate the public consciousness.
By contrast, Isbell’s end-of-war song, “Tour of Duty” depicts—with the same lack of irony Hood employs—a soldier just happy to be home. He recognizes “all the work we did [was] in vain” and that “now I’m not the same as I was”; in an almost direct counterpoint to “Soldiers Get Strange” states, “I don’t know the ways you’ve changed since I’ve left / And I don’t really care.” He’ll “try to do what a civilian does” because he needs to achieve his new, overarching goal: “I’m going to put you in the family way.” The melody and rhythm are upbeat, as if he’s racing home in double-time. Some soldiers don’t get strange.
The threat to veterans of this war, the songs imply, isn’t incoherent anti-war protestors spitting at them on return, but what happened in the years following: being viewed and understood as barely real abstractions, just paper uniforms or news flashes. That, to the overwhelming majority of the population—the majority that has no connection, in this era, to the human sacrifices of combat, for whom war is a wholly national and in no way domestic enterprise—soldiers would become simply symbols to be used, even innocently, even unknowingly. There’s an ethics to how we ask, “Was it worth it?” they imply. (Being songwriters, there’s no real exploration of that implication—but this doesn’t mean it’s not worthy of our consideration.) There’s a need, that is, to view soldiers not as Soldiers or Veterans or Warriors or Troops To Be Supported, but as soldiers and veterans who are also (and primarily) individual humans with their own slew of subjective experiences. That maybe, in at least a handful of cases, maybe it really is just the liquor or her figure and not the memories. (And that the memories are themselves of particular experiences, not of the black box known as War.)
For some time, Doonesbury (a comic strip, of all things!) succeeded quite well in this regard. The storyline following B.D.’s recovery from the loss of his leg deserved the praise it garnered, and even the goal of the current veteran storylines is admirable—to push reader to recognize that veterans are as fragile as any of us, rather than some kind of mythical warrior breed—it has developed into yet another variation of “soldiers get strange.” Every combat veteran the strip encounters is, it seems, required to suffer long-lasting psychological trauma which will then be healed or managed by therapists at a VA hospital. The veteran will refuse help at first, but come around recognizes his/her role, in the end. These are types, not characters; the individuality of a soldier’s experience is lost very quickly in the compression.