Wednesday, December 30, 2020

America and its unfortunate sons

Rich old rich men start the wars but poor young men fight them. Unless you are a fortunate son then someone else takes your place in the trenches.

I was a few years too young for Vietnam but old enough to be aware of the war and to understand the devastation it wrought in my country and in the jungles, rice paddies and highlands of Vietnam. Fourteen young men from my hometown died in Vietnam; another seven from the small towns that dotted my home county.

One of them, 27-year-old Dale Hudson, died on Nov. 17, 1965, on the fourth day of fighting in the Ia Drang Valley, the first major combat between U.S. forces and the soldiers of North Vietnam. The battle is chronicled in the book, We Were Soldiers Once… And Young, and in the Mel Gibson movie adaptation. The 43 days of fighting saw 545 Americans killed.

Col. James Metz, 37, was shot down over North Vietnam on April 15, 1968. He was initially listed as a POW but he did not return with the 573 prisoners who came home in 1973. None of the returning POWs had knowledge of him so it is assumed he was killed shortly after capture. His remains were returned by Vietnam on March 18, 1977. I wore his POW/MIA bracelet while in high school.

Not all the casualties occurred “in country.” My cousin died of cancer in 2017 that was attributed to his exposure to the Agent Orange defoliant while serving in the Mekong Delta. I visited my cousin shortly after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and while driving across his farm, he said to me: “I served when my country drafted me for Vietnam, but if they come for either of my sons for Iraq I will personally drive them to Canada.”

My belief then, and now, is that this was a war fought by African Americans and poor white kids who didn’t have the clout to finagle an exemption from their local draft board. In 1967 Blacks comprised 11 percent of the population but were 16.3 percent of all draftees. That same year the armed services drafted 64 percent of the eligible African American subjects in comparison to the 31 percent of eligible white subjects drafted. In four southern states, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas, no African Americans served on selective service boards. In Louisiana, Jack Helms, a grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, served on the draft board from 1957 until 1966. As the son of a carpenter I can guess my fate had I appeared before the community elites serving on my local selective service board.

In 1969 came Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son,” a song that became the anthem of the anti-war movement. While it was released at the height of America’s involvement in Vietnam, it does not specifically target that particular war. Rather the song speaks to the unfairness of class in American society, the privileges of the elites, that rich men create the wars and poor men fight them.

“Some folks are born made to wave the flag
They're red, white and blue
And when the band plays ‘Hail to the Chief’
They point the cannon at you, Lord”

I was already a fan of CCR when this song came out on the Willy And The Poor Boys album. As my political and social consciousness grew the song took on a greater presence with me. It is a blistering attack on those who, both in times of war and in peace, take the most from this country but give back the least.

“Some folks are born silver spoon in hand
Lord, don't they help themselves, yeah
But when the taxman comes to the door
The house look a like a rummage sale”

John Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” “Fortunate Son,” in just two minutes and 19 seconds, eviscerates the rich and powerful who reach their lofty perches by standing on the shoulders of ordinary citizens.

While its theme of class privilege is timeless and universal, the song took on renewed meaning to me when in 2016 the nation elected a Vietnam draft dodger. Donald Trump received five draft deferments, four of them student deferments and the fifth a dubious medical claim of bone spurs. Trump openly flouted escaping the draft during two separate interviews in the 1990s, when he compared trying to avoid sexually transmitted diseases on the dating scene to “my personal Vietnam."

The lyrics to “Fortunate Son” reverberated in my head as I said goodbye to my cousin in the hospice hospital bed in his farmhouse while Trump sat in the glory and luxury of the Oval Office.

“Yeah, some folks inherit star-spangled eyes
They send you down to war
And when you ask 'em: "How much should we give?"
They only answer: ‘More, more, more’”

My cousin had nothing more to give.

Do they listen to the lyrics?
Ironically, the Donald Trump campaign used “Fortunate Son” at a campaign rally; song author John Fogerty issued a cease and desist order. Similarly, Ronald Reagan used Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The USA,” a song that describes the desperation faced by a returning Vietnam vet, at his rallies. Don’t these people pay attention to lyrics?

The song is everywhere:
Does “Fortunate Son” suffer from overexposure? Possibly. It seems to be the go to song for virtually every Vietnam war flick, especially troops on helicopters. That notion was parodied in a Family Guy episode. Watch it here:

Prolific and creative: CCR churned out seven albums during a four-year career from 1968 to 1972. Willy And The Poor Boys was the third of three albums released in 1969. It is certified double platinum (two million units sold) and is consistently listed in Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 greatest albums of all time. “Fortunate Son” is also on the magazine’s 500 greatest songs of all time. In addition the song is enshrined in the Library of Congress.

Fear and loathing of Nixon: The album has other political moments. “Effigy" is Fogerty’s response to Nixon emerging from the White House and sneering at anti-war demonstrators outside, with Fogerty remembering, "He said, 'Nothing you do here today will have any effect on me. I'm going back inside to watch the football game.'"

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