Nov 15

In a continuing quest to show pictures from my Afghanistan deployment, today we have two pictures of the Korengal OutPost, a hell-hole I have written about before.

This first photo was taken out of a Chinook helicopter as I was desperately trying to get back to Camp Joyce. I went all over the battlefield before I got there, and I realized as we landed here I was at the KOP. My camera came after we left so this is the only photo I have.

But this second photo I got from SGT Crivello, one of my guys from the platoon. It pretty much captures the mood of the valley, and a brand new platoon leader.

Nov 12

In a string of good luck, we have been published in several different venues over the last week, including the and Infantry Magazine.

To top it off, Eric C just got an rebuttal piece published in our hometown paper, the Los Angeles Times in their “Blowback” feature. Called “War Destroys”, Eric C writes about how atrocities define war in general. This is another huge day for Eric C and On Violence, so check it out.

Nov 12

(This week, On Violence continues its second annual(ish) “Executioner’s Song: The On Violence Epic Song Battle!" Click here to read our introduction. Click here to check out the first one here.

Remember, vote for your favorite in the comments section below.)

Eric C’s Rebuttal:

Buffalo Soldier” is, in one very distinct way, miles above both "Belleau Wood" and “...And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda”: it is the most playable. And I mean playable in the sense that when you want to put something on, you’ll play “Buffalo Soldier” ten times more than the other songs.

Great art is accessible. For music, this means pleasant, on key, beautiful. You could play “Buffalo Soldier” and people can dance to it. Or lie on the beach and listen to it. Or listen to it in the car. On this musical level, it is amazing.

But what about the other songs? “...And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” is a great song, no doubt, but practically unlistenable--the singer doesn’t sing so much as cough out consonants like a Pertussis victim. This guy wishes he could sing like Bob Dylan.

What about "Belleau Wood"? I’m not going to be one of those ignorant people who says all country is crap. But I don’t like twang, and "Belleau Wood" has a lot of twang.

On to content. “...And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” has numerous factual errors in it, which isn’t a deal breaker, but it kind of is. And there is something about the Christmas Truce that strikes me wrong. All of World War I was a big deadly mess, and the Christmas Truce illustrates the absurdity of the war. But the song, for me, doesn’t.

Matty P's Rebuttal:

It’s a privilege to participate in the second On Violence war song debate. Choosing "Belleau Wood" was absurdly difficult considering the wealth of musical inspiration on the subject matter. The 1960’s and 1970’s teem with war protest and condemnation. While these songs, songs like “No Shelter” by the Rolling Stones or Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth”, highlight the evils of war, they lack the ability to truly capture the cost to our humanity or convey a hope for, as Garth Brooks says, we “live to see a better way.”

As for “Buffalo Soldier” I cannot dispute the popularity of the song. However, this debate isn’t about popularity. Eric admits the lyrics are vague. Further, the connection to war is weak. While an excellent depiction of racial tensions, culture clash, and triumph over oppression, “Buffalo Soldier is clearly inferior when depicting and commenting on the nature of war.

While passionate, Eric’s hyperbolic argument seems limited to what is popular or, as he put it, “accessible”. Great art is not necessarily accessible, great art is evocative. Further, in stating “Buffalo Soldier” is the superior musically, he fails to state a qualifier. This statement is dubious at best, it may be popular, but not necessarily better.

Admittedly, I had not heard “...And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda prior to prepping for the debate. After listening to two versions, I was more than sufficiently depressed. It’s a dark tale of a wanderer turned soldier. The story itself is one of woe questioning the value of war and celebrating victory. While dancing on the edge of powerful emotions, the lyrics lack eloquence in telling the tale. Rather than descriptive, its straight forward. While it makes a good tale, “...And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” is compromised by it’s bluntness.

Michael C’s Rebuttal:

First, a clarification: I love all of these songs, including the songs from our first debate too. (I hadn’t heard "Belleau Wood" before it was recommended last time, but it grew on me too.) I have taken the five songs from our two debates and made a mini-playlist called “On V Debates” for my IPod.

This debate isn’t about good versus bad, it is about greatness at varying degrees. And by many degrees, “...And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” is better than its competitors.

I agree with Eric C that, musically, “Buffalo Soldier”'s kicks behind. It easily is the best song of the bunch aesthetically. But great music combines raw sonic pleasure with narrative energy. In that latter category, I just don’t think “Buffalo Soldier” tells a strong enough story to really capture the essence of war or warfare. And when you have to steal your chorus from a television show, well that just seems wrong.

"Belleau Wood", on the other hand, tells a great story. It sticks with you. The PBS documentary on World War I, The Great War, had a part on the story retold in Belleau Wood. I remember watching that section and still not believing it happened. In the field between the lines--a hell-torn warzone, with the remnants of mustard gas, artillery shells and bodies still littering the battlefield, where poking your head above a trench line meant a sniper bullet to the dome, with the stench of death permeating nostrils, clothes and minds--in the midst of all that, soldiers from two different nations, speaking two different languages, came together to celebrate Christmas. It doesn’t sound true, but it is, and it captures the height of human triumph.

Then the next day the men went back to the depths of human tragedy. "Belleau Wood" may capture the indomitable fortitude of the human condition, but it doesn’t capture the essence of war, the ugly side of war--the fighting, killing, death and destruction--that I talked about in a recent post. Because of that, it can’t be the best.

(Vote for your favorite below.)

Nov 11

(This week, On Violence continues its second annual(ish) “Executioner’s Song: The On Violence Epic Song Battle!" Click here to read our introduction. Click here to check out the first one here. Today's post is a guest post by longtime reader Matty P.)

Christmas Eve in the winter of 1914, Allied soldiers, clutching rifles, sit huddled in the snow laden trenches far away from their families. Across a scorched stretch of earth, German soldiers sit in similar trenches, just as cold, just as lonely. Amidst brief silence, a tune rises from the German trenches. A Christmas melody familiar to the Allied lines. Soon, though the language is different, both sides lend their voices.

"Belleau Wood" performed by Garth Brooks and co-written by Joe Henry, poetically depicts actual events on the front lines during Christmas in World War I. It is a powerful song, slow and somber, highlighting the brilliance of the human spirit in the darkest of times while glimpses the harrowing cost of war on the human soul.

We revel in true stories. We need them for perspective and inspiration. This is an advantage that "Belleau Wood" has over the competition. "Belleau Wood" is based on true events; men from warring nations peered from the safety of their trenches to share goodwill during a holiday.

In solemn country fashion, Garth Brooks evokes the complex mixture of hope and fear engaging soldiers during the truce. Brooks describes a sobering glimpse at the struggle to find humanity in depths of hell. Upon a frozen and battered ground, surrounded by tools of destruction and man-made divisions, hope overshadow even the most justified of fears. Unspoken words share the sentiment: “Here's hoping we both live / To see us find a better way.”

It is both a mix of triumph and tragedy. Despite the temporary truce, Brooks sings to us of the inevitable return of violence with perhaps the most poignant lyrics of the song.

"Then the devil's clock struck midnight,
And the skies lit up again,
And the battlefield where heaven stood,
Was blown to hell again."

"Belleau Wood" is a portrait painted in three short minutes of soldiers grasping for humanity in the worst circumstances human beings can invent. It’s the story of heaven and hell existing in the same place. Within the lyrics and tone is the sad revelation of the cost of warfare on our own humanity, pitting men with similar hearts to take each other’s lives. It’s a harrowing tail of loss and an inspiration for hope.

Nov 11

Since I began the 9/11 war memoir project last year, I’ve read a lot of books. Some were good, some were bad, and two were very, very good. Those two are Clint Van Winkle’s Soft Spots and Brandon Friedman's The War I Always Wanted. Both Van Winkle and Friedman released new projects this week, and we wanted to share them with you.

Operation In Their Boots

Soft Spots was the second book I read when I started the post-9/11 war memoirs project. (I reviewed it here.) Having perspective of having read a bunch of war memoirs and war memoir criticism, I can say unequivocally, it’s one of the best I’ve read.

I met Clint last night at the premiere of his new documentary, The Guilt, as part of the series Operation In Their Boots. Take a look at his documentary, and definitely check out the other five. We’ll have more detailed reviews next Friday, and maybe an interview or two.

VAntage Point

Brandon Friedman has done a lot of work in the VA system, and he is now editing a VA sponsored blog, VAntage Point, with another friend of On Violence, Alex Horton of Army of Dude fame. Good luck to them, and check it out.

Nov 10

(This week, On Violence continues its second annual(ish) “Executioner’s Song: The On Violence Epic Song Battle!" Click here to read our introduction. Click here to check out the first one here.)

“Woy yoy yoy. Woy yoy yoy yoy. Woy yoy yoy yoy yo yoy yoy yo.”

I’m driving the other day, thinking about nothing in particular, when Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier” comes on the radio. I do what I do every time the song comes on. I start singing one of the world’s most infectious choruses of all time, “Oy yoy yoy. Oh yo yoy yoy. Oh yoy yoy yo yoy yoy yo.”

Then it hits me. This is the Greatest. War song. Ever. And I’m dead serious.

There are a lot of reasons to love Bob Marley’s song “Buffalo Soldier”. It has beautiful singing and a wonderful melody; of the five war songs we’ve debated, “Buffalo Soldier” is easily the best from a musical perspective.

But the reason it is a great war song is that it is nuanced, detailed, historic and realistic.

War is an indefinite thing. Michael C’s entire series on “war is war” basically gets at how illusory a unifying theory or description of war can be. There probably is no such thing as “the perfect war song” (or even the perfect song), but if there were, it would try to capture the contradictory nature of war. “Buffalo Soldier” comes closer to this than any other war song.

“Buffalo Soldier” presents this indefinite essence of war to the listener like a painting on display. Neither pro-war or anti-war, happy and joyful (one of my first musical memories is dancing to its deceptively bright and catchy chorus), it is incredibly sad, a tale of men “stolen from Africa, brought to America”. It is also ironically bittersweet. Though it is a song about stolen men, Bob Marley sings with pride at what they’ve accomplished.

If the ultimate war song is going to capture the essence of war through a story, it can’t be a story about one man, platoon or war. It has to capture a people, a people that spans continents and nations. “Buffalo Soldier” tells that story. It is the story of many peoples: Africans, Americans, Rastafarians, Jamaicans. At its heart the song is about identity, “Said he was a Buffalo Soldier, Dreadlock Rasta”, a story that spans centuries and eras. Man, that is powerful and different.

You could argue that there are problems with “Buffalo Soldier”--the lyrics are vague, the connection between Jamaican Rastafarianism and American Soldiers is tenuous at best--but the impact of the song on so many levels is undeniable. That’s why, right now, it is easily my favorite war song.

Nov 09

(Today, On Violence continues its second annual(ish) “Executioner’s Song: The On Violence Epic Song Battle!" Click here to read our introduction. Click here to check out the first one here.)

Don Hewitt had a simple rule for 60 Minutes, “Tell me a story.” According to the reporters on the show, on every topic, Hewitt asked them to tell a story. And this approach works. Think about the moral lessons of Jesus; his parables are stories. Think about Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa; a tragic, epic story told in two dimensions.

So when it comes to war songs--either anti-war or pro-soldier--the best songs tell stories. The best stories don’t have ulterior motives. They tell their story, and tell it honestly.

In our last debate, I thought I choose the song with the best story--a general struggling with the decision to go to battle--though it was fantastic and impossible. But “...And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda”, sung by the Pogues and written by Eric Bogle, takes the great storytelling of “The General” and grounds it in reality. (Read the lyrics here.)

I could argue “...And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” wins this debate because it tells a story about the neglected casualties of every war--the wounded and the maimed. I could argue that the motif of “waltzing Matilda” floats through the entire song with a different meaning each time. I could argue that Robert Christgau agrees with me. But the reason this song is my favorite war song is because it tells the most honest tale about war in this debate.

Whether or not the original author had been to war--or World War I specifically--it feels like he has. The song doesn’t stop at the end of the war, when the narrator looks down to see he lost both of his legs. It continues to tell the story of aging veterans in society. The cost of war is forgotten as they are forgotten, and the cycle of warfare begins all over again.

“...And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” also does all this in under four minutes (depending on the version), telling the story of a war most Americans, Europeans and Australians have forgotten. It is moving, memorable, and the best song in this debate.

Nov 08

So it happened again. Eric C was listening to a song and declared, with his usual amount of narcissism, that it was “the greatest war song of all time” (of course, war does not make songs great). When we told Matty P what Eric had said, we all knew what was coming: The Return of the On Violence Song Battle! Executioner's Song Part II (Check out the first installment here.)

Here’s how this works: Each fighter gets 400 words to make their case for their song. On Tuesday, Michael C will come out swinging with The Pogues’ version of “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda”. On Wednesday, Eric C will celebrate Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier”. And on Thursday, Matty P will try for the knock out with Garth Brooks’ “Belleau Wood”.

On Friday we will have the Royal Rumble as each fighter brings out 400 words in rebuttal.

The only rule? That there are no rules--except for the word count restrictions.

I want a good clean fight. No punching below the belt and no cheap shots. With that said, “Let’s get it on!”

(What's your favorite war song? Toss it out the comments below.)