The Big Fool Says to Push On
Every Saturday morning since 2003 a small group of people faithfully gathers on Route 9 in Wappinger’s Falls along the Hudson River to protest the war policies of the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq. Joining the group most weeks was Pete Seeger from neighboring Beacon, in his late eighties and early nineties, still raising his remarkable voice in protest and hope that we might rise above our fascination with war. I’ve thought a lot about Seeger and my generation since his death last week.
I’ve had the privilege over the years of attending two Pete Seeger concerts where his music and spirit enchanted audiences young and old. This prophet rarely berated or scolded; instead he evoked our imagination. He embodied the prophetic imagination that Walter Brueggemann described as “conjuring and proposing futures alternative to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one.” Seeger asked us to confront our own fascination with violence – against one another, against nature – and he sang of a still more excellent way.
My first experience with Seeger – not in person – came early in 1968. I was a high school senior and Seeger was a guest on The Smothers Brothers show. He had been scheduled for a night several months earlier but CBS executives cancelled his appearance when they learned he was planning to sing “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” Following a protest from the show’s hosts, Seeger was invited back and performed the anti-war song on national television. I can still picture the string-bean of a man with his beard and banjo, relentlessly intoning the refrain: “We’re waist deep in the Big Muddy and the big fool says to push on!” The lyrics tell the tale of an army captain leading his patrol on maneuvers in bayou country in Louisiana. It ends with the captain drowning after refusing to heed warnings that the waters ahead were deeper than he expected.
Less than a month after the controversial Smothers Brothers performance Lyndon Johnson shocked the nation by declaring that he would not seek re-election. But the Vietnam War plodded on past the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, past the police violence on the streets of Chicago at the Democratic National Convention, past massacres and bombings of hospitals, past the deaths of countless soldiers and civilians and the endless turmoil that tore at the fabric of the country. Our warring madness seems to be able to survive the departure of any one big fool.
Those of us shaped by those years understandably hear an echo in today’s endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The discovery that George W. Bush’s famous WMDs were nothing more than words of mass deception did little to halt the carnage that he unleashed (with the support, sad to say, of a majority of Americans), and his famous “surge,” while reducing the violence for a time, did nothing to alter the underlying sectarian hatreds our invasion unleashed. Today few weeks go by without violence claiming the lives of hundreds of Iraqi civilians. Meanwhile, Afghanistan continues its centuries’ long tradition of confounding the ambitions and intentions of countless “improvement projects” from outside powers as far back as Alexander the Great and as recently as the Soviet occupation.
Many of us hoped that with President Obama’s election not only the US occupation of Iraq would end, but also the US led war in Afghanistan. But again, one big fool’s departure was followed by another “surge,” the expansion of drone attacks, continued death and injury for soldiers and civilians, a resurgent Taliban, and a leader in Hamid Karzai who makes his choice for self-interest and self-preservation over anything else more and more obvious. Those of us who thought getting rid of a big fool named Johnson or Bush was the answer have learned that it’s not quite so simple. The urge to “push on” persists in our collective will to win even when, as in Iraq, victory is hollow. We push on with our misplaced confidence in military solutions that time and again have proved wanting, our willingness to continue to put our soldiers at risk lest we somehow dishonor those who have already paid the price for our risks, our pride that will not allow for retreat or apology. We push on lest we look like “nervous Nellies” as Seeger sang, as those who simply lack determination and courage.
When Seeger penned his lyrics about a captain leading his troops into danger in spite of warnings from his sergeant, he clearly had President Johnson in mind. But all these years later maybe Seeger’s message is that we can’t just blame a big fool named Johnson or Bush or Obama. Maybe the real message is that we’re the big fool, all of us who are too accepting of conventional military wisdom, too enthralled with heroic tales of sacrifice, too captivated by the presumed capacity of violence to promote good, too blinded by the vanity of national self-righteousness and too indifferent to the horror of war that consumes soldier and civilian alike in a far off place, horrors that rarely touch our lives directly. Big fools, all of us.
Afghanistan may not be a better place if we leave now. But history and current events offer scant assurance that it will be a better place if we stay, either. And of late the hope of even leaving a heavily armed police force behind to help quell the violence seems to be scorned by our alleged allies. It is a Big Muddy and we’re more than waist deep. But so far the Big Fool – all of us – seems unwilling to say anything other than “push on!”
John H. Thomas
February 6, 2014