by Peyton Hart
November 11, 2019
WAR, WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR? ABSOLUTELY NOTHING! Not only is this a great song by Edwin Starr, it is also a train of thought that many people share and believe in. Some of these people include MLK, the soldiers who wrote home during the war in the “Letters Home from Vietnam” documentary, and Edwin Starr along with other musicians. By using the different points of view of people in the war, not in the war, and those that come from a religious background, it is possible to analyze the impact war has on individuals. It can also help to analyze why many people believe war solves nothing and that non-violent direct action is a better method of approaching and resolving political issues.
It may come as a surprise to many, or it may not, to realize that some of the biggest objectors to war are those who have actually served. Whilst watching “Letters Home from Vietnam,” it was clear to see that once the men in the army realized what war was really like, they no longer wanted to be there. The men told stories of how their friends in the war were being killed, how they missed home, and how they thought that the war would never end. Although the letters were read out loud by actors, the pain and hopelessness they felt can be heard in their writing. The effect the war was having on these men and women was clear, their lives were being not only taken in a literal sense but also in a spiritual and moral sense. The war was making these men and women go insane, one even wrote, “I’m writing because I have to, or I’d go out of my mind.” Another wrote, “For a while as I read your letters, I am a normal person. I am not killing people or worried about being killed.” These were written at the beginning of the war, and already you can begin to notice the helplessness and fear these men and women must have been feeling and the effect the war was already starting to have on them. It is already quite obvious from this early on in the war that morale was low and continuing to decline as the war progressed. The letters began to get even more hopeless and sad, “We’re all scared. One can see this emotion in the eyes of each individual.” Finally, the most hopeless writings came from the end of the war, although most men were going home and they were all very excited, the fear and frustrations they had faced throughout the war until that point still remained. The men began to question why they were even fighting this war, “I’ve been seeing too many guys getting messed up, and I still can’t understand it. It’s not that I can’t understand this war. It’s just that I can’t understand war, period.” Not understanding war and why the men were fighting in wars seemed to be a common theme throughout some of the letters, “You just sort of sit back and ask yourself, why? What the hell is this going to prove?” All of the quotes I have mentioned thus far have all shown the impact that war has had on the morality of the men and women fighting in the wars, and they have also shown that even the people participating in the wars don’t understand why they must fight.
Hearing the things that the soldiers in the Vietnam war wrote in their letters was quite shocking and saddening, but they were not alone in their wishes and questions about the point of war. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam in Riverside Church, New York about the men and women serving in the war, the “enemy,” and what we could do to help. In his speech titled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” King gives a voice to the American soldiers and also the Vietnamese citizens who are in the war to try and persuade the church to seek out “every creative means of protest possible.” As we know, King was a believer in non-violence and took inspiration from Gandhi so these “creative means of protest” were implied to be nonviolent. He also tried to encourage ministers of draft age to “seek status as conscientious objectors” because he believed that we as citizens had a duty to protest the war that was killing our young men and women. He states, “All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression and … new systems of justice are being born.” King believes that nonviolence is a better method of resolving political issues compared to starting wars because he believes in protecting the lives of our young men and women, which the government seems to think they have the authority to throw away.
Music is also a big part of the “creative means of protest” that Martin Luther King Jr. mentioned in his speech. Songs such as “War” by Edwin Starr, “What Are You Fighting” for by Phil Ochs, “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye, “Blowing in the Wind” by Bob Dylan, and many others sparked an interest in people and helped them realize what the war was really like, which prompted people to begin protesting. In Barret Martin’s essay “Music and the Politics of Resistance,” the author states “Music also happens to be one of the greatest tools for social evolution.” This is because people can connect with music more easily than they can with just listening to stories being told by the soldiers in the war. This is because although they weren’t there, music evokes powerful emotions in people that simply listening to stories could probably never do or would not do as well as songs do. As Barrett writes, “music gets people thinking, talking, and doing,” which is why using music is a very powerful form of protest, especially in protest to wars. Martin Barrett also states, “music in the United States has led directly to environmental action, the equality of our citizens, a movement against war and violence, and it has raised the voices of the working American,” which shows the impact that music can have on a nation.
Listening to songs protesting wars, letters written from soldiers in the wars, and speeches made by powerful religious figures have had a major impact on how we as a society view war. The effect the war had on all of our society was great enough to spark somewhat of a revolution where citizens began protesting nonviolently. As Martin Barrett pointed out, nonviolent methods of protest have led directly to positive changes and all have succeeded, thus supporting the notion that war is not needed to solve everything.
Bill Couturié, director, Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam, HBO, 1988.
Martin Luther King, Jr., “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” (speech), April 4, 1967, The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, Youtube.
Barrett Martin, “Music and the Politics of Resistance,” Huffpost, Oct. 14, 2013.