I Ain’t Marching Anymore
“The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe” – JFK
“Now, for a change of pace, here’s a protest song…A protest song is a song so specific that you cannot mistake it for bullshit…Good word, bullshit…Ought to be used more often…Especially in Washington…Speaking of bullshit…I’d like to dedicate this song to McGeorge Bundy”.
– Phil Ochs, New York Folk Festival, Carnegie Hall, June 1965.
It’s not like me to not believe Phil but I almost didn’t believe him that there really was bloke called McGeorge Bundy. It sounds so much like a fake name that I figured it must have been true. I’ve already written about Lyndon Johnson’s successes with regards domestic policy. What I neglected to write about the total pigs ear he made of foreign policy. And the heart of that shambles was McGeorge Bundy. Silly name he may have had but he was one of the main players in what became known (somewhat ironically in hindsight) as Kennedy’s “wise men”, a role that he maintained under Kennedy’s successor. Bundy was one of those who convinced Johnson, despite Robert McNamara’s protestations, that government policy on Vietnam should continue on the course set in motion under Kennedy – more troops, more bombing, allowing the war to go on and on.
Bundy was also a key factor in the bungled Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Later in life Bundy said that; “I had a part in a great failure. I made mistakes of perception, recommendation and execution” Mistakes that led to the deaths of a great many soldiers, Vietnamese and American. I Ain’t Marching Anymore told of Phil’s determination that he should not become one of them.
Phil later called it his “turning away song”. As a graduate of Staunton Military Academy Phil was possibly closer than most to the madness of the war that he was hell-bent on denouncing and marching away from. Indeed soldiers appear time and time again in Phil’s songs, and rarely, in his early songs at least, does he regard them with anything other than sympathetically. In One More Parade they are “so young, so strong”. In the unreleased Sailors And Soldiers they are “herded like cattle, ready for the battle”, while in Remember Me they are victims “of a world that went insane”.
The use of the first person in I Ain’t Marching Anymore is perhaps symptomatic of this empathy with the American soldier, portraying them as men not unlike himself ; “I ain’t marching anymore”, “It’s always the old who lead us to the war”, “Now they want me back again”. For all the historical references that litter the song, Phil puts himself at the very heart of it. The escalation of the war in Vietnam meant that ever increasing numbers of Phil’s peers were being drafted, a threat that hung over Phil’s entire generation. The divide between civilian and soldier was small, not just in Vietnam itself were American forces struggled to tell kin from Cong, but also in the U.S. where something as minor as poor eyesight was all that could keep a young American away from the Vietnamese jungle. As Phil would later sing in Tape From California;“the draft board is debating if they’d like to take my life”. There was an awful lot at stake.
Of course it wasn’t all empathy. For whatever reason or reasons Phil turned away from a career in the military (as did a surprising number of his songwriting peers such as Tom Paxton and Tim Hardin) and wasn’t shy in confronting those whose who made a different decision. In What Are You Fighting For? and especially Is There Anybody Here? Phil wasn’t exactly shy in questioning the motives of servicemen and women;
“Is there anybody here who thinks that following orders takes away the blame?
Is there anybody here who wouldn’t mind a murder by another name?”
Phil would play out a genuine confrontation with the military in Chicago in 1968 when he pleaded with national Guardsmen to put down their guns and join him in opposing the war iin Vietnam. He was reportedly heartbroken when they refused. Perhaps they weren’t as much like him as he may have thought.
Phil’s later songs would take a more critical view of soldiers – starting in 1966 with Is There Anybody Here? and it’s reference to “the honour of the brave and the courage of the blind”. Soldiers would go on to be portrayed as mendacious, “the soldiers’ make a bid giving candy to the kids” (Santo Domingo), “when we’ve butchered your son, here’s a stick of our gum” (Cops Of The World) perhaps reflecting his turning his back not just of American warmongering, but also on America itself. The stupidity of the war in Vietnam was becoming reflected in America itself, a war where “even courage is confused” (Tape From California), where patriotic soldiers are commanded to “serve your country in her suicide” (The War Is Over).
By 1969, with Nixon in the White House, the scars of Chicago still raw and the war in Vietnam still raging, the jocularity of Talking Vietnam and Draft Dodger Rag and the sense of hope in I Ain’t Marching Anymore was long gone.
In 1962 Phil sang;
“If you want to stop the fighting over there, over there,
Then you’d batter stir up action over here” (Viet Nam)
By the end of the decade all Phil could sing about was failure, both personal and national;
“Where are the armies who killed a country,
And turned a young man into a baby”
(Rehearsals For Retirement)
“A white flag in my hand,
A white bone in the sand”
(No More Songs).
Phil would continue to sing I Ain’t Marching Anymore when the spirit in which it was written was as dated as many of the ancient battles which he was singing of. Ironically it is the use of historical events to try and explain a contemporary issue that enabled the song to stay current, or at least not seem to date as some of his other songs were perceived to have done.