As is often the case, this song isn’t quite as straight-forward as it seems. Sure, it is certainly one of Phil’s more unapologetically finger-pointing songs, but the way in which he approaches it makes it transcend the simplicity that such a such a song would suggest.
It is effectively a follow-up to I Ain’t Marching Anymore. In that instance Phil drew up a whole load of historical reasons for not enlisting. Here he challenges those who would enlist (and by extension those who support the very idea of sending young men off to fight) to question their own motives for doing so.
He does this via a series of questions that, though they veer towards the rhetorical, remain unanswered. That these are followed by a full-on sarcastic refrain create a slight unease. Indeed one could be forgiven for thinking that by the end of the first verse that this was a pro-war song, where it not of course for the fact that it was being sung by Phil Ochs! The gentleness of that first verse, with its references to glory, loyalty and duty serves to lull the unsuspecting listener into a false sense of security. The refrain – “Pin a medal on the man” – seems rather benign. Then again, this is Phil Ochs. Surely we all know what is coming.
The second verse begins to ramp up the pressure. An early reference to wrapping a flag around an early grave suggests that this isn’t the song the first verse might have suggested. This image – one that also appears in Phil’s Song of A Soldier (“the flag draped coffins are sailing home”) – is obviously a strong one. So often an image of courage and patriotism here it is presented as something approaching the pathetic. Indeed images of flag draped coffins arriving home from the most recent American interference in Iraq were actually banned by some US broadcasters. The unease which Phil conjures here from such an image has obviously carried forward into the present day. Such an image is a reminder of course of the consequences of military action, something that someone hoping to further the cause of military enlisting would seek to avoid. The appearance of such an image so early in to the second verse makes clear what whatever this song is about it is not about furthering the cause of the US military.
The following lines – “a soldier to the world, a hero to his heart” – therefore, appear little short of sarcastic goading. Once we get into the third verse, as the melody gets playful, Phil really goes to town. “Is there anybody here proud of the parade” harks back to Track One Side One of his debut LP, another sarcastic take on American militarism. One of the things I like most about Phil’s songs is that though his songwriting very obviously changed certain ideas echo through them. The line “So do your duty boys and join with pride” from The War Is Over may not have worked in the context of this song, but isn’t such a big step away either. Similarly One More Parade is again evoked in the line “is there anybody here who thinks that following the orders takes away the blame”. In One More Parade it is “all march together everybody looks the same, so there is no one you can blame”, but the inference is the same; blame can only be apportioned if something bad has occurred. Again this inference of badness is only suggested, but as Phil keeps the questioning coming, from a drip into a torrent, the suggestibility of these lyrics becomes stronger and stronger until Phil asks “is there anybody here who wouldn’t mind murder by another name” and there it is, the killer line (pardon the pun). And finally we are left in no doubt. When “Pin a medal on the man” appears again Phil’s work here is done. Even sarcasm doesn’t do justice to how that line appears now. Its meaning has changed almost totally from its appearance in the first verse. Phil’s “quicksand of questions” have done their job and without saying anything, without committing to anything so mundane as a statement, Phil’s point is made. It’s heady stuff.
It’s perhaps worth bearing in mind that song was being sung at a time when there were many, many people wanting to do their part, or rather being forced to. When Phil wrote One More Parade there were something like 12,000 American troops in Vietnam. By the time he was asking Is There Anybody Here? there were somewhere in the region of 380,000. When he sang The War Is Over – with no little pathos – the numbers had increased beyond 500,000.
So, to answer Phil’s question – yes. I’m afraid there are.