We look back at two songs from the Vietnam War Era “Kill for Peace” and “Ballad of the Green Berets,” and the musicians who recorded them
To the war makers, the Vietnam War, which was never formally declared, was the perfect surrogate for a world war. It came along at the time when the baby boomers were of college age, perfect for cannon fodder to feed the gaping maw of the war machine. And yet, collectively, the college-aged generation seemed to say, “Wait, let’s think about this for a moment.”
What began on a dubious, if not completely deceitful pretext, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, followed by the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in Aug. 1964, turned into full-fledged, massively destructive war within a year. As the war machine cranked up, the propaganda machine was not far behind.
Remember “the domino theory”? Remember “we have to fight them there so we don’t have to fight them here”? Remember “the only good Commie is a dead Commie”? Ah, those were the days.
Substitute “terrorist” or “radical Muslim” with “Commie” and you can see that little has changed, as the current White House occupant eyes North Korea, Iran, Syria, Ukraine, and probably the UK the way denizens of Dollywood eye the offerings at an all-U-can-eat buffet.
But, getting back to the Vietnam era, one of its pieces of conventional wisdom was that America was at war to make peace. The absurdity of “killing for peace” was apparent to anyone under the age of, say, 30. The strategy was embodied by the patrol leader who, without irony, explained to the news film crew after his troops torched the grass and wood huts in the area, “We had to destroy the village to save it.”
The dissident rock ‘n’ roll band the Fugs satirized this phenomenon in their song “Kill for Peace.” This, the most controversial song on The Fugs, was released in 1966, a tumultuous time during which the war in Vietnam was escalating and body counts were rising daily. The lyrics, written by Beat poet Tuli Kupferberg and sung by Beat poet Ed Sanders, were intended to depict the madness of that particular war, but they are as timeless as the words of Buffy St. Marie’s contemporaneous “Universal Soldier.”
A sample lyric: “Kill, kill, kill for peace / Kill, kill, kill for peace / Near or middle or very far east / Far or near or very middle east / Kill, kill, kill for peace / Kill, kill, kill for peace / If you don’t like the people / or the way that they talk / If you don’t like their manners / or they way that they walk / Kill, kill, kill for peace / Kill, kill, kill for peace”
Not surprisingly, given the antiwar tenor of the times, “Kill for Peace” became the most popular song in the Fugs’ repertoire. Ed Sanders, the leader of the band, was featured on the cover of Life magazine, and the band was invited to perform on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show in early 1967. They agreed to appear if they could sing “Kill for Peace.” Carson denied them the opportunity, for fear of upsetting Americans with its antiwar message. (One has to wonder what Carson was thinking a band called the Fugs was intending to perform? “My Favorite Things”?).
A song about peace—and however sardonic “Kill for Peace” is, it’s undeniably a song advocating for peace—was more controversial than a song about war, like “Ballad of the Green Berets.”
“Ballad of the Green Berets,” composed and sung by Vietnam veteran, Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler, was the biggest hit of 1966 (topping Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made for Walking,” which had a certain martial spirit too), and Sadler was invited on many shows to perform it, including The Ed Sullivan Show. The U.S. Army, riding on his celebrity status, then used Sadler as a recruitment tool to entice more young men to become war heroes in the mud and rice paddies of Southeast Asia.
Sadler’s official website described the song: “Released in early 1966, when anti-war sentiment was beginning to swell, ‘The Ballad of the Green Berets’ tapped into an enormous wellspring of patriotic fervor among Americans who were tired of the dissent and ambiguity surrounding Vietnam, and desperately wanted confirmation of America’s heroism and moral virtue; that they were on the right side.”
A sample lyric: “Back at home a young wife waits / Her Green Beret has met his fate / He has died for those oppressed / Leaving her this last request / Put silver wings on my son’s chest / Make him one of America’s best / He’ll be a man they’ll test one day / Have him win the Green Beret.”
In the wake of the controversy over the Fugs’ thwarted TV appearance, Sanders was the target of death threats; someone sent a bomb in the mail (it did not explode). Another irony, that those who advocate for peace are often the target of violence (see: Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, James Meredith, Robert F. Kennedy). What is it about nonviolent protesters that drive people to commit violence against them? Collective guilt? A need to kill the messenger whose “message” will reveal the stains upon their own souls?
Flash forward four decades and Ed Sanders is still an active peace advocate (Tuli K. died in 2012) living in Woodstock, N.Y., where he takes an active part in community affairs.
What became of Barry Sadler?
He turned his hand to books, creating a series of interlocking novels about “Casca,” the “eternal mercenary” soldier. With its biblical overtones—Casca must remain a military killing machine until the Second Coming—Sadler’s novels presaged the “Left Behind” books. Sadler himself attracted violence like a magnet. In one bar brawl, he allegedly received a knife wound to the stomach that would have sent most people to the ER. Instead, Sadler went home and sewed himself up.
Sadler made periodic attempts to resurrect his music/songwriting career in Nashville, and even tried his hand at professional wrestling. Eventually, he shot and killed an unarmed man whom he claimed was an intruder in his home and was convicted of voluntary manslaughter. Due in part to his notoriety as a “war hero,” Sadler’s sentence was reduced to 30 days in the county hoosegow. Soon thereafter, he moved to Guatemala and allegedly became involved in running guns to the Contras in Honduras and Nicaragua. In 1988, while seated in a taxi cab in Nicaragua, he was shot in the head and died nearly a year later.
So there you have it: Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg, controversial mavericks who never killed anyone or resorted to violence, other than to mock it.
Barry Sadler, beloved hero, gun runner and mercenary who lived and died by the sword.