It’s March, when the Second Iraq War started 18 years ago. On this sorry occasion, we offer you a song that might illustrate some of the social forces that led to this little magazine of ours. It’s my rewrite of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” Click and listen when you want. The backstory of these additional and replacement lyrics follows the song.
I started blogging in 2002, in a desperate attempt to persuade my fellow citizens that Bush (the Joker), Cheney (the Thief), and Rumsfeld (the Fool) were being less than honest, shall we say, in claiming that Saddam Hussein had a role n 9/11, and by insisting that an American-led invasion was justified—you remember, WMD and all that. The first sustained piece I wrote for the original blog was “Atlanta to Baghdad,” November 2004, about getting stuck in an airport bar with dozens of seething veterans happily or stupidly or unluckily on their way back to Hell. Here’s the link, thanks to Bruce Robbins, who somehow recovered it from decrepit cyberspace. http://politicsandletters.blogspot.com/2004/11/atlanta-to-baghdad.html
Four years later, my marriage was falling apart, and so I was writing folky songs about love lost alongside earnest blog posts about the war’s emotional costs—the desolation and consolation I found in both these venues helped me to accept my lonesome fate, and to compose plainer, simpler sentences about imminent catastrophe, both personal and geopolitical.
Meanwhile, in January 2006, my little brother Andy invited me to celebrate his 50th birthday by coming to Chicago and recording some songs we’d written—he’d rented a couple days of time in Robert Rose’s homemade studio, in Elmhurst, Illinois. This was at the height of the insurgency in Iraq, when loosely allied anti-American forces were on the verge of confining US troops to the Green Zone, or driving them out of the country altogether.
This was also the moment when my 22-year old son Vincent made his formal commitment to join the Marines, knowing that with just a G.E.D., he’d wind up a grunt in a combat zone. To me it wasn’t a crazy decision, even though I knew he had opposed the invasion—boys have been going off to war for millennia as their way of finding themselves, knowing the world, becoming men.
Ask William James about this urge. Besides, Vincent wasn’t exactly succeeding at life (although now he certainly is), and he knew it. He wanted to pull himself up by his own bootstraps, and like many other young men (and women), he understood that the military could teach him discipline, skills, and self-reliance.
It worked. He lost 30 pounds in basic training, went to Lejeune for infantry training, then on to 29 Palms in California for intensive cultural instruction on what not to do in a war zone. Mainly, never treat your weapon as something that will erase the language barrier—it ’s not a dictionary. Then off to Iraq for a 7-month tour. He made it home in one piece.
These events—my marriage’s ending, my brother’s birthday, my son’s enlistment, each experienced in the terms imposed by that larger event, the war in Iraq—made me rethink Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” as the template for a “new” song. I didn’t change the music (it’s basically, Am-G-F), I just rewrote the lyrics to accord with my apprehension of and about the moment that was 2006.
That’s Andy on slide and lead guitar, that’s Robert on bass and drums, and that’s me in the background strumming, churning the chords. I’m also “singing” the new lyrics., trying to speak them so as not to prettify their content. Good luck with that.