The war songs of the twentieth century can be lumped into three major groupings. There are the professionally written bolsterers of homefront morale whose archetypes are Iver Novello's Keep the Home Fires Burning and George M. Cohan's Over There; World War II entries include such never-sufficiently-to-be-studied classics as There'll Always Be An England and Johnny Got A Zero. Then there are those songs which, although unconnected with the war effort, become popular anyway and are ever after associated with the period, like Lili Marlene, Don't Sit Under The Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me), and Mairzy Doats. And, finally, there is the hinky-dinky-parlay-voo tradition of battlefield ballads composed by the boys themselves. Sometimes ironic, often obscene, and almost always derived from some other melody, these songs are refreshingly free of the jingoistic slush of the homeside ditties. Among their number are the pornographic They Were Only Playing Leapfrog, the hauntingly bitter. D-Day Dodgers, and that comprehensive speculation on the genitalia of the German High Command which was sung to the tune of the Colonel Bogey March, Hitler Had Only One.
SSgt. Barry Sadler's best selling album, "Ballads of the Green Berets," purports to fall into this last category, and the jacket blurb is certain, "that many years from now these songs.... will be recalled as a true expression of the Vietnam combat soldier's feelings during the time of that fierce encounter." It's an inviting prospect: elderly Special Forces veterans spinning this disc on their various VFW record players in years to come, and sobbing into their suds. "That's the way it was, man; that's the way it really was." But SSgt. Sadler's collection is the most questionably authentic article to hit America since the introduction of the sausage.
The arranger, Sid Bass, deserves a far more prominent billing than the one afforded him: He has been forced to reach deep into his bag of tricks, coming up with virtually every phoney-baloney recording studio technique of goosing one non-existent voice and twelve non-existent melody lines into a passable record. The resulting styles skip from Chinese to Calypso, by way of a plethora of hoked-up Folk Rock, and the one catchy tune, Bamiba, turns out to be an old Kingston Trio favorite, complete with only slightly altered lyrics. This theft, I must add, is in the best tradition of militant songsters the world over, and it is only to be regretted that Sadler and Bass confined their chicanery to the musical dregs of the last ten years.
Although their diction ranges from the heavily eloquent ("What is the Badge of Courage? /It's sweat and blood and tears," and "Our toll is written in history's scroll / In bright, bright lines of red.") to the quasilyrical ("Lay the green sod oe'r me"), Sadler's words are united by the common theme of self-congratulation. Sometimes they approach the sickness of Teen Angel as in Trooper's Lament where, "As he fell through the night, / His 'chute all in flames, / A smile on his lips, / He cried out his girl's name," but generally these songs are the dull and repetitious celebration of America's Best, who are apparently as devoid of personality as they are of cowardice. The one dirty yuk is unintentional: "To each of the wounded on the operating shelf / These nurses give a part of themselves."
Still, however lifeless and ersatz the songs on this album may be, enough of them refer to the subject material of other war ballads (prostitution in Saigon, inter-service rivalry in Garet Trooper, and military discipline in Bemibe) to indicate that in some radically different original form a few of them might indeed have been crooned in a shot-up rice paddy on the Mekong Delta. If so, it is interesting to note that, aside from a few murky references to Freedom and Those Oppressed, the lyrics are entirely apolitical, and unconcerned with whom we are fighting or why. Sadler, it seems, is only interested in his Fightin' Soldiers From the Sky.
Which is, as they say, food for thought. In a recent issue of WAR ACTION comic books, a story about Vietnam concludes with a wounded G.I. in a hospital bunk grinning up at the officer who has just commended him. "Well, Sir" he says, "It's just like the Sarge told us back at the base: It's only a little war--but it's the only war we've got."