Faith Meets Life: Dylan still relevant in war
The song is relevant because, as recent reports about Canada’s soldiers make clear, young Canadians are returning from the battlefront physically disabled and traumatized. And in typical Dylan fashion, the song doesn’t try to make things look pretty.
Dylan’s song, though performed for MTV’s Unplugged series in 1995, was written over 30 years earlier, in 1963. At that time the Vietnam War was gearing up and, while John Brown uses language that harkens back to the American Civil War, Dylan clearly meant it as a cautionary tale for aspiring soldiers and a society the glorifies them.
Soldiers are honoured for their bravery. Their families are expected to be proud of their service. They are prayed for often. We are led to understand – and I don’t mean that this is necessarily done in bad faith – that Canadian soldiers currently serving in Afghanistan are protecting us from future terrorist attacks. That they are providing such protection is, of course, difficult to prove, and seems to me an act of trust that we credit soldiers with that. But that is one of the ways we honour their bravery, giving them credit, as much as we can, for a job that Canada feels needs doing.
John Brown, the character in Dylan’s song, goes to war. His mother is proud, very proud, and expects her son to return with a shelf’s worth of medals. He does.
But he returns with something else. A stump is all there is left where one of his hands used to be. His torso is held up by metal wrapped around his waist. The mother hears him speak in an unknown voice, a slow, laboured whisper. His face is blown away.
One article about returning soldiers in the Globe and Mail is called “The Working Wounded” (March 7, 2008 of this year). It laments the difficulty that soldiers who have been maimed in Afghanistan have reintegrating into military or civilian work. Master Corporal Jody Mitic, for example, with “steel rods that now serve as his shins,” sits at a desk with an “outdated PC” handling emails for his unit.
But I wonder if such articles address the deepest traumas faced by soldiers caught in fierce fighting. What about the trauma of knowing that one is trying to kill a human being who is not all that much different from you and me? Dylan’s “Brown” saw the face of an enemy that “looked just like mine.” And do soldiers ever come home feeling betrayed by the nation’s rhetoric, a rhetoric that in the end, left them to pay the real price for the ideas and national pride that sent them to war?
Or are these questions that one is not supposed to ask? For the military, there are traditions of “high diction,” uniforms, burials with honour, and at the end, newspaper articles about the tribulations of the wounded who are trying to integrate. But are their deeper questions?
“John Brown” offers clues that there are questions for the returning soldier that are not easily addressed by the public media, issues of guilt, betrayal and shattering disillusionment. Some cautionary tales are worth revisiting, and I think Dylan’s song is one of them.