The best anti-war song ever written actually began its life as a poem. But like most fine poems, it contained an abundance of musical elements and concrete, vivid imagery. So much so that folk singer John Gorka readily saw the opportunity to turn it into a haunting, masterful song, so plaintive and quietly anguished that it throws off the power of its anti-war outrage under the cloak of a mother’s muffled sobs.
“Let them in, Peter,” implores the first line, and we immediately know which “Peter” the poet Elma Dean was referring to in the dark days of 1942, when the war was going very badly in post-Pearl Harbor America. This is the Peter who does not need a last name. The sentence finishes: “…they are very tired.”
And the next lines:
Give them couches where the angels sleep, and light those fires
Let them wake whole again, to brand new dawns
Fired by the sun, not wartime’s bloody guns
The poem/song is all of 15 lines, and the focus is loss—not the survivors’ loss of their beloved young man, though we know that will haunt all their days—but the even more tragic, more haunting loss of young life cut short and unlived. (I had “unloved” there in a typo, but it, too, fits, for all the loving the too-young dead will miss.)
There will be experiences and maturity unattained, sights unseen, tastes unsavored, bodies never conjoined in love by these young men, and their elders at home feel it all the more for having had such experiences themselves, now forever denied their sons.
So give them things they like, let them make some noise
Give dance hall bands not golden harps, to these our boys
And let them love, Peter. For they’ve had no time
“So many of our sons, some of my friend’s sons, were being killed. I was going around with tears in my eyes,” Dean told a reporter in a 1961 interview.
They should have trees and bird songs and hills to climb
The taste of summer, in a ripened pear,
And girls sweet as meadow wind, with flowering hair
Gorka’s voice is perfectly attuned to the gravity of the subject matter. The natural outrage engendered by war—
We do what to our fellow human beings, for what reasons?—collapses in the almost unspeakable sadness of tragic, senseless loss. If there was ever a “good war” for which pacifism or isolationism would have been a hopelessly inadequate response, it was World War II. And for all its nobility and sound purpose to purge the monstrosity growing within our species at the time, it was still, at bottom, stupid, as all war is stupid, and a devastating indictment of our collective failure, thus far, to tame our inner demons of fear, distrust and aggression.
Tell them how they are missed. Say not to fear;
It’s going to be all right with us down here.
Except that it’s not quite all right with us down here, most especially for those whose sons—and now daughters—remain frozen in time, last seen perhaps waving from the doors to the airport terminal, looking snappy in their military issues, shoes shined, bodies erect, the parents’ minds spinning there at the curb, remembering their child’s first steps, the tears after the fall from the swing, the Little League games, the Sunday family barbecues, the cuddling with books, the falling asleep in the car seat on the return from Disneyland.
And now they are off to the newest front, the latest crossroads where human savagery seeks to triumph again. And they will not be returning this time, and there will be no swings or Little League or barbecues to enjoy with the children they will never have.
Such incalculable, inconsolable loss.
In my generation’s truly senseless war, Country Joe McDonald launched a direct satirical assault on its stupidity, lacing his “Fish Cheer/I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag” with a profane call-and-response that underlies a generally upbeat, “Up yours!” tone. The song invariably elicits laughter that, for me listening in again now in the shadow of “Let Them In,” seems to veer toward a kind of smug superiority, as if its listeners would never be caught alive or dead with a violent thought or deed.
But of course, that is not true. We are all implicated; we are all LBJ, we are aboard those tanks invading Poland, we are all riding that bomb down through the skies to Hiroshima.
On this Memorial Day, may we live in peace and remember in the solemnity that is its due.
The full poem, followed by Gorka’s live performance of the song:
Letter to Saint Peter
Let them in, Peter, they are very tired;
Give them the couches where the angels sleep.
Let them wake whole again to new dawns fired
With sun, not war. And may their peace be deep.
Remember where the broken bodies lie . . .
And give them things they like. Let them have noise.
God knows how young they were to have to die!
Give swing bands, not gold harps, to these our boys.
Let them love, Peter–they have had no time–
Girls sweet as meadow wind, with flowering hair. . .
They should have trees and bird song, hills to climb–
The taste of summer in a ripened pear.
Tell them how they are missed. Say not to fear;
It’s going to be all right with us down here.
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My thanks to the photographers:
Rotating banner photos top of page courtesy of Elizabeth Haslam, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Arlington National Cemetery photo by Trey Ratcliff, Austin, Texas, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/people/stuckincustoms/
Young soldiers photo by Sgt. Ian Forsyth, courtesy of UK Ministry of Defense, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/defenceimages/
Pear blossom by fleecetraveler, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/25005304@N04/
A well-done song and well-expressed sentiments. I’ve read alot about war and agree with your thoughts, Andrew. I wish people would remember how terrible and unfair war is before they decide on the next one.
Of course, nowadays the US declares war without declaring anything. I wish people could quickly vote on it before we plunge in. However, that would take national electronic voting. Now, there’s a thought….
PS Did you know the Nazi’s set dynamite in hills to generate rockslides as a weapon? That and that there was so many Nazi’s surrender at the end of WWII, they ran out of sheets to wave and so learned to wave……chickens!
sweet song I had never heard. Thanks Drew!
Try this one from Michigan’s Joel Mabus:
Michael, your suggestion got lost in one shuffle or other in this busy life, but I have just caught up to it now and want to thank you for bringing this song to my attention. Powerful, heart-rending, tragic; a great piece of songwriting.
Agree that this is a perfect ode to veterans. As an aspiring pacifist (we never really know what we’d do if we had to defend our families on our homeland, eh?) and one who deplores weaponry and violence, I can’t rationalize U.S. intercession in WW II any more than today, but I think you and I have much more in common about such matters than not. Blessings, Pedro in PA
I got to this blog today by way of a post that John Gorka put on Facebook – thank you, it’s such a beautiful poem – and song. Wasn’t really thinking about ‘Memorial Day’, but as I drove home today listening to a ‘Fresh Air’ segment on NPR about a whole crew of young airmen who died at the battle of Midway in WWII it came to me “….we have a resource that we consider expendable – that resource is the young people of our nation – and we will spend that resource in the pursuit of our objectives…”
I’m afraid as I grow older that I see more and more that war isn’t so much about right and wrong – it’s never that pure.
Hey thanks Andrew for reminding me of how much I like him. I’ve had the song “can’t make up my mind” on a cassette for years, and always meant to buy some more of his songs.
Walt, that quick vote by the people regarding war sounds good in principle, in that direct democracy sort of way, but I fear it might be a case of “Be careful what you wish for.” Given that most modern elections seem to be decided by the woefully uninformed, uninterested undecideds who are swayed by who launches the most expensive barrage of venomous 30-second TV spots, I’m none too sure we’d get great decisions with such plebiscites! On the other hand, the warmaking decisions reached by recent administrations don’t seem all that astute either, so perhaps you’re onto something….
Michael, thank you for that. Powerful stuff, as the Wall itself is. I appreciate the heads-up on this song.
Yes, Pete, “aspiring” pacifist may be a permanent condition as long as humans harbor the aggressive tendencies we do, and whatever our intentions regarding peace & gentility, it is another matter altogether when the war comes to our home and directly threatens all we hold dear. I think pacifism and non-violent resistance are laudable and effective so long as the oppressor/aggressor has a conscience. Without that, all bets are off and we’d better keep our weapons handy. Thanks for keeping me thinking on this matter.
Thank you, Andrew. Yesterday’s UUCSR service and your blog today have helped me to embrace and reflect on the true intention of Memorial Day.
I had never heard that song. Thank you for introducing it to me. It is a great song and poem.
I always considered Eric Bogle’s “And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” to be one of the greatest anti-war songs, or songs, period.
Robert, I had always loved the traditional “Waltzing Matilda,” a great feel-good tavern song; have fond memories of the entire Olympic stadium in Sydney belting it out with such zest & affection. Oh, but this, which I had never heard before: the juxtaposition of the traditional version with this harrowing imagery and bit of history is just heart-rending. Thanks for sharing it.
You’ve got my vote here.
Thanks for continuing my education in great folk music, Andrew. I love this song. I was also deeply moved by “Touch A Name on the Wall” – all the more moving because it was so personal, so heart felt. If only these songs could touch those who make decisions about sending our youth to war….
Here is another moving folk song from the Chad Mitchell Trio