I’ll never forget the first time I heard John Prine’s ugly, horrible song “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore.” It was in 1971, shortly after I had left the Menninger Clinic to begin my life as a single mother of a young child. My husband Larry had been recently killed in the Vietnam War and my heart was still tender.
Larry died on February 19, 1971, and when I first heard the song, I was furious with Prine and his provocative lyrics. But, I was intrigued enough to buy a copy of his record at the BX at Forbes Air Force Base in Topeka. Ironically, I played the record over and over on Larry’s stereo, one of the few belongings the Air Force had sent home following his death.
Even at that time, music was my balm. I frequently listened to Larry’s and my favorite songs and would speak with him as if he were in the room with me. In my mind’s eye, he would respond with all the rejoinders I wanted to hear.
Much of popular music at that time was political, and most of it was anti-war. I found it hard to listen to lyrics implying that Larry and other soldiers like him were just pawns being sacrificed in some great game.
At that time, war protests were all too common, and the country felt divided. Initially I felt only anger and disgust at the protesters, but immediately remembered Larry had told me that the great thing about the United States was that we had a right to free speech and protest. He once grinned at me and said, “That’s one of the reasons I want to be an Air Force Officer—to protect our freedoms.”
In 1995, twenty years after the war was over, Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam era was interviewed by Charlie Rose. There, he admitted what many had suspected—namely that, as early as 1967, he had concluded that the war was unwinnable. And, yet, the deployments continued for eight more years.
I was finally faced with the horrid truth–that Larry’s death was just one of thousands of precious lives wasted on a cause that our leaders already knew was lost.
When I heard that admission, sitting on a sofa in my living room, I began sobbing unconsolably. I cried until my body shook, and I wept until I had no tears left.
Life demands of us, however that, when faced with unspeakable truths, we must move on. Rather than succumbing to a lifetime of bitterness, I chose to focus my energy on raising our daughter, completing college and embarking on a highly successful career in education.
I was reminded of all of this when I recently went to see The Post, a new film about the Washington Post’s controversial decision to publish the Pentagon Papers. As the story unfolded, the memories it evoked brought tears silently streaming from my eyes. By the time the movie ended, my face was straight. No tears streaming even after forty-seven years. Not in public.
Then, I watched the same movie at home alone a few weeks later and, this time, I bawled like a child whose parent had taken away her most loved friend and confidant; her one and only. I sobbed as if Larry had been killed that very day.
Now, 47 years after Larry was killed, and regardless of the historic truth about America’s role in Vietnam, I remain proud of his service and commitment to our country.
And, while I still harbor strong feelings of anger toward dishonest leaders who felt empowered to lie to the American public, these days, the anthems that continue to stir my soul remain “God Bless America” and “Star Spangled Banner” and other patriotic songs.
As I contemplate a rising generation of protesters–individuals and groups frustrated by the lack of progress on a broad spectrum of social issues our nation struggles with–I’m so proud we live in a country where each of us can express our views. That is the true power of our democracy; one that won’t be undermined easily if we all hold firm.
© Tyra Manning 2018