During the Vietnam War era, Pete Seeger crafted a song titled “Knee-Deep.” The fool-hardy captain keeps giving his company orders to march deeper and deeper into the swamp—knee-deep, waist-deep, chest-deep—ignoring the pleas of his “nervous Nelly” sergeant. Fortunately, the captain is out in front, and when he disappears beneath the water and his empty helmet floats up, the sergeant is able to lead the troops back to safety.
This song has an unanticipated double meaning today, as we gradually learn the ramifications of the coal ash spill on the Dan River—a catastrophe that renders its water unswimmable and undrinkable and dangerous to wild life. Pete Seeger was way out in front of most environmentalists, sailing down the polluted Hudson River in his boat, The Clearwater, starting a successful grassroots movement to fight big industry and reclaim the river for the citizens to whom it belongs.
You see, Pete was never just knee-deep in the fight for peace and justice. Not even waist deep or chest deep. He was all in.
And what have we learned since Pete picked up his banjo and used it as a weapon to change the world? Not much. Not enough.
Flexing our muscle, America—the mightiest power on earth—keeps spending more on our military force than all the other nations on this planet put together. And what has this outlay of resources earned us? Legitimate worries about the national debt, especially since we fought both of Dubya’s wars on credit, off the books. And our methods—the same ones used over and over—don’t even give us the bragging rights of the victor. Only a fool would claim that we won the war in Vietnam—or had achieved any of our basic goals as the helicopters hastily lifted off. Or that we were victors in Korea. Iraq and Afghanistan are going to be in worse shape when we leave than before we intervened. And so it goes. Attempts at “pacification,” lack of knowledge of the language or the local culture, unfortunate alliances, atrocities, a huge civilian death toll, and now, more than ever, the mental and physical destruction of our small “warrior class,” deployed again and again, used up, while the rest of us, not personally affected, sit here tweeting and keeping up with the exploits of Beyoncé and Bieber.
“Oh, when will we ever learn? When will we ever learn?” No wonder that Pete (his grandson said) felt in his final days that he had failed to lead the way to a new dawn with his music.
And yet. When words—especially rhyming words—are set to music, they stick in the brain. For a long time. Patients deep into the fog of Alzheimer’s can still sing the songs of their youth. And as Pete’s efforts on the Hudson River taught us, “if two and two and fifty make a million, we’ll see that day come round.”
Ah, Pete, I remember your happy, happy face as you gestured to the crowd to join in, singing in the January cold at the Lincoln Memorial, the most radical verses of your friend Woody’s “This land is your land.” And “deep in my heart, I do believe” that you did not sing your songs in vain. Somewhere a spark must have been lit—a beacon that will one day lead us to that riverside where we will “study war no more.”