Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Where have all the flowers gone?

Over the past number of years I have been collecting re-mastered CDs of the albums that I liked from the 60s. As I listen to the lyrics, I am impressed over and over again how many of them have to do with issues of justice; the trilogy of societal evils identified by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as “racism, militarism and materialism.” I have wondered about how my generation, which was so passionate about these issues, acquiesced to the pressures of conformity to the prevailing culture.

The death of Pete Seeger, one of the most powerful voices in our culture against these evils, made me think once again about how things have changed in my lifetime. One of his songs, made popular by Peter, Paul and Mary, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, speaks about the cycle of the life from flowers to girls to soldiers to graveyards. “When will they ever learn?”, implores Seeger.

Perhaps I am too cynical, but I don’t think that much has changed in any of these areas; we haven’t learned. True, progress has been made in the realm of Civil Rights and racism; after all, we do have an African-American as president. But there is still too much racial profiling, disproportionate jailing of African-Americans while white privilege abounds in all levels of society. Added to this older racism is now the prejudice against another group; “illegal” immigrants. When will they ever learn?

Militarism is still the backbone of our empire. The “military-industrial complex” which Dwight D. Eisenhower warned against has totally taken over our culture. Our economy couldn’t survive without continually feeding the insatiable military pig. Since the embarrassment of Vietnam, we have entered quagmires in Latin America, Afghanistan, Iraq, and meddled in the affairs of a myriad of other countries trying to make the world safe for democracy (read: safe for big banks and business to operate in an unbridled fashion). When will they ever learn?

Materialism is as prevalent as ever, if not more so. One of the rallying cries of my generation was to get off the treadmill and live a simpler life. I see little of that influence, at least among my peers. Dual careers, ever bigger homes and cars define who we are. We have sold out en masse to the call of our culture to climb the ladder of success and material gain. When will they ever learn?

What happened to the idealism of our youth? What happened to all the songs of protesting racism, militarism and materialism? Where have all the flowers gone? There seems to be one factor that changed everything: the draft. Until 1972, every young man over 18 was subject to the draft. Many of them came back in body bags, including some of my classmates. The Vietnam war made little sense to us. When we examined our hearts we saw the relationship between that militarism, racism and our materialism. So we tried to change the system to counter these evils. We did, at least partially. The draft went away. First there was a lottery system, and then the draft was abolished altogether. 

The current wars in which our country is embroiled do not make any more sense today than they did during Vietnam. The difference is that those who fight these wars are there voluntarily. The rest of us hardly notice. The press during the Iraqi war was not allowed to show the atrocities or the body bags that were paraded before our eyes nightly during the Vietnam war. Another war? We yawn and go about our business of acquiring more and caring less. When will we ever learn?

I am convinced that if every politician had to send his/her son or daughter, or grandchild to the front lines of the war zone before they could vote yes to the next US military interference, whether overt or covert, there might be more thought given before sending troops. 

Where have all the flowers gone? Gone to graveyards every one. When will they ever learn?


  1. The role of the draft can hardly be overstated when looking at the sixties. Thanks for this thoughtful essay, Don. The word empire seems more and more apt for our world today. We need to carry on the voices of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Pete Seeger. Thanks for lifting your voice and singing.

    1. Shirley, thank for your kind and thoughtful comments. To write without feedback can be a lonely proposition. Affirmations spurs one on to higher goals. So thanks again.

  2. Don, there are still some of us trying to carry on the good struggle against the evil triplets of which MLK spoke. It's a different struggle now than it was 40 years ago, in a different context and necessitating different tactics, but the fundamental struggle is the same. It's been a long journey from Vietnam through Central America, Iraq, and Afghanistan, but with the grace of God, working for peace is still the calling of faith.
    Duane Shank, DC

    1. Duane, thanks for the reminder that not everyone has sold out to the "system" and for providing us with hope. Thanks also for the reminder that working for peace is "the calling of faith." Perhaps one of the reasons the movement in larger society died out is because it was largely a secular movement. The movement of God generally is through a small, often marginalized group.