Cryin' shame

Shaped up, shipped out ... and feelin' so blue. The image of the melancholy soldier has become country music's money shot.


Jon Caramanica
June 23, 2004 12:00AM (UTC)

Last month was National Military Appreciation Month, and in anticipation of the event, Orange, Calif., high school freshman Shauna Fleming decided she needed to do something. She settled, as eager, civic-minded teens sometimes do, on a letter-writing drive. The campaign, titled A Million Thanks, has to date collected almost 600,000 notes of encouragement and support for disbursement to American troops overseas and here at home.

Think of it as an Amnesty International movement for prisoners of politics, as opposed to political prisoners.

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Fleming was inspired in part by a song and video that had just begun to grab attention, John Michael Montgomery's "Letters From Home." The song is No. 2 on the Billboard country music singles chart right now, and in heavy rotation on the two country music video stations, CMT and GAC. The lyrics document three letters to a soldier penned by people he's left behind: first, his warm-hearted mother, then his lonely girlfriend and, finally, his stoic father. The accompanying video culminates in what has emerged as a country music video money shot: the melancholy soldier.

Though a bit treacly, the song has a few adept songwriting flourishes -- "They all laugh like there's something funny 'bout the way I talk/ When I say, 'Mama sends her best y'all.'" In the video -- filmed at the Army Aviation Support Facility No. 1 in Smyrna, Tenn., and featuring National Guard soldiers as the supporting cast -- a baby-faced serviceman (played by an actor, Fred Mullins) pores over the words from home, sharing them (and Mama's cookies) with his bunker mates. Camaraderie is the order of the day -- being deployed almost seems like light work. But by the time he gets to the letter from his square-jawed father -- "Your stubborn ol' daddy ain't said too much," his mother groans in the first one -- he's reduced to tears. For a moment, it seems as if the video might turn transgressive -- the revelry comes to a stop, and the realities of war begin to reveal themselves: distance, confusion, fear. The protagonist's unit mates leave him alone with his sadness, because, as the song says, "ain't nothing funny when a soldier cries."

But when the chorus kicks in -- "I fold it up and put in my shirt/ Pick up my gun and get back to work" -- the soldier does just that, his pride swelling along with the impending engagement with the enemy. By video's end, emotional dissent has been quashed as he gets in the back seat of a sand-colored Jeep, shoves the letter inside his uniform and prepares a steely gaze to guard against what's to come.

On Fleming's Web site, next to the shots of her handing letters to actual soldiers, is a shot that shows her grinning side by side with Mullins, the actor. In this case, the virtual soldier is just as important as the real thing.

If images have been the undoing of the conceit that was meant to be the Iraq liberation project -- photos of flag-draped caskets, digital snaps of the humiliations of imprisoned Iraqis, grainy videotapes of a gung-ho American's beheading -- then it's not surprising that softer representations of the wartime soldier are being promulgated in other arenas. A spate of videos in current rotation on country music television are perhaps the most vivid of these public, fictive images. These used to be called propaganda; now, they're just part of pop culture.

Country music's jingoistic tendencies are well-documented. (Witness, for example, the "Patriotic Country" compilation -- and then try to imagine a "Patriotic Rap" or "Patriotic Emo" companion set.) Unsurprisingly, it's become the most active arena in the attempted restoration of the military's public image. These days the teary-eyed soldier is everywhere on CMT, seen in 75 million homes, just shy of MTV's 88 million. The message is clear: He's humane, he's human, and he's fighting for the cause of right (or, more accurately, the right). These fictionalized accounts offer all the perks of embedding without the messiness of actual combat. And what they quite calculatedly show are not the tragedies of war -- the fighting, the bloodshed, any actual engagement with an enemy -- but rather the less contentious moments that round out a soldier's experience.

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In the video for Dolly Parton's limber bluegrass number "Welcome Home," the troops are either mute connoisseurs of culture -- sitting attentively as they watch Dolly croon -- or jumbles of male frailty. The opening scene is of a sailor returning from deployment, spotting his father waving on shore and, after stiffening his upper lip for a final salute, descending the gangplank to give dad a puffy-eyed embrace. (Dolly herself is, natch, a model of patriotism, appearing first in a shimmering stars-and-stripes pantsuit and, later, in a camouflage one.)

Similarly, the combatants of Gary Allan's "Tough Little Boys" are lauded for their hearts, not their missions. The song itself is a wonder, a meditation on how fatherhood, especially being the father of a young girl, erodes and rewrites traditional notions of masculinity. But for all the delicately rendered sentiment in the text, the video has simpler aims. Like Montgomery's video, it features members of the National Guard based in Smyrna, Tenn., including some who have returned from tours in the Middle East. Allan himself sports an Army T-shirt and sings in a tent in front of projected images of soldiers muscling through sandy terrain. Most of the video, though, is devoted to the men and their daughters. Set at opposite sides of a field, the fathers, in full fatigues, beam proudly as they hold out snapshots of their young girls. Across the way, the girls clutch pictures of their dads. About three-fourths of the way through the video, the two groups are unleashed on each other, resulting in half-toothy grins for the kids and impossibly grand hugs from their dads. In reducing these burly men of combat to blushing, tearful, tender fathers, the implicit question of the video -- which dates to last year, but still enjoys rotation on country music television, presumably because of its patriotic fervor -- is: How could these men possibly do harm?

"American Soldier," the inescapable Toby Keith number from last year, covers the same territory even more blatantly. In Keith's mind, the country music world's take on the soldier should be no different from its approach to any other working man (or woman, one would hope, though female soldiers are hardly represented in these songs and videos, if at all). "Our soldiers take a lot of the blame when we have to go in and our government's wrong or right or whatever," Keith told CMT last year of his revisionist project. "They're just working people like me and you. They get up, put their boots on, and then they're told, 'Hey, here's your orders. You've got to go here.' They're just doing their job. They're not in there killing to be killing. They'd rather be back with their families, too."

And that's certainly the impression the "American Soldier" video hopes to leave. At the outset, the sun rises over Anyburb, U.S.A., as the titular working man goes through his daily routine -- wake up, nuzzle wife, cook the family breakfast, etc. The mundane quickly evaporates, though, when the morning commute ends at the local military base (the video was shot at Miramar AFB, in San Diego) and daddy suits up for his ride on a transport plane, headed to parts unknown. As the plane takes off, his young son gives a half-hearted JFK Jr. salute. On board, though, the soldier is a tight knot of emotion, sadness mixed with pride. These sentiments can coexist, the video says, but it's better for America when the latter trumps the former.

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Though it's months old, the "American Soldier" video remains a staple of country music television and radio. Late last month, the self-styled outlaw Keith took home four Academy of Country Music awards, including, for the second year running, entertainer of the year. For years, Keith had complained vociferously about the establishment's rejection of him come awards time, but since he's made political rabble-rousing his stock in trade, he's become the genre's favored son. (He'd also recently played a show at CentCom in front of a crowd that included President Bush.) Even CMT's slightly hipper ceremony, the Flame-Worthy awards, rolled with the Keith bandwagon, awarding him video of the year honors for the "American Soldier" clip. Apparently, what's good for America is good for Keith as well. Or maybe it's the other way around.


Jon Caramanica

Jon Caramanica is a writer living in New York.

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