Sunday, June 19, 2022

Military anthems, militarism, and our youth

 “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli”

Most of us have known these lyrics to the “Marine Hymn” since childhood. Or I guess we have. It is entirely possible that, for a variety of reasons, the service anthems are no longer being taught in elementary schools, maybe not for decades, and kids are not learning them elsewhere. Of course, when we learned them (3rd grade? 4th?) we had no idea what those lyrics meant, what the ‘halls of Montezuma’ or the ‘shores of Tripoli’ were. Montezuma was dead for several hundred years when the Marines stormed Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City in 1847 during the Mexican War. There was great loss of life on the Marines’ side (and undoubtedly on the Mexican) and ostensibly the “blood stripe” on Marines’ trousers honors them. It was brave for these Marines on an individual and group basis, but it nonetheless true that they were part of an alien military force invading another country. Also, it was a while before I realized it was ‘Montezuma’ and not ‘Montezulema’, since the actual name is one syllable too short to scan and requires holding the “u” for two beats (“Mon-te-zu-u-ma”). It was even earlier, in 1805, that the Marines invaded Tripoli, on the ‘Barbary Coast’ of North Africa, to remove the Barbary pirates that had been attacking American shipping. And conquer the country.

OK, the rest of the song is comprehensible, if (unsurprisingly) exceedingly macho; that’s the nature of service anthems. But the other anthems had their issues also. The Army’s is called “The Caissons Go Rolling Along”, and we dutifully learned it, but never were told what ‘caissons’ were. None of us had any idea. Turns out that they were horse-drawn carriages that carried cannons and ammunition. Hadn’t been used in WWII. So an explanation would have been helpful. I understand that the lyrics have now changed to “the Army goes rolling along”. At least it scans.

The other word no one explained was “aweigh” as in “Anchors Aweigh”, the Navy song. I imagine we all thought it was “away”, and assumed that if the ships were going to sail they had to get rid of the anchors, so put them away. This makes at least as much sense as the actual archaic word, aweigh. The other thing about the Navy song, which I certainly didn’t recognize as a kid, is that it is obviously a college song from the US Naval Academy, apparently for the class of 1907, and thus a song for the officers rather than a song the Navy’s sailors. (“Farewell to college joys, we sail at break of day – ay – ay – ay” – another scanning problem.) It is also a drinking song, which I assume regular sailors can share with USNA students.

The Air Force song, “Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder” was much more comprehensible, probably because it was 20th-century. Maybe we even knew what “yonder” meant. The original lyrics were changed from “Nothing can stop the Army Air Corps” to “US Air Force” when the independent service was established. Although my father was in the Army, he was actually in what was the Army Air Corps at the time.

The final service anthem, from the oldest service, the US Coast Guard (which is the only one not part of the Defense Department, having landed in Homeland Security after a few other locations), is also pretty easy to understand, once you get past the title which is the Coast Guard motto and in Latin, “Semper Paratus”, always ready. It, like the Air Force, has a reference to dying (“to fight and die”; the Air Force has “go down in flame”), which the others lack, despite the definite possibility thereof.

Back in the late 1950s there was no audible controversy about promoting militarism and a simplistic flag-waving version of patriotism in our public schools. Our dress code included ties for little boys, and on Assembly Days, blue pants, white shirt, and red tie! I definitely remember an Assembly program put on by our 3rd-grade (I’m sure of this; I remember the teacher) class, in which each of us participating stood up on stage and read from a short script that said “My father was in the Army (Navy, etc.). He served for X months.” Maybe there was another line. Anyway, obviously some kids couldn’t participate. Their fathers were not in the military. Maybe they were disabled and 4F, or were serving in a critical domestic role, or otherwise were ineligible for WWII. Given our age, born about 4 years after the war, none of them could have died in WWII, although it is not impossible that some could have been killed in Korea, a war begun when we were infants, or certainly later died from other causes; indeed I know this to have been the case for some kids.

So it was pretty unthinking, unfeeling, and inappropriate for our teacher (and by assent, the school) to make these kids feel left out and as if their fathers were “lesser”. But it was, and probably still is, part of an effort to encourage military service. It may have backfired for our generation, since in young adulthood many of us resisted and resented the current use of military force, in Vietnam, but it is a useful thing for a society that now depends upon an all-volunteer force that doesn’t think too much about where they are being sent or why.

A recent Facebook post making the rounds professes to be from a teen, and asks for good parenting because their brain is not yet fully developed however “smart” they appear to be. This is, in fact, true; the last part of the cerebral cortex to develop, in the mid 20s, is the frontal lobe, where making connections, coming to good judgements, and exercising “executive function” resides. This is why a young people, however smart they are or how much they know, still often make incomprehensibly bad decisions. (“When you drove into that intersection, what were you thinking?” “Thinking?”) It is also why they can be brave, violent, reckless with their own lives, and very obedient to authority, thus making good soldiers.

However, don’t ask me why adults, well past their mid-20s, make incomprehensibly bad decisions. That is a whole other story.



1 comment:

  1. yes, i remember those assembly days, with the red clip-on tie. I was in Mrs Hannon's 3rd grade class. was always glad to get home and put those clothes aweigh. now i pretty much live in shorts and a t-shirt, i never cared much for dressing for the occasion. great investigation and comments about all those lyrics we regurgitated by rote.


Military anthems, militarism, and our youth

  “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli” Most of us have known these lyrics to the “Marine Hymn” since childhood. Or I gue...