Interview by Terry Messman
Street Spirit: You first sang “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag” on the streets of Berkeley during the Vietnam War in 1965. Fifty years later, you sang it at an anti-nuclear protest at Livermore Laboratory on the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Could you have imagined in 1965 that your song would still have so much meaning today?
McDonald: Actually, I find the concept of 50 years incomprehensible. But it’s indisputable because I have children and some of those children have children and I know that the math is right. And I just finished an album and the title of it is “50” because it’s 50 years since the first album. It’s called “Goodbye Blues.” I didn’t die, so there you are. I’m still alive and I’m still doing something. Filling a need helps a lot, and it keeps me sane.
Spirit: Your songs really enlivened the Hiroshima Day protest of the nuclear weapons designed at Livermore Lab.
McDonald: Well, I’m glad. I’ve done lots of these events. I grew up in a family of radical socialists, and quite honestly, I really get bored with the theory and speechifying of various movements and philosophies from the left. It doesn’t mean I don’t support them. But as an entertainer, I know that you can lose your audience. I’ve been doing this for a long, long time, and I consider myself a morale-booster for these causes.
I don’t do it if I don’t support the cause and the ideas and the people that are doing it. It’s really quite remarkable what people are doing in many movements. I like to support these movements, because they are sometimes not mainstream and no one else is supporting them, and so I feel an obligation to do it.
As an activist, I like to give a voice and to support people and movements that don’t have mainstream support and visibility. And I realize that my name has a certain notoriety and that my presence can be a morale-booster.
Spirit: My wife Ellen and I were at your concert at the Freight and Salvage in Berkeley on Nov. 7, 2014, and supposedly that was your retirement concert. Yet you’re still singing all over the place.
McDonald: Well that was a weird month. I actually did retire three months before that. I said, “This is it.” And then that month I played five events, all of which were sociopolitical events, and all of which I didn’t get paid any money for. And I thought, “Wow, this is a weird retirement month.”
Spirit: “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag” has kind of a perfect Berkeley origin story on the University of California’s Sproul Plaza at the height of the antiwar movement. Is it true that you and Barry Melton recorded an early version of “Fixin’ to Die” and began selling it on a table at Sproul Plaza in 1965?
McDonald: Yes. I moved to Berkeley in the summer of 1965, after the Free Speech Movement. So I came up here from southern California and got miraculously tapped into the folk music thing that was happening here at that time. I met Barry Melton at the University of California folk festival, and we hit it off. I started playing a few of my songs, and he played lead guitar. We were a duo.
Then I met some other people, and ED Denson, Mike Beardslee and I started putting out a little magazine called Rag Baby. We put out several issues of Rag Baby. It was a biweekly that had music articles and schedules of things that were happening around town, music and dancing and events. It was mostly focused on folk music and the folk scene.
Then in September of 1965, the publication date came and we didn’t have any copy for the magazine. You understand the problem of not having copy! The publication date came and we had nothing, even though there was a lot of stuff happening at that time.
Spirit: Didn’t you release some songs instead as kind of a musical magazine?
McDonald: I had been approached to write some music for a play that Sara Payton had written about the Vietnam War. I was working on a song for the play about three Vietnamese revolutionary soldiers before a battle, and the lyrics were expressing their thoughts before a battle.
I had been in the Navy for three years, and being a veteran always influenced my point of view. So I wrote this song called “Who Am I?” a song that’s very loved now. [“Who Am I” was released on the second Country Joe & the Fish album.]
It took two or three days to write the lyrics; it was kind of difficult. But I finally got it, and I sat back in my chair and I was just happy that I finished it and I started strumming on my guitar, and I strummed what turned into the music for the chorus of “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag.” And then I started writing and I wrote the whole song in about 30 minutes. I thought it was a pretty productive day.
Spirit: Pretty productive! You were an unknown street musician and you suddenly came up with a very moving song, “Who Am I?” and then the “Fixin’ to Die Rag” that would live on as one of the most important antiwar anthems of the 1960s.
McDonald: The only reason I could write those lyrics was having grown up in a socialist family. My parents were members of the Communist Party when I was born, but later became disenchanted with them. And then they became part of the Progressive Party and the left socialist parties that were around.
I read the leftist newspapers and I was familiar with the basic tenets of socialism about the industrial complex that generates war. So I was able to write lyrics about the warmakers that profit from war, and I was able to write a lyric from the point of view of the soldier because I had been in the military.
Also, I felt disenchanted from my parents, in a way. As far as politics, we didn’t have a very good relationship, so it was easy for me to say: “Come on mothers throughout the land, pack your boys off to Vietnam.” And that sarcasm was a really nice thing, and GIs love sarcasm.
I had been in Japan in the Navy and at a certain point, I started thinking to myself, “I want to get the hell out of here.” And then realizing, “Wait a minute, I can’t get out of here.” I have this weird (military) haircut, I have no civilian clothes, I have no money. I’d have to get a passport and get on a plane, and I’d never bought an airline ticket. I was stuck. I was screwed. And I knew that attitude. It was: “Oh well, I’m going to finish out my enlistment.” And when they asked me to re-enlist, I said, “No thank you.”
Blaming Wall Street, Not the Soldiers
Spirit: Did you find that soldiers liked “Fixin’ to Die Rag” since it mocks Wall Street and the generals, but not the soldiers shipped to Vietnam?
McDonald: Oh they love it, yeah. They really do like it because it speaks the truth. The important thing about the “Fixin’ to Die Rag” was that it had a new point of view that did not blame soldiers for war. It just blamed the politicians and it blamed the manufacturers of weapons. It didn’t blame the soldiers. Someone who was in the military could sing the song, and the attitude is, “Whoopee, we’re all going to die.”
Most peace songs of the era blamed the soldiers for the war. As a matter of fact, I remember the Baez sisters (Joan Baez and Mimi Farina) had this poster with them saying, “Girls say yes to boys who say no” — in the belief that you could just say, “No, I don’t want to be in this war.”
But it was not that easy. As a matter of fact, it was almost impossible when you were in the military. Most civilians — even civilians on the left, which is really a crime — do not understand the Uniform Code of Military Justice. It governs you when you’re in the military. It’s a contract unlike any other contract. It can’t really be broken.
And in times of war, they can just shoot you. The grease that makes the military run is that if you disobey a direct order in times of war, it’s punishable by death. They can imprison you. People were put in Long Binh Jail in South Vietnam. They were beaten.
Spirit: So it was easy enough for activists to expect GIs to resist, but they had little understanding of the risks they faced?
McDonald: I mean, the military is a killing machine, and you have to do your job. If you think it’s easy to get out of it once you’re in it, you’re stupid. As a matter of fact, you can be extended for as long as they want. So in that sense, it’s really like being in the Mafia.
When you’re in the military, you know that. I don’t know that it’s even possible for civilians to understand. But it’s very, very important for civilians to understand the workings of the military and what the military machine entails, and I don’t know if it will ever happen.
I now know more than I want to know. The situation today is quite a bit better. But in 1965, I think that most anti-war people were convinced without a doubt that the military personnel were responsible for the war, and if they would only stop fighting, the war would stop. And people demonstrated against soldiers coming back, not as much as the right wing would like us to believe, but they did.
There were very few people that embraced soldiers caught in that conundrum. The American Friends Service Committee was certainly one of them. But mostly, GIs helped themselves with the GI movement.
Spirit: Do you think there is greater public understanding and support today for the soldiers forced to fight the wars?
McDonald: Yes, that has changed now. I don’t think anybody in the country would blame an Iraqi war veteran for the war in Iraq. That’s not happening any longer.
Spirit: In your song, “Vietnam Veteran Still Alive,” you wrote about a patriotic kid who went to Vietnam, but after the war, he found that “I’m back home and I’m the enemy.” Do the veterans you’ve talked with feel they were blamed for a war they had no part in starting?
McDonald: You know, the American Legion did not admit Vietnam veterans during the war in Vietnam and after the war in Vietnam — because they “lost the war.”
Spirit: That was really their feeling — that the soldiers lost the war?
McDonald: That’s right. They were cowards and they lost the war. I’ve met many, many fathers who died estranged from their sons because they couldn’t stop blaming their sons for either refusing to be in the draft, or coming back after losing the war, and then speaking out against the war.
So that’s the right wing and the mainstream of America. But I also have met people who were spit on and were called terrible names. My friend Jack McCloskey worked with Vietnam Veterans Against the War and was instrumental in starting the peer-group counseling that saved so many Vietnam veterans from post-traumatic stress horrors.
He always complained because he and Ron Kovic and all those Vietnam vets were put in the vanguard of the peace actions. Once the left wing decided that they were potent symbols and a force to be reckoned with as far as the anti-war movement was concerned, they put them in the front of the march. They always put them in the front of the march, and Jack McCloskey said, “So we always got beat up.” They sacrificed them. The country sacrificed them by sending them to Vietnam, and the left wing sacrificed them by putting them in the front of the marches.
Peer Counseling for Post-Traumatic Stress
Spirit: Many activists admired the VVAW, the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, for becoming such a strong part of the movement in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. But is that really what they felt, that the movement was using them?
McDonald: Yeah, that’s right. And that’s why VVAW broke away from the peace movement and started doing their own thing. That turned to storefront counseling, with vets helping vets. And by the way, it’s because of those people working together that we now have the only treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Now, because of Vietnam veterans, we also understand firefighters, rape survivors — the list is endless. The only thing that works for them is people with common traumas talking to each other.
Spirit: Peer counseling groups for people suffering from PTSD?
McDonald: Yes. Peer counseling.
Spirit: How did veterans first develop what you describe as the only treatment for PTSD?
McDonald: They organized storefront rap groups because the Veterans Administration would not recognize this issue. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual at the time did not define Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a mental condition. Therefore, you could not get treatment for PTSD from the Veterans Administration. You could not get treatment anywhere.
Spirit: I think about all the World War II veterans who suffered what they called shell shock and battle fatigue back then. Millions were badly damaged by the war and they went untreated and unrecognized.
McDonald: They sent them back lots of times, when they were shell-shocked. They sent them back.
Spirit: The military sent them back to the front lines?
McDonald: Back to the front lines. And in World War I, they sent them back. They would burn them with cigarettes and beat them up and stuff and call them cowards. It’s tragic and it’s horrible. It is just so horrible.
The House Un-American Activities Committee
Spirit: For a voice of anti-war protest, you express an unusual amount of empathy for the experience of soldiers. Does that come from being a veteran?
McDonald: I could write the songs that I write because I was a military veteran and my parents were socialists. Also my mother, Florence McDonald, was Jewish, and her mother was an immigrant from Russia, escaping the pogroms of the Czar. And her father was also an immigrant from Russia.
So by a very early age, I understood the Holocaust and the reality of the Holocaust — the death camps, the person who made sofas out of the skin of Jews. And my mother told me, “When the pogroms come, they’ll get you.”
So I’ve never believed that I was safe, which is another element. I could identify completely with soldiers in Vietnam not feeling safe, surrounded by death, with people hunting them and wanting to kill them. Because, you know, Nazis wanted to kill Jews. They wanted to put them in cages and fry them and kill them. So that is imprinted in my mind and is part of my worldview.
Also, my father (Worden McDonald) was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and lost his job with Pacific Bell, the telephone company. During that time, none of his comrades came to our aid as a family.
Spirit: HUAC was bad news, but then to not be supported… How did that affect you as a kid?
McDonald: I remember talking to Toshi Seeger, Pete Seeger’s wife, because I think that the left pretty much knows that Pete Seeger was investigated as a Communist by HUAC. We were having dinner with their daughters, and I said, “It was pretty rough on our family when my father was investigated. I remember it and it was terrible. I was a child and I was scared.”
And Toshi said, “Well, we had a fine time. Our neighbors stuck right by us.”
And I said, “Well, during those times, as a teenager, it was hard.”
Toshi said, “We didn’t have that problem in our family.”
And Tinya, her daughter, said, “Well, I’m never going to talk about it!”
So these events impact the family, and I was well aware of that. War impacts the families of the veterans. It impacts the community. It impacts the children. And I found war and the dynamics of war extremely interesting. And the only way I can keep from going nuts about what I learned about veterans and war is to write music about it.
Spirit: On the way to your house today, I was listening to your Vietnam Experience CD. A song about Agent Orange describes a soldier who feels paranoid and edgy, like there are enemies everywhere and they’re going to kill him.
McDonald: And they were going to kill him! That’s right!
Spirit: Even the bushes where Agent Orange was sprayed are going to kill him.
McDonald: Not only was the enemy trying to kill him, but his government was trying to kill him! And not only tried to kill him, but did kill him! One of my best friends died of Agent Orange complications.
Spirit: When did you become so involved in supporting the rights of veterans, and get involved with Swords to Plowshares, the VVAW, and Vietnam Veterans of America?
McDonald: I went to an event at the Veterans Memorial Building in Berkeley in 1981 on the problems of Vietnam veterans, attended by movers and shakers in the movement. I met Jack McCloskey who was a corpsman with the Marines in Vietnam and also was involved in the healing from the Vietnam War.
I came to that event at the Veterans Building as a rock musician, a singer and entertainer supporting veterans, because I wanted to support them and their cause.
Spirit: A lot of musicians have done concerts for the peace movement, but why was it just as important for you to support veterans?
McDonald: I wanted to support them because I felt they were justified. Everything about them was important to know, and the public needed to know their stories. It was very important. It involved the nation and the world — everything.
But the important thing to me — and for your question — is that Jack McCloskey and I were standing on the steps of the Veterans Memorial Building, and as he was talking about a benefit coming up, he said, “Joe, would you like to play for this?” Then he said to me, “Joe, you’re a veteran too.”
And that blew my mind. It blew my mind! I internalized it at that moment, and I’m telling you, the next six months of my life were like an acid trip. Unbelievable.
And I realized that I was guilty, and that if I had been sent to Vietnam, I would have killed people. I’m not a pacifist and what I did was part of a machine. I was guilty of that.
Part of the Military Machine
Spirit: Are you saying you were guilty of being part of the military machine?
McDonald: Yes, I was part of the military machine. And I was a veteran. And I had feelings about being a veteran. I had feelings about how I was treated by the civilian population. I had feelings about my parents never talking to me about my military experience. I had feelings about the left wing using me as an entertainer to draw people to their cause. I had many, many, many internalized emotional feelings.
Spirit: Is that because you now realized that veteran’s issues were not just about “them” but about “you” as well?
McDonald: Yes, and I came out of that experience whole — because I wasn’t whole before that. There was a part of me that was blocked off. So then I realized that these people, veterans, were my comrades. They were my comrades!
And I’ll tell you, I feel more comfortable around veterans than any other group. It’s a profoundly enlightened group of people, with the knowledge that they have. Yeah, I feel comfortable. That’s why I work with those guys.
Spirit: Did you also want to seek better treatment for vets by society?
McDonald: Well, yeah, in a way, but they were helping themselves anyway. So I just joined the group. I joined the bandwagon. We’d sit around and talk. We told jokes and had fun together. It was a fraternal organization and I watched it actually evolve and go through different changes.
Spirit: You also toured and did many benefits for veterans groups, didn’t you?
McDonald: I went around and I played for GI coffeehouses, and I played for Vietnam veterans’ demonstrations. I played for the different organizations: the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, and Vietnam Veterans of America. I helped do things at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., and for women who were Vietnam veterans.
Spirit: What events did you perform at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington?
McDonald: I played there two times as part of their ceremonies. I got to know Jan Scruggs, the guy who built the memorial. He became a friend of mine and we had some nice adventures together. I met Dr. Arthur Blank, the head of the V.A. outreach program. He just let me stay at his house when I was coming to Washington, D.C. I mean, I was embraced by these people.
[Editor: Dr. Arthur Blank, the director of Vietnam Veteran Counseling Centers run by the V.A., was very involved in the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder among Vietnam veterans.]
Spirit: Why do you think veterans would embrace the writer of such a rebellious song as Fixin’ to Die Rag?
McDonald: The song became loved not only by military personnel who were against the war, but military personnel who were for the war. As a matter of fact, the song became something that was taught in Marine boot camp in San Diego. I know that for a fact. You see, I was appreciated for writing “Fixin’ to Die Rag” by the left wing and by people who like music, the rock and roll community. It was something that I did. But with the veterans, it was something that I am.
So here’s a little story about that. There’s a guy, Phil Butler, and he was in the Hanoi Hilton, the atrocious prison camp in Vietnam that held pilots who were captured. John McCain was held in the Hanoi Hilton and Phil Butler was there for seven years. He became a member of Vietnam Veterans of America and I was playing in San Francisco at one of their events, just singing some songs there.
Phil Butler came up to me. I almost start crying just thinking about it, because he said, “You know, they would play American music in the compound in Hanoi Hilton to demoralize us.” Hanoi Hannah would play music to demoralize Americans in the compound, the prisoners of war.
Spirit: Why would the music demoralize them? By making them miss home?
McDonald: Yes, miss home — miss home and think about home. But Phil said, “When they would play ‘Fixin’ to Die Rag,’ it would boost our morale and make us feel good.” Then he said, “I never dreamed I would live to hear you sing it in person.” We both started crying and hugged each other. It was like, “Oh, my God…”
I met a guy who told me his buddy died in his arms in Vietnam from his wounds and the last words from his lips were, “Whoopee, we’re all gonna die.”
This is beyond the Billboard chart of top 10 hits. It’s something really special and it’s very meaningful to me. And I was delighted to find that out, because I never would have found it if it hadn’t been for Jack McCloskey telling me about being a veteran, and my getting to know all these guys and doing this stuff with them.
“Welcome Home” to the Veterans
Spirit: I saw in the news that you performed at the 20th anniversary of the Berkeley Vietnam War Memorial in November 2015. How did you get involved?
McDonald: I worked to help facilitate the Veteran’s Day ceremony for the City of Berkeley at the Veterans Memorial Building. I’ve done quite a few programs like that. We hadn’t had a Veteran’s Day event in Berkeley for some years, and it occurred to me that I could help make this happen. I was the person who stirred the pot and got it going, along with former Mayor Shirley Dean and council people and Disabled American Veterans. It was a nice hometown Veteran’s Day ceremony. I sang “Fixin’ to Die Rag.”
Spirit: You’ve done benefits for different veterans groups all over the country.
McDonald: Yeah, I’ve done quite a few events for veterans — left-wing, right-wing, middle-wing, Navy, Army, women and men.
Spirit: You’ve also written far more songs about war than most people realize. Every song on “Vietnam Experience” speaks out against the horrors of war and gives voice to the soldiers in the field. What led you to make that album?
McDonald: I realized at some point I could make a whole album of these songs. I had done thematic albums like Thinking of Woody Guthrie and War War War, but it occurred to me I could do the Vietnam Experience album.
The last song of that album was “Welcome Home.” A Navy vet friend of mine, Alan Bacall, was working on a documentary film of a large tickertape parade to welcome home Vietnam veterans. The film was called “Welcome Home,” and he asked me to write the title song.
I said I’d try, and then I realized that in order to write that song, I had to check my attitude and put it aside.
Spirit: What attitude did you have to set aside?
McDonald: My attitude of: “Fuck those people, they did this to me. They’re wrong, and these are the right people. These are the good guys and these are the bad guys.”
And that’s how I could write, “Some refused to go and some went away to fight. Everyone wants to know who was wrong and who was right. But the war is over and we may never agree. Its time to put the deaths to rest and get together and say, Welcome home!”
So I had to put my attitude on hold and write an uplifting song. A friend of mine who is a pro-war, Vietnam War nurse said that “Welcome Home” was her favorite song. She loved that song because there’s no finger-pointing. It’s a morale-boosting welcome home song for people that weren’t welcomed home.
It was a pleasure to be a part of that. I had to internalize that and I had to feel it. I had to feel that I was resigning from this argument: Is war right? Is war wrong?
Just as a musician and a Navy veteran, I don’t know who is responsible for war. It’s occurred to me many, many times to wonder why doesn’t the collective consciousness of the people of America say, “No to war. We’re going to dismantle this machine.” I remember talking to my mother about this. She’s Jewish and she hated the Vietnam War. She said the Vietnam veterans were baby killers, you know.
When I traveled through Germany, I asked my audiences in Germany at every gig, “Anybody here have family members in the military?” Not a person raised their hand. “Anybody have grandparents who were in the military?” Not a single person raised their hand. Nobody. Then I realized that these Nazis were soldiers and their families were dealing with the stigmatization — like Vietnam veterans are doing. Who is to blame for that?
Spirit: If the soldiers are not to blame for war, who is to blame?
McDonald: Who is to blame? Well, like I said in “Fixin’ to Die Rag,” the political leaders and the millionaires and the military leaders and the governments that make the world go round. The Pol Pots, the Lyndon Johnsons.
Spirit: And, in the case of Germany, the Hitlers.
McDonald: The Hitlers. And the people who supported Hitler. Without his machine, he would have just been a nut case on the street corner.
What the Government Owes Veterans
Spirit: In “Vietnam Veteran Still Alive,” you asked the president to welcome home those who served in Vietnam. What do you think the government should have done to welcome veterans home and assist them after the war?
McDonald: Well, I’m not a philosopher. I’m just a musician. I mean, I’m just me. But I’d like to make a little comparison here. What if you’re working for the U.S. Post Office? That’s a government job, right? And what if something happens at work and both your legs are blown off? What compensation should you get from the post office?
But what if you’re in war, working for the government, and your legs are blown off? What compensation should you get from the government? I think that everybody sort of agrees that the post office worker should get more than the person in the military. But I don’t know if that is right. My job is just to throw stuff out there for you to think about.
With my union upbringing and my leftist upbringing, let’s say you’re working in the Teamsters union and a Caterpillar tractor runs over your legs. What compensation should you get from that? And would the union defend you?
But let’s say that you’re in the military and you have that same job — they have people who drive Caterpillar tractors — and your legs get run over by the tractor. What kind of compensation should you get from that? And who is going to speak out in your defense? Who? The Joint Chiefs of Staff? Where is your union? A military tribunal? What the fuck. You’re going to go to the VA and get in line. Get in line, man. The unfairness of it is obvious.
Spirit: Many veterans had to fight for basic medical care when they returned home. I did an article on the hospice movement and interviewed a Vietnam veteran who survived the war, only to die of Hodgkin’s disease from Agent Orange.
McDonald: The Agent Orange story is so sad and so tragic. The Agent Orange problems in Vietnam from this defoliant are generational, and from an ecological point of view, many planetary problems are caused by dioxin. Back then, dioxin wasn’t recognized as being harmful, and it’s been a struggle. But it just kills you and it causes birth defects in the second generation. It’s a horrible, terrible thing. Some of this stuff is so hard to look at.
[Editor: Agent Orange is made up of two herbicides, 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T. The 2,4,5-T was contaminated with dioxin, described as “perhaps the most toxic molecule ever synthesized by man” and a cause of cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma and leukemia, even in the children of those exposed to Agent Orange.]
Spirit: You recorded two songs about Agent Orange, and also took part in a film documentary about Agent Orange.
McDonald: Yeah, two documentaries. The song, “Vietnam Experience” was turned into a music video by Green Mountain Post Films, which came out of an underground news service in New England. I think it is really powerful.
[Editor: The San Francisco Chronicle called Vietnam Experience “a gripping mix of wartime and post-war film footage without commentary, except for antiwar songs by Country Joe McDonald that is “more harrowing and more eloquent than all the Hollywood movies on the subject.”]
Spirit: Did the second film focus specifically on the horror of Agent Orange?
McDonald: Yes, Green Mountain Post Films made an Agent Orange film called “The Secret Agent.” It was rather shocking. I wrote the music for the film. As part of the film’s score, I recorded Muriel Hogan’s song, “Agent Orange Song.” She’s a Vietnam Veterans Against the War person, and she wrote the song, and I popularized it, and put it on the album because I realized it was a really powerful statement and a really good song.
Spirit: It’s such a great song. Didn’t you write a second song about Agent Orange on the Vietnam Experience record?
McDonald: Yes, that song is called “Secret Agent” because Agent Orange is the secret agent and the film is called Secret Agent. I got the element of paranoia in this song because you think, “Something is trying to kill me. I’m being killed.”
Spirit: In your song, a soldier survives the war but when he comes home, he realizes he was killed in Vietnam by Agent Orange and he didn’t even know.
McDonald: That’s right. That’s right. In the documentary, there are endless shots of planes spraying the jungle with this defoliant. There are so many planes spraying Agent Orange for so many miles and miles and miles and miles. And then there are shots of GIs with these 50-gallon containers full of this dioxin which is the deadliest poison ever created, just spraying it as if you’re watering your lawn.
You just look at the film and you think, “Oh my God, I just didn’t realize the magnitude of it.” I’ve actually heard that aircraft carriers that were docked off the coast of Vietnam, sometimes would use empty barrels from Agent Orange and Agent White, and they would fill those up with water to take to the ship.
Spirit: For the sailors’ drinking water?
McDonald: Drinking water and showering water. It’s horrible! It’s horrible stuff! That’s why we sometimes try to be a little sarcastic and smart-asses about it — to keep from crying.
Combat Nurses and Florence Nightingale
Spirit: At an event on Vietnam veterans, you heard Lynda Van Devanter, who had been a combat nurse in Vietnam, speak out about women in the military. What did you learn from her and how did that lead to your fascination with Florence Nightingale’s work in combat nursing?
McDonald: I was attending a seminar in Berkeley about the problems of Vietnam veterans in 1981, and Lynda Van Devanter was the only woman speaking. She accused the people in the audience — veteran activists and Vietnam Veterans Against the War people — of ignoring the role of women in the military.
I took it to heart. I thought, “Oh my God, I did ignore it.” I sang, “Come on all you big strong men, Uncle Sam needs your help again.” I didn’t acknowledge women, although I’d been in the military myself, and I knew women were in the military. I promised Lynda that I would write a song about her.
But after I promised that I’d write a song about her and wartime nursing, I realized that I didn’t know anything about it. I had a collection of encyclopedias at home, and I looked up nursing and the article mentioned Florence Nightingale. It said that she was an upper-class English woman who went off to do nursing in the 1850s in the Crimean War, and for the first time brought women in as nurses, and she suffered a nervous disorder for the rest of her life after her experiences in the war.
I had just come back from a seminar where we talked about the problems of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and I wondered if she had PTSD. So I went to Holmes Books in Oakland and I found two books: Cecil Woodham-Smith’s definitive biography, titled Florence Nightingale, and Sir Edward Cook’s two-volume biography, The Life of Florence Nightingale.
I read them, and it was so fascinating. I knew nothing about the Victorian era. And the Crimean War, which was very similar to the Vietnam War, was a debacle. Everything went wrong in that war.
I learned the story of Florence Nightingale’s struggle as a woman against a patriarchy that chose to ignore her, and the way she was treated; and her companionship that she found with the Sisters of Mercy, the Catholic sisters she worked with. It was just so fascinating and incredible, and I started collecting stuff about her life, and about nursing, and studying it.
I amassed quite a big archive about her, and I just recently donated it to the UCSF Nursing School. It occurred to me that I should put together a tribute to Florence Nightingale like I did with the Woody Guthrie tribute.
When I was studying about Florence Nightingale, I learned that her family was part of the upper class in England. She was presented to Queen Victoria, and they were like the Kennedy family.
She went to the Crimea and lived through this trauma, and when she came back from the war, she refused to be acknowledged in any way for her service. She lived reclusively. I studied the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and one is isolation.
The Girl Next Door Goes to War
Spirit: You described Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in your song, “The Girl Next Door (Combat Nurse).” It’s a beautiful statement about the bravery and sacrifices of combat nurses in Vietnam. Was Lynda Van Devanter the inspiration?
McDonald: Well, Lynda challenged me to recognize women in the Vietnam War, and I promised her I would write a song about it. She was the first woman to write about her nursing experiences in the war, and the first woman to come out as a nurse and speak out publicly. Lynda said that she was the girl next door, so the phrase came from her, and I latched onto that for the title of my song.
And then I was a friend of Rose Sandecki, who was doing Vietnam outreach for women during the beginning of the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I interviewed her and I described how Florence Nightingale came home and refused to talk to her family, or the press, or anybody, and just snuck home in private. And Rose said that’s exactly the same way she came home. She came home in secret to her family when she came home from the Vietnam War.
[Editor: Rose Sandecki served as an Army Nurse Captain in Vietnam. After nursing wounded and dying soldiers during the war, she became a counselor for soldiers suffering from PTSD. Sandecki was appointed team leader in 1981 of a Veterans Administration center dealing with PTSD.]
Spirit: So you saw similar patterns in the experiences of combat nurses like Lynda Van Devanter and Rose Sandecki in Vietnam and Florence Nightingale 100 years earlier in the Crimean War?
McDonald: I thought, this is a commonality here, a common experience that hadn’t been publicized or known about —people coming home from the war and being isolated, not being able to talk to people, not being able to relate to a friend. It was not being publicized in any way at that time, with nobody knowing about it.
When Florence Nightingale came home from the Crimean War, she could not relate to her friends any longer. She had no peer group. And these women coming home from the Vietnam War, they had no peer group. They started to form their own peer groups. And they never were the same after their wartime experiences. They were shoved into a horrific, unbelievable experience, and that’s what I wrote about in the song.
She’ll Never Be the Same
Spirit: You captured that in the song. When the combat nurse comes home, her friends can’t understand why she isn’t fun anymore. You sang: “But a vision of the wounded screams inside her brain, and the girl next door will never be the same.”
McDonald: Yes. The girl next door will NEVER be the same! Never! Never! Never! She’ll never be the same!
Spirit: People assume that therapy or the passage of time or new experiences can eventually heal many inner wounds. Why do you say she’ll never be the same?
McDonald: Because once you have these experiences in war, you’re never going to be the same. You know, there is a myth that you can recover from these experiences. I like to focus on the war experiences because it’s a government-sponsored experience. It’s a taxpayer-sponsored experience. Collectively, as a nation, we are responsible for these experiences.
When I was dealing with families who had lost a loved one, I found that the parents somehow got some kind of closure, but the siblings never got closure. They were bitter from the moment when I encountered them. When I set up that Berkeley memorial, they were still bitter about it.
Spirit: Why do you think they had that long-lasting sadness and anger? Why couldn’t they find closure?
McDonald: I don’t know what happens when you lose a sibling. What I’m saying about these experiences is that you think — in the fantasy that you have of your life — that you’ll go and have an experience and then come back home. You’ll go off to college and you’ll come back home, and you’ll just put it in the plethora of experiences that you have.
But these experiences in war change the trajectory of your life. You come back home, and you used to be fun, and now you’re no fun anymore.
Spirit: Because you’ve seen too much and been blasted with traumatic experiences that don’t fit into civilian life?
McDonald: Yes, plus the problem of the loathing that they experience. Now, thanks to Vietnam veterans collectively, we have peer-group counseling, which is the only thing that enables you to cope with your experience. But you never get over your experience. Never. Never.
Street Spirit’s in-depth look at the music and the man: Country Joe McDonald
Country Joe: Singing Louder Than the Guns (April 2016)
Country Joe McDonald stands nearly alone among the musicians of the 1960s in staying true to his principles — still singing for peace, still denouncing the brutality of war.
Songs of Healing in a World at War (April 2016)
Country Joe McDonald’s songs denounce the atrocities of war and pay tribute to Vietnam War combat nurses and the legendary icon of mercy, Florence Nightingale, for bravely bringing medical care into war zones.
Carrying on the Spirit of Peace and Love (June 2016 Issue)
Country Joe McDonald has carried on the spirit of the 1960s by singing for peace and justice, speaking against war and environmental damage, and advocating fair treatment for military veterans and homeless people.
Street Spirit Interview with Country Joe McDonald Part 1 (April 2016)
Women coming home from the Vietnam War never were the same after their wartime experiences. They were shoved into a horrific, unbelievable experience. That’s what I wrote about in the song: “A vision of the wounded screams inside her brain, and the girl next door will never be the same.”
Street Spirit Interview with Country Joe McDonald Part 2 (April 2016)
“It was magical. All at the same time, amazing stuff happened in Paris, London, and San Francisco — and BOOM! Everybody agreed on the same premise: peace and love. It was a moment of peace and love. It was a wonderful thing to happen. And I’m still a hippie: peace and love!”
Interview with Country Joe McDonald, Part 3 (June 2016)
“We’re still struggling as a species with how we can stop war. The families (of Vietnam veterans) were so grateful that anybody would acknowledge their sacrifice. And I don’t mean sacrifice in a clichéd way. The war had reached out and struck their family in a horrible, terrible way.”
Interview with Country Joe McDonald, Part 4 (June 2016)
“I knew a lot of the people had to escape or they were killed by the junta in Chile. It was just tragic and terrible. I had grown up with a full knowledge of the viciousness of imperialism from my socialist parents. So I knew that, but I was still shocked.”