I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier: A Mother’s Plea for Peace

My copy of the sheet music (1915)
My copy of the sheet music (1915)

W.J. Astore

The year was 1915.  Europe, indeed much of the world, was embroiled in the devastating Great (or World) War.  Under President Woodrow Wilson, the United States was proud to have stayed out of the war, the massive bloodletting of which seemed peculiarly European, an “Old World” form of militarized madness that most Americans wanted no part of.  In fact, in 1916 Wilson would be reelected in large part because he had kept America out of Europe’s great war.  (Of course, the very next year the United States did choose to join the war effort against Germany.)

Yet in 1915 the idea of celebrating the military, nobilizing the military experience, finding higher purpose and meaning in war, was the furthest thing from the minds of most Americans.  Unlike the America of 2015, there was no mantra of “support our troops,” no publicity campaigns that encouraged citizens to “salute” the troops.  What publicity existed discouraged Americans from getting involved in war, a fact exhibited by some old sheet music that I recently ran across in a local thrift shop.

“I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier,” copyright 1915 and “respectfully dedicated to Every Mother – Everywhere,” shows a mother protectively holding her grown son as visions of battle assault her mind near the family hearth.  It was a popular song; you can listen to an old Edison recording here.

The lyrics are as simple as they are telling:

Ten million soldiers to the war have gone,

Who may never return again.

Ten million mothers’ hearts must break,

For the ones who died in vain.

Head bowed down in sorrow in her lonely years,

I heard a mother murmur thro’ her tears:

Chorus:

I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier,

I brought him up to be my pride and joy,

Who dares to put a musket on his shoulder,

To shoot some other mother’s darling boy?

Let nations arbitrate their future troubles,

It’s time to lay the sword and gun away,

There’d be no war today,

If mothers all would say,

I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier.

(Chorus)

What victory can cheer a mother’s heart,

When she looks at her blighted home?

What victory can bring her back,

All she cared to call her own.

Let each mother answer in the years to be,

Remember that my boy belongs to me!

Nowadays, such lyrics seem hopelessly quaint and naïve, or even cowardly and defeatist.  America must stand up to evildoers around the world.  We must fight ISIS and other elements of radical Islam.  We must “stay the course” in Afghanistan.  We must maintain large and deadly military forces, ever ready to slay other mothers’ sons and daughters in the name of making peace.  Or so we are told, almost daily, by our leaders.

Indeed, our new national chorus goes something like this:  Let’s have another drink of war!  We haven’t had too many.  Keep the bullets coming and the blood flowing.  That is the way to victory!

But as we dream about “victory” by arms, we should recall the line from “I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier”:

What victory can bring her back, All she cared to call her own.

Unlike in 1915, that’s a question that’s never asked in today’s America.

26 thoughts on “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier: A Mother’s Plea for Peace

  1. The only thing I disagree with is that this question is NEVER asked in today’s America. I hear many voices asking that question, but not in the mainstream media.

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    1. The quote below from a recent article in Atlantic magazine. When will the Nobel committee take back this guys Peace Prize and the U. of Chicago his credentials for teaching “constitutional law?

      “Without Congressional permission, public debate, or any attempt to rally the American public’s support, President Obama has ordered U.S. ground troops to a war zone, his most flagrantly unconstitutional war-making since he unlawfully helped to overthrow Muammar al-Qaddafi. “The United States is set to deploy troops on the ground in Syria for the first time to advise and assist rebel forces combating ISIS,” CNN reports. “The deployment of U.S. Special Operations forces is the most significant escalation of the American military campaign against ISIS to date.”

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  2. I have an old 1915 Old Farmer’s Almanac, and when I contrast it with my 2015 Almanac I just got the difference is like Nite & Day other than the Natural World of heavenly bodies & the Earth.., but the institutions and affairs of men is where this Country needs a wake up call!! Quoting now:”It is by our works, and not by our words we would be judged” These we hope to sustain us as in the humble proud station we have so long held… Robt. B. Thomas- 1915

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  3. Thank you for this posting Mr. Astore. A beautiful song. I will share it, especially with friends who are song writers and also sing. I hope they will sing it often. Perhaps if we had a draft, today’s mothers would identify more with this song.

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  4. Thank you, Mr. Astore. I had never actually seen the lyrics, though I knew the song existed. I absolutely minimize my exposure to commercial TV broadcasting, but whenever the slew of ads come on between segments of a “news”-cast, a sportscast or whatever, more and more I’m being confronted by some yokel in full combat gear extolling the wonderful experience awaiting “me” (as universal viewer) if I enlist in the Reserves, National Guard or active duty military. I always mute the volume on the TV during ads anyway, but the propaganda message is clear and it’s become infuriatingly omnipresent. And if it’s not an actual inducement to enlist, it could be an ad pitching insurance, banking or other services to military personnel past and present and their families. Truth is getting hammered pretty badly in our society these days. It used to be said “Truth will [win] out.” Ten years from now, in how many nations will US troops be bogged down in this Perpetual War Against Radical Islam? Perhaps a new Designated Public Enemy Number One will have miraculously emerged to keep the Pentagon and war profiteers happy? Fifty years from now, when reliance on (addiction to) fossil fuels for energy has made Earth largely unlivable, will the populace finally wake up? Unfortunately, it will be way too late to solve our problems then.

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  5. Reading Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience” the other day, I came across this lovely passage dealing with the Fugitive Slave Law and the willingness of the Massachusetts militia to carry out its onerous provisions.

    “The whole military force of the state is at the service of a Mr. Suttle, a slaveholder from Virginia, to enable him to catch a man whom he calls his property; but not a soldier is offered to save a citizen of Massachusetts from being kidnapped! Is this what all these soldiers, all this training has been for these seventy-nine years past? Have they been trained merely to rob Mexico, and carry back fugitive slaves to their masters?”

    “These very nights, I hear the sound of a drum in our streets. There were men training still; and for what? I could with an effort pardon the cockerels of Concord for crowing still, for they, perchance, had not been beaten that morning; but I could not excuse this rub-a-dub of the ‘trainers.’ The slave was carried back by exactly such as these, i.d., by the soldier, of whom the best you can say in this connection is, that he is a fool made conspicuous by a painted coat.”

    Soon after Thoreau wrote this essay, the United States plunged into a long and bloody Civil War to decide just what freedom meant and what cost some men would pay to achieve it for themselves while denying it to others. At any rate, thinking of the American soldiers in their painted coats who slaughtered each other by the hundreds of thousands, I could hear the melodious strains of an old Civil War tune, which prompted me to write something in a similar form, appropriate for my own day and age:.

    When Jaundice Comes Marching Home
    (after the popular Civil War song, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”)

    When Jaundice comes marching home once more,
    Guffaw! Guffaw!
    We’ll know what its masters have in store,
    Guffaw! Guffaw!
    A shiver of terror to run up the spine,
    At the thought of what’s next if we don’t fall in line
    Oh they’d like us scared when
    Jaundice comes marching home

    When Jaundice comes snarling home this time
    Guffaw! Guffaw!
    We’ll spit in its face with a jeering rhyme
    Guffaw! Guffaw!
    Our leaders who screwed up and shot our wad
    Will tell us they did it for country and GAWD
    But we’ll know they lie when
    Jaundice comes snarling home

    When Jaundice comes limping home to hate
    Guffaw! Guffaw!
    The wars that it lost and the shit on its plate
    Guffaw! Guffaw!
    The ones who deployed it to bomb and kill
    Now find that they’ve used up the easy thrill
    So they’ll have to hide when
    Jaundice comes limping home

    When Jaundice comes sneaking home to hide
    Guffaw! Guffaw!
    The failure and waste and our wounded pride
    Guffaw! Guffaw!
    Of no further use is the man in pain
    Who can’t be recruited to do it again
    So avert your eyes when
    Jaundice comes sneaking home

    When Jaundice has marched in its last parade
    Guffaw! Guffaw!
    And laid down to sleep in the endless shade
    Guffaw! Guffaw!
    We’ll have us a wake for the late deceased
    From whose awful clutches we’re now released
    How we’ll all breathe free when
    Jaundice has died at home

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2012

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  6. I just wrote a reply to Michael Parry in Facebook. I feel that the key to change for the American society is to give up the fairy tale society we have become used to. We are spoiled by abundance of food, entertainment, gadgets that helps us to avoid the face to face conversation and reduce our vocabulary to a series of abbreviations where mathematical symbols are a way to hide our incapacity to communicate our feelings.

    Or maybe to express the infinite possibilities involved in a simple “yes, I want to do it”. The meaning of any expression is as different as the number of individuals who say it. The eyes, the body language are what supplement the hidden interpretation. We have lost the ability to read that meaning. A gadget is cold, mechanical, has no humane qualities.

    The transformation has been slow but steady. And has happened in every aspect of our society. We have lost our innocence and its spontaneity. So now, we are confronted with the effects of that disconnection from the real world. We find that our laws have been carefully manipulated to rule just the opposite of what was the original goal.

    We seem to be standing on the ground but we discover that the truth is we are standing on uncertainty. We were a democracy but now we are a plutocracy. We owned an independent country but now that societal idea has been bought by somebody we know exists but cannot pinpoint and destroy.

    Is the enemy a part of our own identity? Do we need to destroy ourselves to be able to rebuild our nation and our society? It is a puzzle where the pieces do no fit with each other and we seem to need to reshape them to get the puzzle built. But we are the pieces. How do we reshape them if we have lost the ideal in some corner of our history?

    What do we do about the education of our children? That could be a chance to create the solution (?) But does our History reflects the truth of our actions? Does it show our errors in order we learn from them not to fall again?

    In a way we know what we have to do. But how do we train ourselves overnight to be thrifty again, or to control our materialistic goals, or to stop our gluttony, or to share instead of taking whatever we want from others?

    Yes, we have become extremely easy to be manipulated. Many among us looks at war as a way to get the answer. But not on our land! Just in some other country far and away of our own beautiful land! Destroy and create chaos in other countries, pollute, kill with the excuse of democracy. Sell weapons and military equipment to all sides in order “to help them to achieve a democratic system”.

    And never forget that even if you are poor, with the excuse of war that needs your children, they can be educated almost free if they enroll in the military! This is America the powerful and ROTC is the program! Some of our politicians used that benefit too.

    It is shameful what we have done of a better system created based on an ideal. And be sure that we are all guilty of this aberration, because even the worst manipulator needs a willing victim that enjoys been manipulated.

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  7. On the day that Edward Bernays sold his insights to munitions makers ever-eager for easy profits, to imperialist corporations seeking new markets to dominate, and unscrupulous politicians at the beck and call of the former two, we began the transformation from a once proud republic into just another decadent empire.
    Via yellow journalism, early films, and pioneering radio the above unholy triad invaded and colonized the minds of millions of Americans and hijacked through tribal, jingoistic appeals the public’s common sense, its decency, its humanity, and its decision-making centers. Therein lies the value of manipulative propaganda.
    Over the decades, the above interest groups, collectively known as the 1%, have merely refined their techniques, and in addition to (or rather with the assistance of) the above media have employed public and economic policy to implement a worldview, a narrative where all is good when “we, the People” (note how via language they’ve _hijacked us_ into appearing to be the main actor/decision-makers of their follies!) do it as “it spreads benevolent democracy and freedom” abroad… Ah, the national fugue state!
    We have a lot of bad/false history to unlearn, a lot of embedded Bernaysian narratives to cast out and plain old Pavlovian conditioning to acknowledge and overcome.
    Those who don’t will continue to embrace, and defend, the suicidal jingoistic narrative, docilely line-up at recruitment stations, don a uniform and proceed to go to foreign lands to kill and die…
    God save the Republic!
    Be well.

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  8. Oh yes, that world in a cloud where there is no war. However, until we get there, we live in a world where there is. All we can hope to do is reduce ours to those essential for national and cultural survival. First step: guarantee the children of “the deciders” a place in the front lines.

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    1. I’m not sure “the deciders” always care that much for their children, so let’s put them (the deciders) in the front lines. Let them enjoy their very own Alexander the Great moments, leading and fighting from the front.

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      1. Earth to Walter: George Walker Bush was no Ranger. He was a middling member of the Air National Guard who apparently absented himself (on his own authority) from his responsibilities in order to work on an election campaign for a Republican in Alabama. He was Dick Cheney’s sock puppet. Far from being a Decider, he was a Follower of orders from on high.

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  9. All the commentaries I read are beautifully written and true. But the fact that we all allowed the deterioration of our society to happen keeps showing its red light in my brain. Very few people actually was aware of the monster that was starting to throw shade on our brilliant future. Did we listen to the enlightening words of those among us that were awake? No, we either persecuted/imprisoned/killed them because of their revolutionary beliefs or let them die in isolation.

    The American people has become used to be led by any strong hand. The problem is that it has lost the capacity to evaluate the reasons for the strength of the hand that leads them.

    And even worse, before, the majority of us were lazy but now they prefer the apathy that justifies their lack of individual purpose in their lives.

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    1. Sad to say, you’ve pretty well “hit the nail on the head,” Graciela. Bernie Sanders is running for the presidency as a reformer. As I have repeatedly emphasized in this forum, this society is far beyond the point where it can be reformed. The vested interests in whose benefit it’s run are way too firmly entrenched. Yet Sen. Sanders will be vilified as a flaming Bolshevik (already has been by GOP; can Hillary be far behind?). Would that this Ruling Class should be confronted by some REAL Bolsheviks!! (I reckon THAT qualifies as a contrarian viewpoint in this day and age, eh?!?)

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  10. An amendment to my previous reply to Walter: I’m well aware you were describing an “ideal” situation and made no specific reference to G.W. Bush. (Yes, this is almost an apology.) My snap response was simply based on the fact that no other POTUS in memory ever publicly declared himself “The Decider.” And isn’t it interesting that ‘Poppy’ (G.H.W. Bush, a.k.a. ‘Bush 41’) is now trying to shift the blame for Middle East chaos from little Georgie to Cheney and ‘Rummy’?!? That is, to precisely (two of them, at least) those who were making the real decisions for his administration. This smells like an attempt to make ‘Dubya’ look less of a dunce, thus (the Public Relations crew hopes!) making Jeb Bush look less like a dunce by osmosis! Never underestimate the power of marketers, but consensus seems to be that Jeb’s campaign is a lost cause. No tears will be shed in this corner.

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    1. “Jeb can fix it!” Seriously, I’ve never seen a campaign run so poorly. Now Jeb is raising his voice on the campaign trail and sprinkling his talks with a “dammit!” or two. Poor old sod. A has been before he ever was.

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      1. But wait!! Jeb has racked up some glorious achievements in Florida! Such as defunding Planned Parenthood there, if I’m remembering news reports accurately. And yet the “evangelical” crowd is flocking to Ben Carson…which must really rankle the ever-so-pious (HA!!) Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz. When are YOU gonna drop out of the race, Gov. Huckabee??? Maybe you can announce that in tandem with Jeb and give us a two-fer!! 🙂

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  11. To greglaxer: Something I wrote ten years ago still applicable regarding Dr. Ben Carson’s religious code-speak aimed at evangelical lizard brains, a dog-whistle technique that Deputy Dubya Bush (Sheriff Dick Cheney’s Barney Fife) learned to exploit to the hilt:

    Boobie Reactionary Religious Recrudescence
    (from Fernando Po, U.S.A., America’s post-literate retreat to Plato’s Cave)

    In Boobie “heartland” USA
    It’s hard to find a heart
    Since almost no one lives there you
    Could use a shopping cart
    To gather up the ones you’d find
    And count them, part by part

    And yet though few now live on farms
    And more would flee who could
    And mostly trees and acres rule
    Where once some people stood
    Still eighteenth century designs
    For voting count as good

    Wherever you find emptiness
    You’ll find religion’s lair
    A vacuum of the intellect
    A muscle pumping air
    An embolism of the mind
    With nothing really there

    But emptiness has uses which
    The politicians know
    The emptier the minds that vote
    The more their powers grow
    And soon the princes and the priests
    Will have us back in tow

    We only just escaped them back
    A century or two
    So why go over this again
    As if it is their due?
    To generate confusion like
    A deadly dose of flu?

    Some like to say that nature moves
    According to a plan
    But then again they claim the scheme’s
    Inscrutable to man
    Which makes it then impossible
    To learn the things we can

    Bill Clinton said he wished to walk
    By faith and not by sight
    Which sounds a little stupid if
    You haven’t got a light
    And find you have to go outside
    To take a pee at night

    Try crapping in the bushes if
    By faith your bowels move
    Then shut your eyes and wipe the shit
    Blindfolded from your groove
    Then grab some leaves to clean your hands
    And thus your lesson prove

    What kind of insight does it take
    To open up the eyes
    To bogus dogma, fantasy,
    And just those outright lies?
    Who cares what superstitious fools
    Think that religion buys?

    But in those other places where
    More people choose to live
    Exciting possibilities
    Exist for those who give
    A value to the open mind
    And not the secretive

    The Boobies think that you and I
    Should dumb our culture down
    To levels they can comprehend
    Without a squint or frown
    (We must not water stagnant minds
    With thinking lest they drown)

    So chase Darwin out of the schools
    Replacing him with what?
    Two-thousand-year-old Christian crap?
    Or “feelings” in the “gut”?
    Who wants to live in such a world
    Commanded by the nut?

    I pledge no one subservience
    I swear upon no flag
    I take no oath to be an oaf
    And bumble as I brag
    If I tried gargling “under GAWD”
    I’d throw up, barf, and gag

    I will not learn obedience
    I do not ask for fear
    So you can take your ignorance
    And stuff it in your ear
    Or someplace where the sun don’t shine
    Whichever you find near

    And if that means the “heartland,” friend,
    Then you can have the heart
    A land that needs religion has
    Forsworn the thinking art:
    Its brain programmed with Basic code
    That reads, START: GO TO START

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2005

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    1. As an explanatory follow-up to the above episode of Fernando Po, U.S.A., America’s Post-Literate Retreat to Plato’s Cave, I think it appropriate to mention — in connection with the Dr. Ben Carson campaign for the Republican Party nomination for President — one of the key inspirations that prompted me to compose that epic verse narrative. Specifically, I wish to mention the New York Times Magazine article by Ron Suskind entitled Without a Doubt, which saw publication in October of 2004. The article has achieved a measure of deserved fame for its quotation by a Bush administration official to the effect that “We’re an empire now, and when we act we create our own reality,” and that sort of nonsense. But for me, the money quote came later in the article, with a description of a typical Bush speech to an adoring crowd of Bible-thumping evangelical Christians — now the actual voting base of the Republican Party, the one that Dr Ben Carson targets with his inchoate religious name-dropping.

      “The crowd went wild, and they went wild again when the president finally arrived and gave his stump speech. There were Bush’s periodic stumbles and gaffes, but for the followers of the faith-based president, that was just fine. They got it — and “it” was the faith.

      “And for those who don’t get it? That was explained to me in late 2002 by Mark McKinnon, a longtime senior media adviser to Bush, who now runs his own consulting firm and helps the president. He started by challenging me. “You think he’s an idiot, don’t you?” I said, no, I didn’t. “No, you do, all of you do, up and down the West Coast, the East Coast, a few blocks in southern Manhattan called Wall Street. Let me clue you in. We don’t care. You see, you’re outnumbered 2 to 1 by folks in the big, wide middle of America, busy working people who don’t read The New York Times or Washington Post or The L.A. Times. And you know what they like? They like the way he walks and the way he points, the way he exudes confidence. They have faith in him. And when you attack him for his malaprops, his jumbled syntax, it’s good for us. Because you know what those folks don’t like? They don’t like you!” In this instance, the final “you,” of course, meant the entire reality-based community” [emphasis added].

      When I read that bit about Dubya’s studied strutting and swaggering accompanied by his trademark Bible-speak utterances delivered in a typically illogical, dyslexic babble, I immediately thought of the famous “Boobies,” those aboriginal inhabitants of Fernando Po, an island off the coast of Africa, who had suffered a cultural retrogression to a level of illiterate communication that consisted mostly of stereotypical posturing and grunting impossible to conduct outside of the light of an illuminating campfire. Then it came to me:

      They like the way he “points,” they say
      They like the way he “walks”
      Despite the fact that no one can
      Decipher how he talks
      And when he mimics “standing tall”
      The stupid Boobie gawks

      Then the verses just kept coming for years. The metaphor of post-literate, culturally degenerate America as just a bigger island populated by gesticulating and posing and babbling “communicators” proved almost infinitely inspirational. Dr. Ben Carson understands this type of visual/sub-cortical “lizard language” only too well. He probably has many of the same advisers and media consultants who taught Deputy Dubya Bush how to exploit the fearful Boobie evangelicals described so accurately in Kevin Phillips’ book American Theocracy: the Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st century. At any rate, I recommend reading Ron Suskind’s article in its entirety. It stands the test of time and certainly describes the “mentality” of those Americans most susceptible to fear-and-war-mongering by the politically
      ambitious and their media-savvy image manipulators.

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      1. Yes, well put, Mike. This really should be its own article, rather than buried in the comments. Do you want me to post it as a separate piece so that more people will read it?

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      2. Good idea, Bill. But first, I need to tie in something I saw on MSNBC Harball with Chris Mattews yesterday, November 5th here in New York. Living in Taiwan, I don’t get this sort of thing on available cable channels (and a good thing, too) but this time around while visiting in the U.S. I got to see and hear Matthews try over and over again to get a Republican apologist for Dr Carson to explain what possible connection “Noah’s Ark” could have with The Titanic, an allusion that Dr. Carson had apparently made in some recent speech aimed at the sub-cortical regions of his supporters’ reptilian religious brains. Matthews swore up and down that he had covered U.S. politics for decades but still “didn’t get it.” I truly can’t fathom such a comment, since I know that Matthews covered the 2000 and 2004 elections and most assuredly knows about the “empire” comments in the Suskind article that I quoted from above. Apparently, no one on publicly available television in the U.S. can succinctly call out this lizard-language dog-whistling for what it aims to accomplish and how it manages to do this. Let me incorporate this into the above commentary and then I’ll send you a revised copy for your to look over.

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    1. If that be so, it’s even MORE remarkable that any song expressing anti-war sentiment became somewhat popular. My own father was a wee lad living in “Germantown” (upper east side of Manhattan) when anti-German hatred was fomented against the residents there. A spit in the ocean, no doubt, compared to the anti-Muslim sentiment being whipped up currently. Some time ago I noted here the movie “Joyeux Noel,” about the spontaneous truce called by combatants of the warring parties the first Christmas of WW I. I mentioned the prologue depicted the spewing of actual propaganda used in England, to the effect that “the Hun” is so vile it was the duty of Britons to kill every last German, including infants lest they grow up to be a future menace. Seems to be exactly what Trump said the other day about child refugees from the war zone in Syria…not necessarily that they must be killed, but that they should be barred from reaching US soil. Which is likely to be a death sentence, anyway. “Plus ca change, plus la meme chose.”

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      1. My educated guess is that anti-war songs were popular from 1914 to early 1917, when the USA was neutral. In fact, in 1916 Woodrow Wilson won reelection on the slogan, “He kept us out of the war.”

        Once Wilson decided to intervene in 1917, that’s when all those “patriotic” pro-war songs were unleashed, the best known being “Over There.” Opposition to the war and to the draft was quickly squashed, with Eugene Debs famously spending time in jail. That was also the time when Wilson and Congress passed those “treason” and “sedition” laws that are applied today to silence whistleblowers.

        There was still anti-war sentiment in the USA in 1917 and 1918 — it was just suppressed or outshouted by the pro-war crowd.

        My favorite anti-German slogan from that day: “Hell is too good for the Hun.” So much for neutrality.

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