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:
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.
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.