By: Country Joe and the Fish
In 1967, the rock group Country Joe and the Fish released their second album. The title track, “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die-Rag” was one of the most popular protest songs of the Vietnam era. Written during President Johnson’s escalation of the war, the song appealed to millions of American’s who had grown weary of it. Using a mocking and sarcastic tone, the “rag” underscored the the sheer destruction of the war, the ridiculousness of the continued killing and dying, the great cost in terms of dollars and lives, and the changing tide of public acceptance.
U.S. involvement in Vietnam began during the post-World War II hysteria of the Red Scare – fear of the globalization of Communism. President Harry Truman committed military forces in order to contain “communist expansion in Europe”. The original advisory role and subsequent escalation of hostilities was justified by the “falling domino” principle which stated that “the collapse of one country in a region would lead to collapse of the remaining countries” (Anoka Co. Historical Society).
The American public, eager to protect the country from Communism, gladly sent its sons to the jungles of Vietnam. As the war waged on, people began to question the motives of our involvement in this tiny region. With patriotism waning and distrust rising, cries of politicism and corporate profiteering began to take hold, with citizens beginning to object to our continued involvement in the conflict (Globalsecurity.org).
Country Joe McDonald says that in writing this song, he was attempting to address “the horror of going to war with a dark sarcastic form of humor”. Using irony combined with an upbeat tempo of carnival inspired music, he conjures imagery of patriotism and flag waving while touching on the real horror of violent war death.
In the opening verse of the song, McDonald alludes to the patriotism of World War II when he tells listeners that “Uncle Sam needs your help again”. This speaks to the willingness with which the nation sends its children off the war. During World War II, soldiers gladly signed up for military service and patriotism was at its strongest. At wars end, people were able to resume their lives with a greater sense of pride and most found themselves comfortably in the middle class of society. In the 1960’s, greater numbers of kids were pursuing college educations. The song sardonically asks them to “put down your books and grab up a gun, gonna have a whole lotta fun”.
Like a high school cheerleading fight song, the chorus evokes a sense of ra-ra, pom-pom waving glee. This seems to mock the early patriotism and blind support given to the war effort by the American people. People seemed eager to participate in a war, the reason for which was so unclear. The masterful use of sarcasm in the line “Whoopee! We’re all going to die” is the impetus for clearly defining the theme of the song.
In the song’s second verse, McDonald addresses the mounting concerns of most Americans in 1967, that the war machine, and thus the reason for continued hostilities, was clearly to fund the military industrial complex. Corporatism and profiteering were the order of the day with millions of dollars earned on the backs of soldiers in the jungle. In the song, McDonald encourages Wall Street to hurry up and grab a piece of the action, implying that money is the primary purpose of the war. The line saying “Just hope and pray that if they drop the bomb, they drop it on the Viet Cong”, is quite telling in that the writer obviously believes that Corporate America is willing to risk the lives of U.S. servicemen in order to make a profit.
With cynicism in his tone, McDonald seems to be encouraging parents to hurry, and “send your sons off before it’s too late”. He tells them “You can be the first ones on your block to have your boy come home in a box”. In this fourth verse, McDonald seems to be mocking the heart of 1960’s American culture by portraying the Vietnam war as a fad or fashion. In the post World War II expansion of the middle class and rapid growth of cookie cutter suburban neighborhoods, people were always trying to keep up with the Jones’. This was his way of striking at the vanity of the American middle class and the competitiveness of modern society.
This song is a great example of an artistic response to war. It takes the horrors of war and places them, almost in parody, with the real concerns of the era such as fear of communism, questions of patriotism, corporatism and profiteering, comforts of middle America, and the disposable members of the poorer classes. The song’s upbeat tempo, tone, and lyrics belie it’s true meaning, as a vehicle deriding the war and those who allowed it to wage on for so many years and at such a great cost.