No one thought Merle Haggard, after "Okie From Muskogee" and "Fighting Side of Me," would ever develop a war-doubting side. That's why Haggard made news two years ago with a pointed song that took Washington and big media to task for glossing over human costs in the war on terrorism. "That's the News" argued that "politicians do all the talkin'; soldiers pay the dues. Suddenly the war is over, that's the news."
The glum story line fell flat with radio programmers, as did Willie Nelson's downer of a Christmas song: "Hell, they won't lie to me, not on my own damn TV; but how much is a liar's word worth, and whatever happened to peace on Earth?"
A younger generation has stuck to the tone of Haggard's earlier work. Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)," Charlie Daniels' "This Ain't No Rag, It's A Flag" and Darryl Worley's "Have You Forgotten?" don't brook any doubts.
Country music may tell the best stories, as Ray Charles famously said, but country doesn't own the war song franchise. Bruce Springsteen ("The Rising") and Neil Young ("Let's Roll") also attempted the difficult business of writing songs in what one observer described as "9/11 time." Steve Earle's "Rich Man's War" sparked controversy with lyrics that chronicled Bobby ("joined the Army because he had no place to go") and Ali ("grew up in Gaza throwing bottles and rocks ... "). Wyclef Jean complained that "every 10 men, they look like Bin Laden, so I have problems when I go to the airport." Black Eyed Peas lamented, "Overseas, yeah, we tryin' to stop terrorism, but we still got terrorists here livin' in the U.S.A., the big CIA, the Bloodz and the Crips and the KKK."
All of that is about the war, but not of the war. Folklorist and historian Lydia Fish sees the real deal emerging from "the traditional occupational folklore of the military." In other words, songs invented and sung by soldiers when no one else is around. Some of the soldier poetry from "Gunner Palace" is quoted above. Soldier Nick Moncrief also raps in the documentary, accompanied by percussion on the hood of a Humvee: "Yo, I noticed that my face is really aging so quickly, 'cause I've seen more than your average man in his 50s."
These grunts are doing what Haggard does on his best days -- "look for songs in the world around me."