Yellow ribbons whip down city streets on the pinned-back antennae of imported Sentras, Camrys, and Accords, wrapping the USA in patriotism like the loosely woven fabric of a giant Ace bandage. On the radio, the premier pop diva of the day belts out the national anthem as if the centuries-old ditty was her latest hit single--which, in fact, it is.
And at a fair-to-middlin'-sized club on the outskirts of town, a 43-year-old folk singer with long, snowy hair picks out a jaunty melody on an old acoustic guitar. He proceeds to spin a tall tale of his misadventures in the psychiatrist's office of the New York City bureau of the selective service, circa 1967:
"I walked in there and said, `Shrink, I wanna kill. I mean, I wanna kill! I wanna see blood and gore and guts and veins in my teeth. Eat dead, burnt bodies. I mean kill, kill, kill, KILL!' And I started jumping up and down, yelling, `Kill! Kill! Kill! KILL!' And he started jumping up and down with me. And we were both jumping up and down, yelling, `Kill! Kill! Kill! KILL!' And the sergeant came over, pinned a medal on me and said, `Kid, you're our boy.'"
It doesn't take a masters in sociology to see that Arlo Guthrie, the folk singer in question, is just a tad against the tide of popular opinion at the start of his current U.S. tour.
With hostilities rapidly winding down in the Persian Gulf, Americans are flushed with a star-spangled military pride the likes of which hasn't been seen since the ticker-tape parades following World War II. The omnipresent yellow ribbon adorns everything from the door at the local 7-Eleven to the latest issue of Rolling Stone. Even rock radio, once the voice of opposition to the military during the Vietnam War, has shunned the handful of dissenting discs issued since the outbreak of fighting in the Persian Gulf. "While we all want peace," wrote SuperRadio CEO John Garabedian in a sharply worded memo sent to the company's nationwide network of radio stations upon the January 16 release of the all-star remake of John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance," "as responsible broadcasters we should be sensitive to the controversial nature of this in the 1991 environment. We are not hippies, and this is not Vietnam."
It's a distinction even an old hippie like Arlo Guthrie can draw. "This is a different situation altogether," says Guthrie during a stop in Knoxville, Tennessee, just one day before the liberation of Kuwait City. "I mean, don't get me wrong, I don't think that war is ever a wonderful thing. But there are times when it's more justified than others. And this war is certainly a lot more justified, in my mind, than the war in Vietnam. Especially if it indicates that there is a world consciousness taking hold right now that says bullies can't go around telling other people what to do. Then it really does make sense for a coalition of people under the United Nations to go up to Saddam Hussein and say, `Hey, forget it!'"
What Guthrie does protest, and what prompted him to resurrect his Vietnam-era antidraft hit "Alice's Restaurant" (complete with that subtle-as-a-machine-gun poke at the Army's `Kill! Kill! Kill! KILL!' mentality) is the prepackaged attitude toward the war he feels we've all been forced to adopt. That warm and fuzzy patriotic buzz, all wrapped up in bright yellow ribbons, that everyone from President George Bush to the gang at the office water cooler has made us feel is the only appropriate view to voice.
"The problem we had with Vietnam," says Guthrie, "is that we had a lot of these people in positions of authority telling other people the way they had to feel about the war. And if they didn't feel like they could go along with it, they were told that they were no good. We had people in the antiwar movement that were equally as obnoxious, making the ones who found themselves in that situation feeling like they weren't any good. And I found that attitude as abhorrent as I did the attitude of the president and the prowar people."
The one-sentiment-fits-all attitude we were sold on the Persian Gulf War is but the latest example of the kind of watered-down, nonoffensive, "politically correct" thinking Arlo Guthrie believes is slowly killing off what he calls "the real person."
"Everybody's gotten so cautious," he laments, "about saying anything that might get crushed in an avalanche of disapproving words. A president can't get elected today without sounding so general that he ends up not saying anything. And the same thing's true for the people in Congress, who are masters at taking too long to say nothing."