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Bruce Cockburn Offers Some Measures of Comfort

JPG: I don’t want you to think that I was inferring that when you need material for a new album you purposely go to some war-torn place in the world just to get inspired. At the same time, as a songwriter you’re able to be a vehicle to personalize those experiences for the listener. A song such as “If I Had A Rocket Launcher” (the 1984 track was a result of visiting Guatemalan refugee camps) is an easy example where the anger at the situation builds up to the point that when you say the line about wanting to have a rocket launcher to shoot these oppressors, the response is, “Yes!”

BC: (slight laugh) Yeah. And in fact that isn’t the answer but, although, in the short run it sometimes is. If somebody’s coming around to kill your kids, and you have the option of defending them then you’re going to exercise that option. It’s not the Big Picture answer, that’s for sure. But it is personal. It becomes personal. All of it’s personal. We can analyze and talk in generalities and maintain distance. As journalists by and large, at least historically, I’m not supposed to do that. I’m supposed to stand back from the fray and be objective. A songwriter is under no such constraints. There’s pros and cons of both, obviously.

“If I Had A Rocket Launcher” is not reportage exactly but it sort of is because it’s reporting the experiences that I…the feeling is my experience. The things that it talks about are the experiences of people that I was talking to. But, I don’t have to be objective ‘cause it’s not my job. In fact it’s the opposite. My job is to make things personal and to make songs out of my personal take on things.

JPG: “Each One Lost” off the new album goes in a polar opposite direction as far as describing the effects of war by referencing a Ramp Ceremony held for a fallen Canadian soldier. You saw that firsthand when you visited troops in Afghanistan.

BC: It’s pain. War is pain. That’s a pretty safe generalization as well as a bunch of other stuff that it also is, but the essence of war is that. Again, it’s personal. I don’t know if I speak for the Canadian troops that I was associating with in Afghanistan or not with that song. I was hoping to, in writing it, capture the feel of that ceremony. I don’t really know if the feelings I had were totally subjective or if as I thought, and think, they were also part of what the soldiers were feeling and the Air Force people and so on, those that were there. These kids go over there and they get the shit blown out of ‘em by an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) and…they’re not perfect people but they felt like my kids. They’re out there. There’s all these 20 and 30-somethings out there, fighting and doing their best to do a terrible job and do it well. They are required, of course, to have the attitudes that they have towards it because, otherwise, they just couldn’t do it. You have to think it’s okay to kill people. You have to think it’s okay to kill those people, at least, the ones they’re fighting against. And there’s an element of brutalization that goes with that.

There was an interesting sidelight to this. A couple of the Canadian officers expressed to me how the world had changed since they’ve been doing what they’ve been doing. Back, not that long ago, when they recruited people they had to go to great lengths to adjust their attitudes so that killing people became an acceptable thing. Now, they don’t have to do that anymore thanks to video games. People join up ready for that kind of murder. It is slightly frightening when you think about it.

JPG: Did you see Saving Private Ryan ?

BC: Yes.

JPG: I’m thinking how in today’s warfare you could be looking through a scope and kill someone 100 to 200 yards away while there was that very powerful scene at the end of the film where the American soldier is paralyzed by fear as he watches his fellow soldier slowly killed in hand-to-hand combat a few feet away. It’s possible that now the human element is so far removed that war is more like a non-emotional video game.

BC: Yeah, and it’s not even a 100 yards away. There’s a guy watching a TV screen in Texas that’s blowing up people in Afghanistan. That’s a half a world away. Even in Afghanistan, we watched in the command center at Kandahar Airfield, it’s a whole room full of computer screens – all the screens were turned off when we walked in except for one that they left on because it wasn’t too sensitive. So, we’re watching this drone watch this guy as he drives along in his pickup truck. And then he drives up to a house and he gets out and he gets a bunch of stuff out of the back of the pickup truck and carries it into the house. This guy has no idea that he’s being watched. He doesn’t appear to. If he had a license plate, you could have read it. And this thing is high enough that he’s not aware of it. And if they wanted to they could tell that thing to fire a rocket at that house and blow it up. I don’t know where it was. It was somewhere in Afghanistan. Where? I don’t know but it was far enough away that nobody in that room was going to feel anything but a kind of video game sense of elation at having succeeded in blowing this guy up. They were following him because they thought the house that he went to was a bomb factory. You see this stuff and it’s so remote. It’s not remote when you want take territory because in order to actually take over a place you have to have people there. And that’s when we quote-unquote become vulnerable to explosive devices.

JPG: Have you had any reaction to “Each One Lost,” whether from soldiers or even your brother (His younger brother, Capt. John Cockburn, is a doctor who served in Afghanistan .) Is he still there?

BC: No, he was only there for six months. It was a standard tour that everybody gets sent on. He signed up to go back but they didn’t send him back. He did go to Haiti after that. He was in Haiti for about four months after the earthquake there. And he’s had some other interesting adventures. But, he’s now officially retired because he turned 60 in September. That’s mandatory retirement for the Canadian Army so… He’s looking at doing some stuff with the Red Cross now.

The reaction to “Each One Lost” has been pretty positive. I think it was USA Today didn’t like it. They felt like I was telling them something preachy but audiences have responded pretty warmly to it in general. You don’t know. If two-thirds of an audience claps loudly for something and the other third doesn’t, you can’t really tell. There may be people who don’t appreciate it. But, I feel like there’s so much emotional attachment to the issue because people’s kids are out there, especially in the U.S. In Canada the numbers are smaller but we’re very aware because the whole population is smaller. We notice when somebody gets killed. And we notice when our people are there in one capacity or another. As a nation, we’re a little bit less secretive than the U.S. tends to be around military issues. So, we tend to air it more clearly, a little more transparently.

I didn’t write that song to promote the war in Afghanistan. I don’t think it’s a sensible thing to be doing but the fact is there are all these people that we love there doing it. And they’re gonna come home or they’re not coming home as the case may be. Come home in one condition or another. Those of us who are old enough to remember Vietnam remember that those soldiers who came back were greeted with a great degree of unfriendliness. People were calling them, ‘Baby killers.’ The homecoming was brutal. It served no purpose for it to be like that. It would be a shame to see it happen again. It’s bad enough that the U.S., and I think this is also true in Canada, the way the Veterans Administration has shirked its responsibility for the people that come back damaged is a disgrace. That needs to be addressed. It’s getting better. At least I keep reading things that sound like it’s getting better. But it’s a problem. It’s something that Dick Cheney can be quite happy sending people off to war and just telling all of us that the world’s gonna be at war forever now. And that’s fine. It’s not going to be him. It’s not going to be his lesbian daughter that’s over there doing it. He can support gay rights and stuff like that, and he’s still an evil sonofabitch. (slight laugh) He doesn’t care if young Americans die or young Canadians die or young Afghans die or whoever. It’s business for him. So, the rest of us have to care.

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