St. Patricks Day and the war in Iraq

With the Army unable to meet its staffing targets, and units on their third and fourth rotations in Iraq, recruiters are trolling shopping malls in working class communities, targeting youth with promises of big sign-up bonuses and other benefits. Enlistment rates are high among immigrant families, and in urban and rural communities where other job opportunities are few.

This is not the first time an imperial power has recruited oppressed youth, who are denied opportunity at home, to fight and die to maintain world domination. On St. Patrick’s Day, when Irish history and culture are celebrated, we remember that the Irish people faced and resisted similar problems.

Ireland was colonized by England beginning in the 12th century. Irish youth, many of whom were left landless and hopeless by the English occupation, were recruited to fight in England’s foreign wars.

Widespread Irish resistance to service in the British army was reflected in popular Irish songs. Perhaps the best known is “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye,” in which a woman tells of her husband’s return from war. It strikes too close to home today:

Ye haven’t an arm, ye haven’t a leg, Ye’re an eyeless, boneless, chickenless egg, Ye’ll have to be put with a bowl to beg, Oh Johnny I hardly knew ye.

The anti-recruiting song “Arthur McBride” dates from the wars between England and France in the 18th century. In a scene that could be taking place at a shopping mall in the U.S. today, the song tells of two Irish lads who are approached by a British recruiting sergeant:

He says “my young fellows if you will enlist Ten guineas in gold I’ll stick to your fist, And a crown in the bargain for to kick up the dust, And drink the king’s health in the morning.”

In addition to the enlistment bonus (10 guineas was probably as much cash as a young Irish farm laborer would see in a year), the sergeant promises good food, a fancy uniform, success with girls and a life that is “happy and charming.” But the young men are not fooled. They list the many disadvantages of army life, ending with being shipped to war in France and being shot. When the recruiting sergeant tries to arrest them, the lads break his sword and throw his drum into the ocean.

“Mrs. McGrath” is from the period when England was at war with France and Spain. When her son returns unable to walk, seven years after a recruiting sergeant has taken him away, Mrs. McGrath says:

By herrins I’ll make them rue the time That they swept the legs from a child of mine ... Oh then if I had you back again, I’d never let you go to fight the king of Spain, For I’d rather have my Ted as he used to be, Than the King of France and his whole Navy.

Ninety years ago, “The Foggy Dew” condemned England’s hypocrisy in sending Irish soldiers to die in World War I so that “small nations might be free,” while England was crushing the Irish struggle for independence. “Their lonely graves are by Suvla’s waves [in Turkey] or the fringe of the Grey North Sea [in France],” mourns the song. If they had fought and died in the Irish independence struggle, “their graves we’d keep where the Fenians [Irish patriots] sleep.”

These Irish songs are not only laments. They tell of the resistance of the youth and their families, their determination to fight for a better life at home.

In different times and circumstances, young men and women in the U.S. today are refusing to join the Army to fight in Iraq, instead choosing to fight for jobs, education and peace at home.

In the U.S. today, families of service men and women, and of potential recruits, are playing an important role in the peace movement. Military families are joining peace marches. Grandmothers are blocking recruiting centers. Parents are working to keep recruiters out of high schools. There are reports that, especially in African American communities, enlistment is down because of opposition from family and clergy.

The Dixie Chicks have been vindicated, and antiwar messages are appearing again in popular music. But growing resistance to the war in Iraq can still be summarized by a final verse that was added to the classic “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye,” sometime in the 20th century:

They’re rolling out the guns again But they’ll never take our sons again No, they’ll never take our sons again Johnny, I’m swearing to ye.



Art Perlo (economics @ cpusa.org) is active in the peace and social justice movement in New Haven, Conn.