What Would Billy Bragg Do?

Fascinating story in the New York Times magazine about Henry Rollins’ role as a U.S.O. representative, “entertaining” American troops abroad. Rollins has been on several such tours, visiting Iraq and Afghanistan as well as Qatar and Honduras. Understandably, he has conflicting emotions about his role in boosting morale for the soldiers: “I identify really strongly with their training, with their discipline,” he tells reporter Susan Dominus, but he’s nonetheless firmly opposed to the current U.S. government and the war in Iraq. Dominus fails to fully explore this inherent contradiction, perhaps because Rollins failed to fully explain himself. The closest we get to understanding the paradox from the former Black Flag singer’s perspective is this paragraph:

When soldiers confront Rollins about what they know about his politics – “Hey, man, you don’t like my boss” – Rollins tends to dodge the conversation. “I’m like, that doesn’t matter right now – here in Baghdad all that matters is that I want you home in one piece,” he said during an eight-hour van ride on one leg of the trip, recalling an exchange he has had several times. “The other stuff – we can have that discussion in Minneapolis when you’re home eight months from now. And we can have a debate, and I will whip your butt.”

And the closest we get to understanding the soldiers’ feelings about him is this:

A burly, 30-something explosives defuser … said he and his friends had a Rollins Band CD they’d play full-blast in their Humvee when they went out on a mission. “It got us pumped up,” he said of the ritual. So he was thrilled to meet Rollins – “we’re all superstoked,” he said – but told me after a few minutes of conversation that he’d have been even more excited to meet someone a little more pro-military. “Like Bruce Willis,” he said, “he’s cool. Or Toby Keith. He’s totally pro-military.” He was a little tired of “celebrities who get on the bandwagon and denounce the war and denounce Bush.”

Henry Rollins meets his audience. Photo by Mark Paterson for the New York Times

Perhaps the best news to come out of the piece is the fact that the U.S.O is willing to hire people like Rollins – and, believe it or not, Al Franken too. As President Bush told an audience in Argentina last week while rioting went on outside, and I’m paraphrasing from a speech I heard at the time (with a slight grin on my face), “Isn’t it wonderful that we have the freedom to dissent?”

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6 Comment(s)

  1. 15 November, 2005 at 1:36 pm

    Bruce Willis did make an album. And he felt the white man’s Blues too. Bruce is totally pro-white man’s Blues. He wasn’t just a fabulous celebrity jumping on the movie star forms a band and makes a shit record bandwagon.

  2. TheOnlyLivingBoyInStatenIsland

    15 November, 2005 at 4:28 pm

    The tear in this country that both right-wing and left-wing loonies hype might actually exist if indeed it gets to the point that the military starts picking willing entertainers and rejecting other willing entertainers to see the troops because they feel some are “more pro-military” than others. For all of Rollins’ carreer-long hullabaloo, he is doing as positive a thing as he could be doing and still stick by his beliefs. Bragg would probably sing “just remember, there are 2 sides to every story” which would be a little right of Jello Biafra giving the “Die for oil, sucker” spiel.

  3. 15 November, 2005 at 6:22 pm

    Gotta say Patrick,

    It really wouldn’t surprise me if the USO only booked cheerleaders rather than a genuine cross-section of American entertainers, including the dissenters and critics. After all, in almost every other capacity, that’s how our Government works. Fortunately, it seems that said Government does not yet control the USO. Fingers crossed it stays that way.


  4. Zobes

    18 November, 2005 at 2:19 pm

    If Billy Bragg ever performed for American troops he would definitely say too much. He could politicize an egg salad sandwich.

    Henry Rollins is only the latest musician to support fighting troops while opposing the conflict. Johnny Cash may have been the first, and he took a lot of crap for it. During a recording of one of his shows, I heard him explain that when people asked if he was a hawk, he said that he was a dove with claws.

  5. 22 November, 2005 at 10:37 am

    “He could politicize an egg salad sandwich.”

    Nice one.

    “During a recording of one of his shows, I heard him explain that when people asked if he was a hawk, he said that he was a dove with claws.”

    This is Cash, not Rollins, yes? Not a bad expression, is it? I’m sure there are many of us would describe ourselves the same way.


  6. Zobes

    22 November, 2005 at 12:18 pm

    I have seen Billy Bragg a bunch of times and have most of his recordings, but when it comes to his politics he loses me at a point. I am about as far left as I think I am going to get.

    I think that Cash was one of a kind in terms of the credibility he had in going over there and supporting the troops during a very unpopular war. When you consider his songs like “Ballad of Ira Hayes,” “Singin’ In Vietnam Talkin’ Blues,” and “What Is Truth,” he transcended any political category and spoke to so many people. He could say those things without people questioning his patriotism.


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