On November 29, 2023, former Secretary of State Henry Alfred Kissinger, aged 100 years, departed the Earth to make his acquaintance with Lucifer. Much has been and will be made of the legacy of one of the most notorious and rightfully reviled war criminals in world history, the vast majority of whose atrocities will be covered and discussed far more thoroughly, accurately, and perhaps appropriately in publications other than the blog of a Chicago college radio station - one such place is the Rolling Stone obituary for the man, which faithfully accounts for many of his historic “accomplishments” and his psychopathic indifference to human suffering across the globe. We can leave the history to the historians, but one thing we do know is that in 1968, when President Lyndon Johnson opened peace talks with the North Vietnamese for the first time in an effort to end the interminable, wasteful, and pointless Vietnam War, Kissinger fed intel from the talks to the Nixon campaign, leaking sensitive national security information to sabotage the negotiations and ensure his own place in power once Nixon was elected. The war raged on for five more years, and thousands more American lives were lost, not to mention Vietnamese lives, or Cambodian and Laotian lives once Nixon and Kissinger expanded the war into other, neutral nations without Congressional approval.
For decades, from the onset of the war in the 1950s until well after its conclusion almost 20 years later, Vietnam proved an ample source of powerful imagery and inspiration for anti-war art. Whether it be the brutal and bleak nihilism of movies like Coppola’s Apocalypse Now or unforgettable real-life images like the infamous photo of a murdered student protester at Kent State or that of a Buddhist monk immolating himself in protest of the US-supported South Vietnamese government, there is no shortage of stark visual reminders of the physical and spiritual scarring and immense human cost that the war inflicted upon Southeast Asia and the American people conscripted into the conflict regardless of their will to fight. Naturally, musicians got in on the act as well. Countless classic songs were written about Vietnam through the decades, spanning the auditory spectrum from the fiery screed of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” to the subversively danceable “19” by Paul Hardcastle. However, for my money, there is one song in particular that most succinctly and powerfully articulates the psychic destruction wrought by Kissinger and the many others who perpetuated the war, and it does so by eschewing the massive anti-war scope of many other songs in favor of a much smaller and more focused approach, instead telling the story of a single Vietnam veteran who stands in for innumerable others: “Sam Stone” by John Prine.
John Prine was one of the greatest artists Chicago has ever produced, a son of Maywood and a product of the Old Town School of Folk Music back when it was actually located in Old Town. He was also a veteran of the United States Army, having been drafted into the service during Vietnam, and though he was never actually sent to the front lines (he served as a mechanic and engineer in Germany) he had many friends who were, and not all of them came back to the States after their tours. Of course, just because you made it home didn’t mean you were okay and everything was back to normal. War irrevocably changes people, and the opening lines of “Sam Stone” reflect a story that was all too common to Prine and many others who personally knew soldiers who had returned after witnessing and experiencing the horrors of post-industrial combat up close.
“Sam Stone came home / to his wife and family
After serving in the conflict overseas
And the time that he served / had shattered all his nerves
And left a little shrapnel in his knee”
Many veterans who returned were left wounded, disfigured, disabled, and psychologically afflicted, with little if any support from the government or the people and communities around them. This was not like World War II, where the soldiers came back as heroes and victors who had saved the world from the Nazi menace - rather they returned in defeat with Vietnam having fallen to the Communists and faced a population of angry countrymen who had turned against the war long ago. Given these harsh realities and the physical and emotional anguish many of them endured daily, it’s not a surprise that many of them turned to drugs:
“But the morphine eased the pain / and the grass grew ‘round his brain
And gave him all the confidence he lacked
With a Purple Heart and a monkey on his back”
This leads us to the song’s devastating chorus, which opens and closes with two of the most plainly stated and brutally effective metaphors you’ll ever hear: The party’s over, God has left us to our own wicked devices, the children always understand more than they let on, and the end always comes sooner than you want it to.
“There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm / where all the money goes
Jesus Christ died for nothing I suppose
Little pitchers have big ears / Don’t stop to count the years
Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios”
By the end of the first chorus, it’s all too obvious how the rest of the story goes and where our friend Sam is headed by the end of the song, but Prine spares us no details in the subsequent two verses. First, he sketches out Sam’s descent into addiction, resorting to odd jobs and robbery once the military money runs out just to keep the heroin coming. In the end, it’s all worth it for the sweet relief that the drugs can bring him from the pain and suffering, and everything else takes a back seat to the chase, even his family.
“Sam Stone’s welcome home / didn’t last too long
He went to work when he’d spent his last dime
And Sammy took to stealing / when he got that empty feeling
For a hundred dollar habit without overtime
And the gold rolled through his veins / Like a thousand railroad trains
And eased his mind in the hours that he chose
While the kids ran around wearing other people’s clothes”
Of course, there’s only one way things can go in the song’s unforgettable final verse. When Sam’s time runs out, Prine renders his final moments with gruesome and vivid clarity. He leaves nothing to the imagination, allowing the listener to feel the stale air in the room and imagine the aftermath when his loved ones stumble on his final resting place, having already known that the unthinkable was inevitable, but struggling to process it all the same.
“Sam Stone was alone / when he popped his last balloon
Climbing walls while sitting in a chair
Well he played his last request / while the room smelled just like death
With an overdose hovering in the air”
He wraps things up with the proverbial and literary killshot, the stanza of the song that most resolutely stands out as a defined image in my mind, and the lyrics that have wrung tears from my eyes more times than any other song ever has. In the end, Sam Stone served his country, and his country repaid him with crippling disability and a 21-gun salute. America lost the war in Vietnam: 20 years of carnage was ultimately for nothing, more than 50,000 young men never came home, and thousands more still were abandoned and left to rot by the military they were never given the choice to opt out of.
“But life had lost its fun / and there was nothing to be done
But trade his house that he bought on the G.I. Bill
For a flag draped casket on a local heroes’ hill”
Henry Kissinger is dead. He outlived millions of other people from dozens of nations across the globe who died as a direct consequence of his decisions, and millions of others still who did not, John Prine included. To the very end, he was treated as royalty by the American political establishment, and he has been eulogized fawningly by many mainstream media outlets in the wake of his passing. Fortunately, many people have come to understand the kind of man he was and the impact he had on the world in his century of life, and hopefully, there will be further reassessment of his legacy in the years to come. When you think of Kissinger, think of Sam Stone. Think of the thousands of American men who were too young to even vote when they were tossed into the meat grinder in Vietnam, and think of the millions of Southeast Asian, Bangladeshi, Chilean, and other people all over the world who died before their time. Those are the people truly worth mourning and commemorating.