60s Icon Turns Veterans Advocate

From the Berkeley Voice, November 12, 1998

County Joe McDonald, a U.S. Navy and anti-war veteran, recently played a leading role in a Berkeley effort to recognize the men and women who died in the Vietnam War.

McDonald, made famous by the performance of his song "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag" during the Woodstock Music festival of 1969, has fought for the recognition of Vietnam veterans, maintaining "We should honor the warriors but not the war."

The '60s rock star began working on such issues years ago when approached by veterans seeking a platform for their concerns. One of the first groups McDonald supported was "Vietnam Veterans Against The War," an organization of former soldiers known for passionate demonstrations, including one where they defiantly flung war medals at the Pentagon.

"I always believed war veterans were the best testimony against war" McDonald said. They knew exactly what it was -- they had experienced it personally, whereas everybody else was talking vicariously And that's dangerous because they didn't know what they were talking about. So I always enjoyed giving (veterans groups) a platform."

During the 1980s, Country Joe began receiving calls from "main-stream" veterans organization as oldtimers were gradually replaced by Vietnam vets. These groups asked McDonald to help them with post-Vietnam issues, including exposure to Agent Orange -- a poisonous spray linked to birth defects and cancer - as well as post-traumatic stress and problems related to inadequate medical treatment from theVeteran's Administration.

McDonald also supported efforts to upgrade military discharges doled out during the Vietnam War "There were many bad discharges given out without justification," McDonald said. "People would protest the war or wouldn't wear their uniform right and they would be given a bad conduct discharge иии or even a dishonorable discharge. Such discharges "affected their jobs," McDonald said, "as well as many other aspects of their lives."

Three years ago, McDonald and others helped establish an "electronic war memorial" on the world wide web home page of the City of Berkeley. It is an interactive site that pays tribute to the 22 Berkeley residents who died in the Vietnam War.

"Each name has a spot for people to leave their comments, and each page is unique in that the families have given us photographs and mementos of their relatives who died in the war," McDonald said.

"There's also a guest book and a comments page, and in the three years we've had it up, we've been visited by a half a million people from all over the world. The families loved it: it was a healing experience for everyone involved with the memorial."

McDonald also played a role in bringing the "Vietnam Traveling Wall" to Berkeley a year ago.

"The families loved that. It sat right in Civic Center park. And then we put up a bronze plaque two years ago on the Memorial Building listing the 22 (war causalities). Last year" he said, "we dedicated a Korean War memorial for Berkeleyans who died in that war."

Has Country Joe 'sold out?'

There are some who have accused McDonald of "selling out," suggesting his efforts to honor the war dead and re-open the Veterans Building somehow glorifies war. His response: "Again, we should honor the warriors, not the war.

Referring to the nation as a whole, the long-time Berkeley resident suggested "A lot of people-- the vast majority of the Vietnam generation -- didn't do anything, really. They didn't protest the war, they didn't join the military, they weren't drafted. They just like watched television and led their lives.

"There were 50 million people in our generation so what I'm talking about is 35 or 40 million people who really didn't do much but later on kind of got with the program. Those people are telling us they feel guilty. So they have manifested this hostility rather than a sympathy for veterans. It is kind of convenient escapism.

"As the years go on, that's disappearing more and more," McDonald added. "So on Veteran's Day we're given the opportunity to heal from the war and the division in the generation, including the people who didn't do anything, the people who protested the war, and the people who fought in Vietnam. All of them were sort of condemned by the World War II generation as 'losers' anyway -- the whole entire generation."

McDonald, who was in the Navy from 1959 to 1962, was quick to point out "A lot of people still don't understand that when you're in the military you're governed by something called the 'uniform code of military justice.' Soldiers are in a system where they're not allowed to question anything. They have to do what they're told or else they'll go to jail.

"And in the Vietnam War, they were drafted.

"In this country," he continued, "everybody does what the Congress decides. The Congress decided the war was okay, and the Commander-in-Chief decided it was okay. I always knew that when you're in the military you don't have any choice, you really have to follow your orders or go AWOL and try to escape, or even kill yourself. Your choices are pretty limited."

Hey there all of you big strong men

McDonald was one of just a handful of rock stars who know first-hand what it was like to be in the military. It was perhaps this insight that led him to write his classic piece, "Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag" -- a song sung by both those who opposed the war and soldiers.

"My song, it was this unique thing about being anti-Vietnam War, but it wasn't anti-soldier at all, really. Only the people who had power to make the war happen or make the war not happen -- they are the ones who are to blame.

"When Secretary of State Robert MacNamara and all the leaders pretty much all said (the war) was all a mistake, history proved that we were right," McDonald declared. "This was pretty easy for them to say because they didn't really fight the war. The war was fought in Vietnam and it was fought on the streets of America."

While McDonald takes exception with those who still tend to blame war on soldiers, he also insists that anti-war activists were wronged as well.

According to the songwriter, to this day there remains a widely held notion that peace activists spat upon soldiers returning from Vietnam. Though he concedes there may have been isolated cases of such behavior, the musician insists such views are little more than "a rumor and a myth. In the long run it has been proven that the activists on both sides of that fence had more in common with each other than others, really. Very few 'spitters' have been found."

However, McDonald concedes "there is a certain animosity that exists between civilians and military veterans, that's for sure. I think that the underlying reason why is that you feel damn lucky you're not one. No one wants to be a war veteran, really. There are very few warriors. They're out there, men and women, but not very many are born to be warriors."

The former hippie band leader said "The average person doesn't want anything to do with (war). And when they see somebody that actually has had something to do with it, particularly men, but more and more so with women, it challenges certain things you think about yourself -- such as bravery, honor, courage, valor ... these are old fashioned words just hanging around in the wake of the Aquarian Age, so to speak."

Thirty years after his appearance at Woodstock, Country Joe McDonald has settled down as a family man.

Though he continues to perform and support a broad array of progressive causes, if you didn't know anything about his past, you'd think McDonald was just another middle-aged man enjoying life.

Last week McDonald's front porch was decorated by pumpkins carved by two of his five children.

Inside the house, two young children romped about, aroused by the aroma of dinner cooking in the kitchen.

When a photographer snapped photos of McDonald, his kids giggled, climbed behind their dad and added "rabbit ears" to his portrait. And he loved every minute of it.

This Friday, McDonald will be performing live at Oxford Elementary School as part of a benefit to raise funds for art and science classes.

It is a special event for the singer who seems to truly enjoy being a father.

And just last night, McDonald was honored by "Swords to Plowshares," an organization founded in 1974 to serve San Francisco's war veterans.

Just as McDonald's mother; Florence played an active role in the City of Berkeley -- one that people continue to remember and honor -- it is safe to say that Country Joe will one day be remembered for his many contributions as well.

Yet, despite all the signs that suggest he has settled down, if one was to suggest to McDonald that one day he, too. would be honored for his work, Country Joe would undoubtedly answer with the fish cheer.

James Carter