In choosing the five songs that would represent the military on Veterans Day 2014 I found myself in a bit of a conundrum. Although Veterans Day is when we celebrate those who had served our country, past or present, a lot of the hip-hop songs about military service are not a celebration – they’re outright criticism.
“In Vietnam a lot of niggaz died young/POW’s got hung/What the f#%! do I know about a grenade? .. And what if that pin gets stuck?/Several more casualties show up.” – Bushwick Bill
In fact it’s fair to say many of them question the fact that those called to serve over the years, whether by draft or by choice, were disproportionately from poor and/or urban economic backgrounds. The wealthy could find loopholes for their privileged children or enroll them in less dangerous branches of the armed forces (such as the National Guard) and when the draft was no longer mandatory the incentive to serve was college tuition and/or earning a living to support your family at home. If you come from money and can afford to pay for college it’s not a big lure.
“Why don’t Presidents fight the war?/Why do they always send the poor?” – Serj Tankian (System of a Down)
The conclusion I came to was that what veterans serve for and fight for is often branded as “our American freedom” and “the American way of life,” particularly when we’re reminded that “freedom has a price.” For those who have made the sacrifice either with their service to the country or the ultimate sacrifice of giving their life in combat, these five songs represent one of those core American values – freedom of speech. It may be galling to some conservatives that military veterans would make that sacrifice to defend the rights of those who criticize the military, but the liberty they fought for is not merely for those who sing their praise. The first amendment carries with it the power to offend – racist speech is offensive, flag burning is offensive, but defending even that speech which you find disagreeable is true liberty. It’s the one value I hope our military can export when they serve overseas – not our lifestyle, not our often flawed government, not our pop culture – how we cherish the right for everyone to have a voice in our society no matter what they have to say. These songs represent that freedom.
1. Jay-Z – “A Ballad for the Fallen Soldier”
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2. Eric B. & Rakim – “Casualties of War”
3. Canibus – “Patriots”
4. Lupe Fiasco – “Little Weapon”
5. Geto Boys – “F@%! a War”