Old Soldiers

This is the anniversary of General Douglas MacArthur’s farewell address, which included the catchphrase “Old Soliders Never Die, They Just Fade Away.”

Definitely not fading away here.

To my way of thinking, the line is more appropriate to describe the end of the perpetual Disc Jockey.
Dick Clark did just fade away, gradually vanishing like so many of the songs he promoted, the volume sliding down to an imperceptible nothing.

But for soldiers? I’m puzzled.

Why is just fading away any better or more appropriate for an old soldier than dying? Especially in a business where dying is such an ever present and immediate risk? We certainly know that young soldiers die – far too many of them. Why would old soldiers find any comfort in the prospect of a long fade? Or is this an expression of regret that they can’t go out in a blaze of glory like the young comrades they lost so many years ago? I don’t get the point. Soldiers? Anyone?

The famous line comes at the end of the speech, which was given to a Joint Session of Congress on April 19th, 1951.

“I still remember the refrain of one of the most popular barracks ballads of that day which proclaimed most proudly that old soldiers never die; they just fade away. And like the old soldier of that ballad, I now close my military career and just fade away, an old soldier who tried to do his duty as God gave him the light to see that duty.
Good Bye.”

The line comes from an old “barracks ballad”? I didn’t know that, and wondered if perhaps seeing the words to the ballad might shed some light on the sentiment. I didn’t find much on my first few tries with Google, but fortunately for me there’s Subtropic Bob, who writes a blog called “This Day In Quotes.”

Subtropic did some digging last year and managed to connect the quote to a hymn called “Kind Words Never Die”, which makes the case that kind words, sweet thoughts and human souls are eternal. Linking that idea to old soldiers was apparently a work of parody, and not a flattering one at that (what parody ever is?).

“Old soldiers never die,
Never die, never die,
Old soldiers never die —
They simply fade away.

Old soldiers never die,
Never die, never die,
Old soldiers never die —
Young ones wish they would.”

If this is actually the song MacArthur recalled, the proclamation about old soldiers sounds far from proud. But at the time he gave his speech, the General was looking back on a 52 year military career. It is entirely possible that this popular, poignant saying is actually a lyric lifted from a misremembered, cheeky song meant to mock the very same people who now shed a tear over it. The lesson for satirists – time wears away the sharp edges of your biting wit, and the joke is ultimately on you.

What would be a more modern version of MacArthur’s inadvertent transformation of a joke into into a poignant benediction? Imagine some long-serving college president made this comment as the final lines in a farewell speech …

“I still remember the refrain of one of the most popular dormitory ballads of that day which proclaimed most proudly that ‘in the end, I learned to bend, and did it their way.’ So now I close my career in academe, I say to you what is a man? What can I do? Open your books. Read chapter Two. And if it seems a bit routine don’t talk to me, go see the dean. They get their way. I get my pay. We do it … their way.”

What song lyrics would you lift for your Farewell Address?

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106 thoughts on “Old Soldiers”

  1. Rise and Shine Baboons!

    Lyrics are something that often go in one ear and out another for me. I can’t remember lyrics or jokes or poetry. People who can quote these words leave me green with envy, as well as in awe of them.

    My aging brain gave me only one answer to this question, one that is MacArthuresque for sure:

    Anything you can do I can do better
    I can do anything better than you.
    “Annie Get Your Gun”

    I doubt that those would be my parting words, but that is what popped into my head as an ungracious good-bye worthy of MacArthur’s arrogance.

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  2. old bloggers never die , they just stop hitting the enter button.

    how many lives can one people have
    to try to do the right thing
    how many shots will you take at that goal
    to try to make your life sing
    how many times will look deep inside
    to see the gifts that you bring

    the answer my friends
    is that when we reach our ends
    the wind blows and we blow with the wind

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  3. dick clark i once heard had a wife who would line him up with his day and put him in the car at 7 am with a driver and a calendar and tell him that these are the things on you agenda for today and he would get through the day going from one appointment to another. he had so much going on that every day was a multitasking masterpiece. the old days before cell phnes and conference calls and when having a meeting was how you got things done. look at what he got done. i think the time in the car between his appointments is when he realized how to handle the things he just discussed and als realized he needed to do them ow because the next meeting was going to give him more stuff to do.to go from etennally young to old and disabled seemed like a particularly cruel trick but he did the best he could to bounce back. he and kirk douglas tried to remind us theres a lite in there trying to get out like john prines old song . hello in there hello

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  4. In the book I wrote about my family, I describe how my dad sat about three feet from Douglas MacArthur when the general was about to negotiate the end of WW II with a delegation of Japanese military men. My father’s description of MacArthur was brilliant, for he summed up the theatricality of the man. He was a man who was intensely aware at all times of how he looked as he made history. The line about how old soldiers fading away is just MacArthur’s attempt to romanticize his own biography.

    I remember the joke a prof at my undergraduate school told. “When he retreated from the Philippines, MacArthur announced grandiosely ‘I shall return!’ MacArthur’s apparent plan was that he would return by walking on water, but Truman vetoed that.” I’ve always thought that if MacArthur met Jesus in Heaven, he’d expect Jesus to salute him.

    Sorry, Dale. Once again I have failed to answer your question. But don’t worry. I shall return!

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    1. Interesting. My roommate’s father had been a survivor of Santo Tomas internment camp, and had a grudge against MacArthur the rest of his life for abandoning the Philippines to the Japanese. Whether that was justified militarily and politically I don’t know, but he definitely hated MacArthur on a personal level as well, probably for the reasons you name.

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      1. I can’t speak for your roommate’s father, CG, but the main reason people have hated MacArthur historically is that he violated the principle of separation of the military from national politics. This isn’t codified in the Constitution, and yet in terms of precedent and practice it virtually is. To say it clearly: high generals should never try to influence foreign policy except by the advice they give, when asked by civilian authorities.

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        1. obviously his audience was there. eisenhauer realized there was an opportunity to be the man of the hour and did the quiet version of the heros welcome vs the grandiose macarthur version

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        2. Right, tim. Beyond that, Eisenhower was a surprisingly thoughtful man who was more aware of the limitations of the military elite than almost anyone else in America. In my lifetime the man I have most badly misjudged is Eisenhower. I thought of him as a boring old bureaucrat, and I laughed at his inarticulate moments. He now seems amazingly prescient to me. In my defense, I was just a teenager when I misread him so badly! Just as George Washington was wise about the limits of presidential power in a democracy, Ike was wise about the dangers of the “military-industrial complex.” There was a time when liberals, convinced Ike was a lightweight, believed someone else typed up that speech for him and slipped it on his lectern when he wasn’t looking. But that speech reflects true wisdom won over a lifetime in the military.

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  5. Thinking about Ann Reed (thanks for the link Beth-Ann) gets me to the perhaps cheeky answer of, Power Tools are a Girls Best Friend “A kiss may be grand but it won’t fix the plumbing…” In a different direction, thinking on hymn tunes gets me to Lord of the Dance, which is hardly parody, and gets a bit dark with all that “devil on your back” stuff…but it does give you the festive phrase, “dance, then, wherever you may be,” and the potentially creepy at a funeral or farewell, “they buried my body, they thought I’d gone…”

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    1. Oh, weird, I’d forgotten about the Christian version of “Lord of the Dance”! I’m too used to the pagan version(s), which are less dark than either the original they’re adapted from or the John Barleycorn myth they retell:
      I sleep in the kernel, and I dance in the rain
      I dance in the wind, and thru the waving grain
      And when you cut me down, I care nothing for the pain;
      In the Spring I’m the Lord of the Dance once again!

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      1. Probably nothing about whipping and stripping in the pagan version either, I’m guessing – for such a bright tune, there are some pretty dark lyrics (which, given the subject I guess is not too surprising, but still).

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  6. From the point of view of those left behind — “What’ll I Do?” sung by Rufus Wainright and the McGarrigles is my favorite recording of the song. I couldn’t find a UTube link, but it’s simply lovely, music and lyrics are inseparable.

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    1. That’s truly a lovely song. In case you don’t know, it is on the remarkable 1998 family compilation album “The McGarrigle Hour.” The singing is shared Rufus and the McGarrigles (Kate and Anna). Loudon Wainwright has always interested me. From his marriage to Kate McGarrigle he gave us singers Martha and Rufus Wainwright. From his marriage to Suzzy Roche he gave us singer Lucy Wainwright Roche. I like his tastes in women, but he must be quite a creep. His kids have written at least three songs about how much they hate him.

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      1. dont ask my kids how they feel about me at the wrong moment. if they needed an outlet to discuss their childhood traumas and were songwriters id be toast.

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      2. Yes, thanks, Steve, we do have tate McGarrigle album and just dug it out again today. It’s great. Didn’t know that LW factoid, though, and I’m never sure how much I really want to know about performers’ personal lives, particularly if it’s something that ever after lurks in the back of my mind when listening to the music.

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  7. Two lyrics come to mind. I think my family would all agree that the lyrics to “I Did it My Way” capture my tendency to boss and my ability to get what I want. I don’t really like those lyrics, and they seem too Ayn Rand-ish. I think I would prefer the lyrics to The Garden Song for my farewell address. With those lyrics in mind, I am happy to report that we are having a lovey, drizzly rain right now, and the Savoy cabbages seeds are starting to sprout in the cowpots I have sitting in my office window.

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  8. Morning all. Dale, love this line: “The lesson for satirists – time wears away the sharp edges of your biting wit, and the joke is ultimately on you.”

    I was actually just thinking about this yesterday, as I sat in The Church of the Incarnation listening to the music at a funeral. If I had to choose just one song, I think it would have to be one of my all time favorites:

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  9. That’s interesting, VS. I almost chose that song moments ago. The passing of this old has-been writer is of no significance whatever, but the occasion is appropriate for expressing appreciation of the experience of living.

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  10. Good morning to all. Here’sis the best I can do this morning:

    Better World
    Words and Music by Woody Guthrie

    There’s a better world that’s a-coming
    There’s a better world that’s a-coming
    There’s a better world that’s a-coming
    I’ll tell you why why why
    And don’t you see see see
    And don’t you know know know
    Hey hey hey
    There’s a better world that’s a-coming
    I’ll tell you why why why
    There’s a better world that’s a-coming
    I’ll tell you why

    There’s a better world that’s a-coming
    Tell you why why why
    Better world a-coming I’ll tell you why
    Out of marching out of battling
    You can hear the chains a-rattling
    There’s a better world that’s a-coming
    I’ll tell you why

    Now there’s a better world that’s a-coming
    And there’s a better world that’s a-coming
    And there’s a better world that’s a-coming
    I’ll tell you why why why
    Why why why
    There’s a better world that’s a-coming
    And don’t you see see see
    Better world that’s a-coming
    And don’t you see see see
    Better world that’s a-coming
    And don’t you see

    Well there’s a better world that’s a-coming
    I’ll tell you why why why
    better world that’s a-coming I’ll tell you why
    We will beat’em on the land in the sea and in the sky
    There’s a better world that’s a-coming
    I’ll tell you why

    Well there’s a better world that’s a-coming
    Don’t you see see see
    Better world that’s a-coming don’t you see
    When we’ll all be union and we’ll all be free
    There’s a better world that’s coming
    don’t you see

    There’s a better world a-coming
    Don’t you see see see
    Better world that’s coming don’t you see
    When we’ll all be union and we’ll all be free
    There’s a better world that’s a-coming
    Don’t you see

    ——————————————————————————–
    © Copyright 1963 (renewed) by Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc & TRO-Ludlow Music, Inc (BMI).
    Contact The Publisher-
    The Richmond Organization (TRO)
    Attention: Kathryn Ostien
    266 West 37th Street , 17th Floor / New York , NY 10018

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  11. Morning–

    I, too, have a hard time catching song lyrics. But I have planned my funeral music. Just the refrain from the Rolling Stones ‘Time Is On My Side’ since, really, I have all the time in the world then. And just for fun Rudy Vallee’s ‘Tavern In the Square’.
    I found this version on You Tube this morning:
    [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1V_KomqNtKY?rel=0&w=420&h=315%5D
    Wally Cox sings. Well, “sings” I guess it should be. I had kinda forgotten about Wally Cox so I include it for your edification and delight.

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      1. I’m at least as ancient as you, Steve, and Mr. Peepers is the show that brought Wally.to my attention.

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  12. So far I have this to offer, but I hope to think of others and be back later.

    Words & Music by Bob Franke
    It’s so easy to dream of the days gone by
    It’s a hard thing to think of the times to come
    But the grace to accept ev’ry moment as a gift
    Is a gift that is given to some
    Chorus:
    What can you do with your days but work & hope
    Let your dreams bind your work to your play
    What can you do with each moment of your life
    But love til you’ve loved it away
    Love til you’ve loved it away

    There are sorrows enough for the whole world’s end
    There are no guarantees but the grave
    And the life that I live & the time I have spent
    Are a treasure too precious to save

    As it was so it is, as it is shall it be
    And it shall be while lips that kiss have breath
    Many waters indeed only nurture Love’s seed
    And its flower overshadows the power of death

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    1. That’s one of my favorites too, Barbara, and on the play list for my own memorial. Hope you’ll be there in fine singing form :-) I’m counting on you and Chris Evans.

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  13. This post makes me think of a more recent political episode of hearing what you want to hear – the Reagan campaign’s mischaracterization of Springsteen’s Born In the USA as a “message of hope”.

    I did a search about it and came up with a clip of Glenn Beck nattering at http://bigthink.com/ideas/19039 – and was rewarded with few giggles scanning the comments section. Someone wrote that Beck has been “criticized by conservatives and jewish rabbits.” Forget the anarchist squirrels on the rampage – those jewish rabbits are always persecuting somebody, aren’t they?

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  14. I’m running straight from work to babysitting the grandbabies till 9 pm or so when I will finally be able to sit down and listen to all the great music videos. Thanks everyone!

    Speaking of fading away, or NOT, Bill is going with our other daughter and fiancee to Leon Redbone at the Cedar tonight. Lucky ducks!

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    1. Saw him ages ago at the Whole Coffeehouse in the Coffman Union. Truly an odd duck. He apparently didn’t like people singing along on songs they knew, so he’d change tempo midstream to throw would be singers off. It was an effective deterrent.

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    2. I haven’t been tracking him since the we saw him at Le Jeune Lune quite a few years ago. He was over an hour late with no explanation or apology, and that was before they got their somewhat more comfortable seating. I may have boycotted him for a few years after that but I guess I’ve forgiven him, because when I read this I wished I’d know early enough to go. What was the report from the concert goers, Robin?

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      1. I’ll let Bill answer that one. From what you say, and he said, sounds like LR is still somewhat loosey goosey.

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        1. A late review. Leon is still in good voice, but it seemed as if he was saving it for someone else. Maybe 45 minutes of singing in a two hour show. The rest of the time he just doodled around, or played the guitar and whistled. The first six jokes he made about a song being a sing-along or not being a sing-along were amusing on a diminishing scale. The next twelve were just tiresome. My daughter, who was also at the show, suggested that maybe he was getting senile, but it turns out he’s younger than me, so that can’t be it.
          I would spend my money on a cd rather than sit through another of his shows.

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      1. Clearly from the comments on the article, a few folks have a beef with dead cows in a cabin. (Really – read the comments – the cow poetry really milks the subject).

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        1. Don’t know that they did. Personally I’m really saddened to know that these poor animals froze and/or starved to death. Had to be a pretty miserable way to go.

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        2. I suppose it should be noted that goats would likely have been bright enough to get themselves back out of the cabin. Still, a sad end for these critters.

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    1. Holy Cow! (or not) – near Aspen. We might have seen this cabin from the train window. (Vacation by Amtrak.)

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  15. Lighten up! It’s a good question why.
    But you don’t know the answer, and neither do I.
    So, meanwhile let’s just all lighten up.

    And remember that you’re standing on a planet that’s evolving,
    And revolving at nine hundred miles an hour.
    It’s orbiting at ninety miles a second, so it’s reckoned,
    ‘Round the Sun that is the source for all our power.
    The Sun and you and me and all the stars that we can see
    Are moving at a million miles a day
    In an outer spiral arm at forty thousand miles an hour
    In the galaxy we call the Milky Way.
    In an outer spiral arm at forty thousand miles an hour
    In the galaxy we call the Milky Way….

    (©1984 Eric Idle, Kay-Gee-Bee Music/Virgin Songs/Jim Post Music) From the album The Crooner From Outer Space (FR 1905) 1984 Freckle Records

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  16. IN DEAD EARNEST

    If I should die before I wake,
    All my bone and sinew take
    Put me in the compost pile
    To decompose me for a while.

    Worms, water, sun will have their way,
    Returning me to common clay
    All that I am will feed the trees
    And little fishes in the seas.

    When radishes and corn you munch,
    You may be having me for lunch
    And then excrete me with a grin,
    Chortling, “There goes Lee again.”

    ‘Twill be my happiest destiny
    To die and live eternally.

    Words by Lee Hays (1979) Music by Pete Seeger (1979)
    (c) 1981, 1982 by Sanga Music Inc.

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  17. I’m glad I read this post at the end of today or I would have thought about this all day. I too have a recollection of MacArthur being about himself and giving little credit to others ( the real hero was his Dad); but when I think about a Song for my last days I turn to Bill Staines, “Sweet Wyoming Home” I love his simple lyrics that just jump off his lines, like”when the shadow is nipping at my heels,” and the hubris of thinking you can ride a Bull and win…” the Bull just don’t give a damn,” I think now I think about returning home. this has been a long year of saying goodbyes to some wonderful friends, Jim Ed among them, I have to close or I will cry.

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    1. Thank you Sue and PJ both. I’m listening in my mind to Rosalie Sorrels singing Sweet Wyoming Home and that will be a sweet good night for me.

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      1. Having a senior moment. Can’t find any evidence that she ever recorded Sweet Wyoming Home, although I could swear that was Rosalie Sorrels singing it in my head. How did she get there, that’s what I want to know?

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        1. Rosalie is a clever old woman, she’ll gt into your head by hook or by crook. I’ve never heard her sing Sweet wyoming Home, though I’m certain she knows it.

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    1. Morning PJ, I think you are correct! We’ll haveto send strong coffee to him so he is nudged to remember this. Great songs on the trail yesterday. Like a visit to TLGMS.

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    1. Not to worry Beth-Ann and PJ. I goofed up with a detail last night. It was just corrected, and a guest post from Clyde should appear shortly! It’s a good one, so stay tuned!

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  18. I bet Dale is in hiding fromn outraged North Dakotans-all Minnesotans ought to be in hiding after one of your Republican legislators made such disparaging remarks about the North Dakota State capitol building. Ok, it looks like a grain elevator, but it was built during the Great Depression and it is in Art Deco style, a style not known for rococco flourishes. It works and we have billions in the bank, so there! nya nya nya!

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    1. our minnesota legislators have all their taste in their mouths. i love the art deco capitol. minnesota is having difficuly coming up with the 700 million to fix the deteriorating walls and put a new layer of gold leaf on the roof.

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  19. so what is the topic on the day with no topic? this is the answer many non bloggers have to deal with daily. dale gives us all direction on brain entry to the world. he is like my grandfather who would get up on those cold winter mornings in fargo and throw the coal in the stove so the rest of the family could have a little warmth to enter the day. thanks dale for the warmth and the nice entry to the day over the years. if i had to pick between you and my nice warm bath and a cup of tea to start the day i would have a very difficut time. there is no higher compliment than that.

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  20. in honor of levon helm. lets have your band memories.
    heck its something and i loved the band. levon had a long hiatus from singing with a throat cancer that he beat and came out with the great dirt farmer cd a short while back. enjoy em while they are here. its all we can do. saw leon russell the other night. he is crickety and it is difficult to walk. getting old like we all do.
    the weight is one of my favorite band tunes. how bout you?

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    1. I think I could listened to The Weight on a repeat loop for two days straight and never get tired of it. I’ve had an ongoing love affair with that song since I was ten.

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