Songs of Healing in a World at War

Country Joe McDonald's songs denounce the atrocities of war and pay tribute to Vietnam War combat nurses and the legendary icon of mercy, Florence Nightingale, for bravely bringing medical care into war zones.
Joe McDonald at Florence Nightingale’s grave in gravesite at East Wellow, England. Photo: David Bennett Cohen

Joe McDonald at Florence Nightingale’s grave in England at St. Margaret’s Church in East Wellow, Hampshire. Photo: David Bennett Cohen


by Terry Messman

When Country Joe McDonald, one of the major anti-war voices of the Vietnam era, began expressing support and solidarity for military veterans and combat nurses, his eyes were opened to a fuller understanding of the issues of war and peace, and he began writing songs that enlarged our vision of nonviolence and the peace movement.

As he listened to the troops forced to fight the nation’s wars, and learned from combat nurses who cared for grievously wounded and dying soldiers, McDonald’s songs became more deeply expressive of the values of compassion and reconciliation. A seeming paradox lies at the heart of his work: Reverence for life was born anew amidst the atrocities of war.

McDonald has been a voice for peace for 50 years, stretching all the way back to his days as an anti-war folk singer on the streets of Berkeley in 1965, through his performances at massive antiwar demonstrations in the late 1960s, and up until the present day, when he still sings for peace at anti-war protests and veterans events.

A traveling troubadour for peace, McDonald has performed at anti-nuclear actions at Livermore Lab in California and at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. He has sung for small homeless sleep-outs in Berkeley and gigantic peace rallies at the U.S. Capitol.

Along the way, he has composed a remarkable body of peace anthems. Yet he has also enlarged our understanding of the goals of the peace movement by insisting that the soldiers sent into battle are also victims of war, and that military veterans need to be welcomed home and offered justice when they return.

I interviewed Country Joe McDonald in the North Berkeley home he shares with his wife and family. Joe has been married for 32 years to Kathy McDonald, and he has five children. His wife Kathy is a labor and delivery nurse and midwife. A niece and daughter are nurses. His brother retired as a nurse practitioner from Kaiser after 36 years.

During the interview, I read to McDonald the words of Florence Nightingale, the Crimean War nurse who has become one of his most cherished heroes. Nightingale said, “I stand at the altar of the murdered men and while I live I fight their cause.”

That one sentence speaks volumes. In saying she stands at the altar, she tells us that soldiers have been sacrificed in war, and that their lives are sacred to her. In saying she fights their cause “while she lives,” she dedicates her entire life to them.

The Murdered Men

When I asked McDonald what those words meant to him, he said: “I stand at the altar of the murdered men.”

“I love the word murdered. MURDERED. These men were murdered. They didn’t serve their country. They were murdered. They were murdered not by the enemy. They were murdered by war. They were murdered by their government.”

McDonald has lifted his own voice time and time again for the murdered men, the soldiers and the veterans. He consistently tried to give a voice to the GIs on the front lines, the working-class kids shipped off to hellish fields of slaughter they had no part in creating.

He saw no contradiction between writing anthems of peace in defense of the children and civilians killed in Vietnam, Central America, Chile and Iraq; and in also speaking out for the soldiers slain in battle or killed after returning home from wartime exposure to Agent Orange.

Listening to the views of military veterans and Vietnam War combat nurses finally led him to the great icon of compassion and mercy, Florence Nightingale, often called the founder of nursing.

The Girl Next Door (Combat Nurse)

Even though 7,465 women were Vietnam veterans, the role of women in the military went largely ignored until Lynda Van Devanter, an army surgical nurse who had been stationed at an evacuation hospital in South Vietnam, spoke out about the forgotten women who had served in Vietnam.

When Van Devanter told veterans groups that they had ignored the women who had served next to them in Vietnam, McDonald took it to heart, and wrote a powerful song that describes what happens when the girl next door becomes a combat nurse. (“The girl next door” was Van Devanter’s own description of her life before Vietnam.)

Lynda Van Devanter became a leader in bringing national attention to women veterans struggling with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and exposure to Agent Orange. She was the founder and executive director of the Women’s Project of the Vietnam Veterans of America, directing studies of the terrible health problems and PTSD suffered by women veterans. She maintained that Vietnam veterans were ‘’a forgotten minority,’’ but the women who had served as nurses were ‘’the most forgotten.’’

McDonald’s song “The Girl Next Door (Combat Nurse)” describes how combat nurses save lives in the most horrific circumstances. It also gives an unforgettable account of the torment that afflicted the nurse when she returned home, so much so that her childhood friends can’t understand why she is not fun anymore.

“But a vision of the wounded

screams inside her brain

And the girl next door

will never be the same.”

It’s an indelible image: “A vision of the wounded screams inside her brain.”

Van Devanter struggled with terrifying hallucinations and recurring nightmares of the wounded soldiers she had cared for in Vietnam, and when she returned home, her life was never the same.

Finally, she fell victim to a fatal disease she had carried home from the battlefield. The Vietnam Veterans of America attributed her death to a vascular disease from wartime exposure to Agent Orange.

McDonald has great respect for Lynda Van Devanter, Rose Sandecki and combat nurses who nursed soldiers in Vietnam, then came home and helped veterans deal with the fallout of war, the diseases caused by Agent Orange, and the psychological damage that ruined so many lives.

Rose Sandecki served as an Army Nurse Captain in Vietnam. Her painful experiences while nursing badly wounded and dying soldiers led her to become leader of a Veterans Administration outreach center dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after the war.

When McDonald told Sandecki how Florence Nightingale returned to England from the Crimean War and refused to talk to her family, or the press, or anybody, and just snuck home in private, Sandecki told him that she had come home in secret in exactly the same way from Vietnam.

The Lady with the Lamp

It seems predestined that McDonald’s desire for veterans to be treated with respect and understanding — instead of being written off by their own government — would lead him straight to the woman who provided medical care, compassion and friendship to thousands of soldiers dying alone and friendless on nameless battlefields — Florence Nightingale.

He had soon read everything he could find about Florence Nightingale’s pioneering work in battlefield nursing during the Crimean War. He was so impressed by her dedication and compassion that he went on a pilgrimage to England, visiting her home in Embley, her summer home in Derbyshire, and her gravesite at East Wellow. He journeyed to the Selimiye Barracks Hospital in Scutari (Turkey) where she cared for the victims of the Crimean War.

McDonald finally compiled a comprehensive archive of her life and times, and created a Florence Nightingale website. He recently devoted his entire archive to the UCSF Nursing School.

He also began offering a “Tribute to Florence Nightingale” that tells her story in a 50-minute musical and spoken-word performance. McDonald literally becomes her voice during this tribute, reciting her words with a fiery urgency and performing several inspiring songs about nursing. His tribute is a revelation of her compassion and dedication for the front-line soldiers wounded, dying and nearly forgotten by the world.

Florence Nightingale gave comfort to thousands of gravely ill and wounded soldiers during the Crimean War. In doing so, she created a compassionate new standard for battlefield medical care. She trained 38 volunteer nurses and 15 nuns and began nursing soldiers at Selimiye Barracks in Scutari (near Istanbul, Turkey) in November 1854. During the first brutal winter, more than 4,000 soldiers died at Scutari from battle wounds, typhus, cholera and dysentery.

In his tribute, McDonald explained that along with her pioneering role in combat nursing, Nightingale defied the patriarchy of her day to become a strong advocate for the independence and rights of women.

“In the end,” McDonald said, “she was to bring a health and comfort to the sick of the world as had never been seen nor conceived of before. And to the idle and disrespected women of her time, and forever after, she brought forth a profession and work and respect and independence never seen before.”

“The lady with the lamp.” Florence Nightingale at Scutari with her lamp at a patient’s bedside in the Crimean War. Lithograph of a painting of Nightingale by Henrietta Rae.

“The lady with the lamp.” Florence Nightingale at Scutari with her lamp at a patient’s bedside in the Crimean War. Lithograph of a painting of Nightingale by Henrietta Rae.


Tribute to Florence Nightingale

His admiration for her acts of mercy led him to a deepening understanding of her life. In his “Tribute to Florence Nightingale,” McDonald said, “This woman who never had children of her own now feels the tenderness and protectiveness of a mother for the wounded, maimed and dying soldiers she calls her children.”

That insight runs very deep. Nightingale was one of the rare women in Victorian England who rejected the patriarchy, rejected marriage, and chose a career of caring for dying soldiers, instead of having children of her own. She calls the dying soldiers her own children and McDonald strives to remind the world of her acts of love and mercy for her wounded “soldier-children,” and her struggle to forge a new path of independence and achievement for women.

Nightingale was not only the soldier’s friend. She was a fierce warrior on their behalf, and McDonald gives voice to her “state of chronic rage” against the military system that had abandoned thousands of soldiers to misery and death. With a kind of furious urgency, he recites Nightingale’s description of that “long dreadful winter” in Scutari.

“I am in a state of chronic rage, I who saw men come down through all that long, dreadful winter without any other covering than a dirty blanket and a pair of old regimental trousers, when we knew the stores were bursting with warm clothing. Living skeletons, devoured by vermin, ulcerated, hopeless, speechless, dying as they wrapped their heads in their blankets and spoke never a word.”

As McDonald pointed out in our interview, Nightingale was known as the soldier’s only friend who nursed them when they were wounded and sick, and wrote to their families when they died. No one had done that before for the families of soldiers slain in battle.

Nightingale said, “I personally tended two thousand such needless deaths in that terrible winter when the ink froze in my inkwell as I wrote those endless last letters home, when the patients’ limbs and boots froze together and had to be cut apart.”

A vision of caregiving

McDonald’s work in studying Florence Nightingale’s lifelong acts of mercy and caregiving may be the culmination of his own lifelong search for answers to the great questions of war and peace. McDonald emphasizes that Nightingale denounced the system that caused the murder and destruction of countless soldiers, while offering the world a vision of compassion and caregiving.

Nightingale’s vision brings together and unites the (seemingly) contrasting opposites of McDonald’s own life: his fiery challenges to the war machine, on the one hand, and his great respect and support for military veterans, on the other.

On the surface, it may seem contradictory to struggle against the nation’s wars while supporting and defending the soldiers that fight and die in them; but the life of Florence Nightingale shows us clearly that she, too, was in “a state of chronic rage” against the war machine, while supporting the soldiers caught up in it. It was her lifelong work to show that love and mercy must be given to all of us.

In his tribute, just before he sings his song, “The Lady with the Lamp,” McDonald offers a memorable reflection on the way Nightingale’s life was changed forever by the dying soldiers she could never forget.

“Florence Nightingale said she had seen hell, and because she had seen hell, she was set apart. Between her and every normal human pleasure, every normal human enjoyment, must stand the wards of Scutari. She could never forget.”

And then McDonald performs one of his finest anti-war songs, and yet it is much more than that. It is a warning to all of us — and especially to civilians who have never seen battlefield casualties — of the terrible price that soldiers must pay.

His song is a beautiful portrayal of Florence Nightingale, the Lady with the Lamp, carrying her lamp every night as she walked down a four-mile row of cots 18 inches apart, tending to hundreds upon hundreds of wounded and dying men.

“First they use us and then they throw us away.

Only Miss Nightingale knows the price that we pay,

The lady with the lamp.”

She spoke of looking so deeply into the horrors of war that she could never forget. She testified that she was never out of the hospital as she attended thousands of deaths that first winter in Scutari. McDonald says, “There were mass casualties at a level perhaps never seen before.”

Down those endless lines of bleeding and moaning men walked the Lady with the Lamp. She is now an eternal part of the conscience of humanity, a light that will never die.

McDonald has done nearly everything one person can do to keep alive the memory of this legendary icon of love and mercy, a woman whose accomplishments are on the same scale as Mahatma Gandhi and Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, but who has somehow nearly been forgotten.

His beautiful song enables us to truly see this heroic woman who brought the light of mercy into the dark wards of Scutari and, in doing so, kept alive the flickering and nearly extinguished light of humanity during that dreadful winter.

His song captures in simple words — but to breathtaking effect — the interaction of “Miss Nightingale” and a dying soldier in the lonely hospital ward.

“Excuse me please, a cup of tea,

I’ve such a terrible thirst.

Would you please come and sit with me,

I feel it’s come to the worst.

Write my mother that I love her so,

I can’t seem to hold the pen.

Take this keepsake and send it home,

To those I’ll never see again.”

How many of those talks did Florence Nightingale have with the wounded and sick and dying? Two thousand? Four thousand? How many letters and keepsakes did she send home to the families of soldiers who died in a strange land knowing they would never again see their loved ones? How could she endure that never-ending burden of sorrow?

McDonald began wondering why she returned home to England a national hero, yet refused to accept any recognition, refused to grant any interviews, and often chose to live in isolation. Alone, she had borne the anguish and heard the last words of countless soldiers who had no other friend in their final moments on earth.

No one can ever tell what that did to her heart and mind and soul.

We can only try to dimly comprehend the price she paid. Yet she willingly paid that price time and time again, and she was a friend to the very end, as McDonald’s song declares.

“She will hold his hand, stay with him to the end.

You know she understands. She’s the soldier’s friend.”

The most important value of all, the deepest and most sacred value, is mercy. Blessed are the merciful. Florence Nightingale, the lady with the lamp, is a shining icon of mercy for all humanity.

“Clara Barton”

McDonald also wrote “Clara Barton,” in honor of the nurse who was known as the “Angel of the Battlefield” for nursing soldiers and setting up field hospitals during the Civil War. In the years after the war, Barton became the founder of the American Red Cross.

In his song, McDonald describes Clara Barton as a “professional angel sent from above.” He wrote the song, he said, because “I despair over the lack of real women as role models.” He wanted his three daughters to have “some heroes for them to think about.”

“Every time in the world someone receives first aid

You can thank Clara Barton for the life that is saved.

She lived out her life in a world ruled by men.

Every time they knocked her down she got back up again.”

Civil War veterans told of Clara Barton with tears in their eyes, McDonald sings, because she “braved the battle” to save their lives.

“She never ran from the shot and the shell

Bringing aid and comfort in the midst of hell.”

The nurses written about by Country Joe McDonald add up to an Angel Band. They offer an entirely different vision of wartime heroism — a better vision — by bravely bringing mercy and healing into dangerous war zones where medical care is a matter of life and death.

Clara Barton in the Civil War, Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War, Lynda Van Devanter and Rose Sandecki in the Vietnam War, and countless other unsung heroines, have offered the light of mercy and healing in the darkest hours and most dangerous places. They all shine on.

Street Spirit’s  in-depth look at the music and the man: Country Joe McDonald

Country Joe: Singing Louder Than the Guns (April 2016)
Country Joe McDonald stands nearly alone among the musicians of the 1960s in staying true to his principles — still singing for peace, still denouncing the brutality of war.

Songs of Healing in a World at War (April 2016)
Country Joe McDonald’s songs denounce the atrocities of war and pay tribute to Vietnam War combat nurses and the legendary icon of mercy, Florence Nightingale, for bravely bringing medical care into war zones.

Carrying on the Spirit of Peace and Love (June 2016 Issue)
Country Joe McDonald has carried on the spirit of the 1960s by singing for peace and justice, speaking against war and environmental damage, and advocating fair treatment for military veterans and homeless people.

Street Spirit Interview with Country Joe McDonald Part 1 (April 2016)
Women coming home from the Vietnam War never were the same after their wartime experiences. They were shoved into a horrific, unbelievable experience. That’s what I wrote about in the song: “A vision of the wounded screams inside her brain, and the girl next door will never be the same.”

Street Spirit Interview with Country Joe McDonald Part 2 (April 2016)
“It was magical. All at the same time, amazing stuff happened in Paris, London, and San Francisco — and BOOM! Everybody agreed on the same premise: peace and love. It was a moment of peace and love. It was a wonderful thing to happen. And I’m still a hippie: peace and love!”

Interview with Country Joe McDonald, Part 3  (June 2016)
“We’re still struggling as a species with how we can stop war. The families (of Vietnam veterans) were so grateful that anybody would acknowledge their sacrifice. And I don’t mean sacrifice in a clichéd way. The war had reached out and struck their family in a horrible, terrible way.”

Interview with Country Joe McDonald, Part 4 (June 2016)
“I knew a lot of the people had to escape or they were killed by the junta in Chile. It was just tragic and terrible. I had grown up with a full knowledge of the viciousness of imperialism from my socialist parents. So I knew that, but I was still shocked.”

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