To try to analyze “The Ballad of the Green Berets” as a pop song is to miss the point. The people who bought this record didn’t like it because it had a catchy chorus or a charismatic singer. They didn’t buy it to dance to at parties or to marvel at the production through headphones. They bought it for what it represented: a show of support for troops overseas; cultural pushback against a tide of apparent unpatriotism; a voice for the Silent Majority who remembered the victories of the Good War and believed the US would triumph again. This is a record that rose to #2 on the country charts not because it contained any identifiable C&W elements (unless you count its folk ballad structure), but because its pro-military stance hit home in conservative Middle America. For both creator and consumers, the song existed primarily as a vessel to champion the US Army Special Forces and, by extension, America as a whole. Any thoughts toward art were relegated to distant second place, perhaps even treated with vague suspicion. After all, plenty of antiwar folk and rock records spread their subversive content through hummable melodies and poeticized lyrics. Sadler’s musical unsophistication just made him seem more honest.
But even if “Green Berets” didn’t become a massive hit – the best-selling single of 1966, in fact – by being a great pop song, it’s not entirely without its merits. The minimalist, snare-heavy arrangement lends the record an appropriate degree of martial gravitas. Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler’s voice isn’t particularly distinctive, but its everysoldier quality suits a song praising collective heroism. Unlike many of its more opportunistic contemporaries (“Dawn of Correction,” for instance), “Green Berets” feels sincere – the product of an actual Green Beret recuperating from injuries in Vietnam – and dignified by not namecalling or taking direct swipes at its opponents.
Even though the song never mentions the Vietnam War by name, it became the closet equivalent the conflict had to an “Over There,” an affirmation that the US was fighting the good fight. The problem is that “Green Berets” isn’t actually all that inspiring. Too slow to rouse like a Sousa march and numbingly repetitive (despite efforts to add a little variety by injecting a new musical element in each verse), “Green Berets” drags on far longer than its breezy 2:27 running time suggests. Its lyrics aren’t a galvanizing call to arms but a dry list of facts and generalizations, delivered with a grim determination that befits an elite soldier but makes for a leaden pop singer. There’s a last-minute bid to elict emotion in the final stanzas with the introduction of a fallen Green Beret, but it comes out of nowhere, making the soldier seem less like a hero who sacrificed his life than a cardboard figure created only to be killed.
The fact that “Green Berets” so blatantly acknowledges the human cost of war – something typically the province of protest songs – proves how differently Vietnam was already being perceived compared with earlier conflicts. The popular folk revival’s leftist activism, combined with the post-WWII rise of mass media (specifically television and recorded music), granted anti-war music an unprecedented ubiquity. Even though the majority of Americans still favored US involvement in Vietnam, “Green Berets” feels defensive, insisting on the necessity of war in the face of waning public support.* As such, it’s as much a product of changing times as any of its anti-war counterparts. The negative side of war could no longer be ignored and popular support could no longer be assumed, leaving pro-war songs in a difficult position. “Green Berets” splits the difference by trying to be both somber and stirring, rugged and sentimental, but it lacks the artistic proficiency to fit these competing impulses together. If something this stiff and staid was the best its side had to offer, it’s no surprise that the more visceral and inventive songs against the war began to seem a lot more appealing. In cultural terms, “Green Berets” may have won the battle for chart dominance, but it couldn’t win the war. 2
*In March 1966, the month “The Ballad of the Green Berets” reached #1, 59% of Americans polled believed the US sending troops to Vietnam was “not a mistake.” Two months later, that percentage had fallen to 49%. (source: William Conrad Gibbons, The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War)
Hit #1 on March 12, 1966; total of 5 weeks at #1
156 of 1016 #1’s reviewed; 15.35% through the Hot 100