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Sing a song of anger

20 March 2015

The Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn recalls a life-changing trip to Mexico which provoked him to write probably his best-known, and fiercest, song: 'If I had a rocket launcher'

Kevin Kelly

Witness: Bruce Cockburn

Witness: Bruce Cockburn

SINCE 1966, I have worked as a musician and performing songwriter, making music, making love, making mistakes, making my way across this beautiful and dangerous planet. I have witnessed the sweet promise of human achievement, and the grim spectre of our ignorance and greed.

Along the way, I found Jesus Christ, then let go of his hand amid the din of disingenuous right- wing Christian exploitation. I have attempted to live my life somewhat in line with his word, without necessarily taking it as, well, gospel.

I have learned a lot about humanity and spirit from other faiths as well. Yet I still feel that I, and most of us, understand little about the Divine.

In the late 1970s, I became known, among some, as "that Christian singer", which brought me a like-minded following. In the early '70s, before I had "found" Jesus, I was known more for the music than for any religious affiliation.

I played a decent guitar. I wrote songs as explorations of culture and nature, and of the spirit. When Jesus came into my life, in 1974, he also made it into the music. Since then, our relationship, like most relationships, has ebbed and flowed.

I have tried to keep Jesus the compassionate activist close to my heart, along with Jesus as portal to the cosmos, but I have long been leery of the dogma and doctrine that so many have attached to Christianity - as well as to most other religions.

I honour non-violence as a way of being, and as a political tactic, but I am not a pacifist. As we continue to watch the world's greatest military powers plunder weaker states and peoples as an integral, almost pro forma method of planetary domination, it is clear that a violent response to such injustice and carnage would be useless, and ever more destructive.

But that is easy for me to say, as I sit on my peaceful deck in my peaceful city in my relatively peaceful country. Today, I sit in the San Francisco home I share with my wife, M. J. Hannett, and our daughter, Iona, 30 years after writing "If I Had a Rocket Launcher", the song with which I will probably be most closely associated in the public's memory.

THOSE lyrics came to me in a Mexican hotel-room, after my first visit to a refugee camp on the fringe of the free-fire zone that was 1980s Guatemala.

That experience was to be the beginning of a series of journeys to regions afflicted by war, and the first attempt to share my experience of - even fascination with - that thing that some would call the great human aberration, but that is perhaps more accurately described as the default condition of mankind.

In the fall of 1982, I began recording my 12th studio album, The Trouble With Normal, which came out early the next year. Although I did not plan it that way, this initiated a trilogy of albums focusing in large part on North-South issues, especially the ongoing attacks against life itself - humans, rivers, mountains, oceans, air - for the benefit of an already wealthy few.

In early 1983, just after the release of the album, Oxfam Canada asked if I would join a team that they were sending to Central America to witness and report on the situation in the region.

Here was the opening I had sought: a chance to witness rather than be a mere tourist. When I said yes, I knew, in the deep place where we know such things, that this would shift the course of my life.

Guatemala had become a killing field. Between 1978 and 1983, the Guatemalan military, using weapons, money, and training from the United States and Israel, murdered more than 200,000 villagers, most of them Mayan farmers - campesinos, scratching out a meagre living on marginal lands.

More than 100,000 Guatemalans were crowded into a number of refugee camps in southern Mexico, along the Río Lacantún, on the border between Mexico and Guatemala.

Oxfam proposed sending me and another Canadian songwriter, Nancy White, to visit a couple of the refugee camps, and then on to Nicaragua.

I HAD seen refugee camps on TV, but face to face it was different. TV has no smell, no feel. This kind of poverty stinks. It smells like too much sweat and not enough soap. It smells like human shit baking in the sun.

That said, the camp was laid out in an orderly fashion. There were numerous dwellings, and several communal buildings constructed from what the jungle had to offer: rough-hewn timber, bamboo, and palm leaves for thatch.

The 300 inhabitants, mostly women, children, and the elderly, carried themselves with grace and dignity, though they were clearly desperate. That was the most moving part of being there: to see the suffering, and to see the strength in the face of that suffering,

There was no way for a greenhorn like me to find balance in such conditions. I was in awe, appalled, incensed. People greeted us warmly, and took us to meet the elders of the community. There was some head-scratching about us. Why Canadians? Why musicians? We explained that we had come to bear witness, and to bring to the outside world what we saw and heard. They seemed pleased that someone was paying attention.

They were on the brink of starvation. Food was rationed: three tortillas a day per person. Parents boiled the leaves from trees to feed their hungry children.

The Guatemalan military continued to harass the survivors, crossing the border into Mexico and attacking the refugee camps; strafing from helicopters; now and then dragging people off into the jungle and hacking them to pieces with machetes.

A helicopter assault had occurred at Chanjul, which was only a few hundred metres from the border, the week before our visit. The week after, there was another. Farming had to be carried on clandestinely, because the army was constantly monitoring the villages, and former villages, for activity. 

THE strategy in Guatemala was to create what were called, during the Vietnam conflict, "strategic hamlets", by forcing the people to abandon their traditional villages and cluster in artificially created population centres that could be closely watched.

Mayan people feel a sacred connection to the place where they are born. Few would willingly leave land that they understood themselves to be a part of. To this end, the army, not content with massacring the people, also destroyed everything they valued. That is why our hosts were refugees, and why so many others had taken up arms.

I understood now why people want to kill. Working methodically across the Mayan region, the army and its paramilitary teams, including "civil patrols" of forcibly conscripted local men, had attacked 626 villages.

Each community was rounded up, or seized when gathered already for a celebration or a market day. The villagers, if they did not escape to become hunted refugees, were then brutally murdered; others were forced to watch, and sometimes to take part.

Buildings were vandalised and demolished, and a "scorched earth" policy applied: the killers destroyed crops, slaughtered livestock, fouled water supplies, and violated sacred places and cultural symbols.

Children were often beaten against walls, or thrown alive into pits where the bodies of adults were later thrown; they were also tortured and raped. Victims of all ages often had their limbs amputated, or were impaled, and left to die slowly.

Others were doused in petrol and set alight, or disembowelled while still alive. Others were shot repeatedly, or tortured and shut up alone to die in pain. The wombs of pregnant women were cut open. Women were routinely raped while being tortured.

OUR hosts went out of their way to be hospitable. They apologised for having so little to offer. They had suffered in the worst of ways, but they were serious, and they wanted us to hear their stories.

Those stories were delivered in a near deadpan tone, which made them all the more horrifying. It was as if they were recounting ancient myths; but they weren't. It was what they had very recently lived through.

After a couple of days in each camp, we returned to the city of San Cristóbal. I was overwhelmed. To intellectually understand, or at least consider (because who can understand it?), the evil that humans inflict on one another is one thing; to feel the results through the faces and stories of the survivors was something else.

I was intellectually prepared, but emotionally wrenched. What makes a government do this to its own people? What allows a human to do this to another person? What could possibly convince the world's most powerful nation, our neighbour, the United States, not only to accept but to support - even design - such slaughter?

In southern Mexico, we had found raw evidence of the banality of evil. Not only was it horrible, for the most part it was not even creative. Not much has changed in the realm of mass murder since biblical times, although the tools of the trade have become more sophisticated. The difference, for me, was that this aspect of humanity had leapt off the page, and become flesh and blood. Asking God how he could allow such brutality seemed irrelevant.

Here, splayed before me in ways I had previously only imagined, were the "juicy bits" from the Bible. Here was the horror, Conrad's heart of darkness. I felt the violence pulsing through our DNA. These actions are embedded in our social, religious, and political traditions.

In San Cristóbal, I bought a bottle of cheap whiskey, and holed up in my bare hotel room. I needed the simple whitewashed walls. I didn't want to see anyone. I kept reliving the terrible stories, trying to breathe them into some comprehensible order.

The quiet courage, the fierce determination and dignity of the refugees, the children still being children after all they had seen - all of it hit me like an ice pick to the heart.

When I thought about the perpetrators of those deeds, especially the anonymous airborne ones, I felt all-consuming outrage, a conviction that whoever would do such things were scarcely human.

I pictured myself with a rocket-propelled grenade, blowing them out of the sky. In the hotel room, through tears, and under dim light driven back from night's rippled windows, I began writing:

Here comes the helicopter - second time today
Everybody scatters and hopes it goes away
How many kids they've murdered only God can say
If I had a rocket launcher . . . I'd make somebody pay

I don't believe in guarded borders and I don't believe in hate
I don't believe in generals or their stinking torture states
And when I talk with the survivors of things too sickening to relate
If I had a rocket launcher . . . I would retaliate

On the Río Lacantún, one hundred thousand wait
To fall down from starvation - or some less humane fate
Cry for Guatemala, with a corpse in every gate
If I had a rocket launcher . . . I would not hesitate

I want to raise every voice - at least I've got to try
Every time I think about it, water rises to my eyes.
Situation desperate, echoes of the victim's cry
If I had a rocket launcher. . . Some son of a bitch would die

When I wrote that in 1983, I was trying to share the shock I felt in grasping that, had the means been at hand, I would have been willing to kill Guatemalan soldiers who were perpetrating atrocities against new acquaintances with whom I felt empathy.

To me, those men in uniform had forfeited any claim to humanity, and should be put down like rabid animals. I was wrong, of course. Far from forfeiting their humanity, they were expressing it. And so was I.

This is an edited extract from Rumours of Glory: A memoir by Bruce Cockburn, published by Harper Collins at £18.99 (Church Times Bookshop £17.10), ©2014 by Bruce D. Cockburn Enterprises Ltd. All rights reserved, arranged with HarperOne, an imprint of Harper Collins.

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