One of the best anti-war songs I’ve ever heard is Peter, Paul, and Mary’s “The Great Mandala (The Wheel of Life).” On the eight-track cassette tape my family used to have of the album it was on, the title was misspelled as “The Great Mandela,” which must have made Nelson feel all warm inside, assuming he was allowed to listen to it in his South African prison cell. (A mandala is an elaborate symbolic representation of the cyclical nature of life and death used in Hinduism and in certain Buddhist sects.) I was going to post the link for you, but I’m not techno-savvy enough; however, it’s easy to find on YouTube.
Just so there are no hard feelings, I’ll provide you with the lyrics. And in case this is offensive to Peter or Paul (sadly, Mary is no longer with us), if either of you gentlemen alert me about it, I’ll remove them posthaste. Considering the belligerent climate of today’s world, the song should be re-released and played on radios again everywhere, as it was during the Vietnam War. I was thrilled when my sixth grade teacher played it for the class with his impassioned commentary, secretly flattered that I already knew the song. He was one of the best teachers I ever had, and I’m grateful to him for getting me into both writing and teaching.
Without further ado, here are the lyrics in full:
The Great Mandala Peter, Paul, and Mary
So I told him that he’d better shut his mouth and do his job like a man
and he answered, “Listen, Father: I will never kill another.”
He thinks he’s better than his brother that died.
What the hell does he think he’s doing to his father,
who brought him up right?
Take your place on the Great Mandala
as it moves through your brief moment of time.
Win or lose now, you must choose now,
and if you lose you’re only losing your life.
Tell the jailer not to bother with his meal of bread and water today.
He is fasting till the killing’s over.
He’s a martyr; he thinks he’s a prophet; but he’s a coward;
he’s just playing a game.
He can’t do it; he can’t change it; it’s been going on for ten thousand years.
Tell the people they are safe now; hunger’s stopped him.
He lies still in his cell. Death has gagged his accusations.
We are free now.
We can kill now.
We can hate now.
Now we can end the world.
We’re not guilty.
He was crazy.
And it’s been going on for ten thousand years.
(Chorus: note that this time the last line is slightly different)
. . . And if you lose you’ve only wasted your life.
It’s impossible for me to know how the lyrics hold up by themselves without the music supporting them, since the song was playing in my head as I copied them down for you. You have to listen to it to get the full effect. It’s a deceptively quiet, simple song that builds to a crescendo at the end, so that the narrator’s voice is frantic. There are no drums or percussion; just two guys playing acoustic guitar and three strong vocalists singing in harmony. I believe Peter Yarrow, who wrote the words and the tune, sings the lead, unless it’s Paul Strachey, with Mary Travers providing her powerful and plangent voice in the chorus.
One thing I like about the song is that it’s incredibly earnest and serious without being sappy. By putting the listener in the shoes of the pro-war narrator, the folk trio cleverly indict their listeners–along with themselves–for complicity with the war planners and executors. It’s almost impossible to imagine hearing such a song on the radio today, much less seeing it on TV, not even on The Daily Show or The Colbert Report (where’s Glenn Beck when you need him? Just kidding; I’d call him the reincarnation of Morton Downey, Jr. if the former hadn’t already been born during the latter’s loudmouthed life).
No, I’m afraid it would ruffle too many feathers. Still, it’s a bracing corrective to a society that inures its people to mass-slaughter (hey, it’s been going on for 10,000 years) and locks people up for blowing on the whistle on war crimes that have always been par for the course. Should Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, or Jeremy Hammond be put behind bars for trying to shine the light on the evils done in our names? Should the innocent people corralled at Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay be deprived of their dignity to such an extent they’re even force-fed liquid gruel so they can’t even conduct a hunger strike–and not only to make a political statement about international injustice, but maybe, just maybe, because their lives have become so insufferable and god-awful that they can find nothing left to live for, and in their disgusted despair, have chosen the honorable path of refusing to participate any longer in this morally bankrupt fiasco?
But don’t worry: Barack Obama promised to close the place down back when he was first running for president. Maybe he just forgot about it. Between all the hoopla over spying on the Associated Press and receiving honorary degrees and Nobel Peace Prizes while committing wars, it must have slipped his mind.
Somewhere back in the early eighties, the vertical line in the center of the triangle on the peace sign was erased so now all we’re left with is a Mercedes-Benz logo (no offense intended to that company; I’ve heard they make nice cars; it’s the symbolism I’m getting at).
The wheel of life and death continues to turn, and all of our wheels with it.