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Saturday, December 2, 2023

Why ‘Travelin’ Soldier’ Is the Best Anti-War Song Ever Written—and Always Brings a Tear to My Eye

'Travelin Soldier' describes a young American shipped off to war to fight in Vietnam—and never returns.

Image Credit: YouTube-The Chicks

When the subject of great anti-war songs comes up, a few tunes immediately come to mind.

“Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones—’War, children. It’s just a shot away’—and Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” are personal favorites. Some of my friends are partial to “War Pigs” by Black Sabbath.

Yet for me, one song blows them all away (pardon the expression). That song is “Travelin’ Soldier,” a song country music artist Bruce Robison wrote in 1996 that was later made famous by The Dixie Chicks (now just The Chicks).

For years I didn’t know what the song was about; nor that the song was written by Robison, a Texas-based singer-songwriter, and not by the Dixie Chicks, who in 2002 recorded the song and took it to #1 on Billboard’s country charts.

But eventually—I don’t even know when—I fell in love with not just the song, but every lyric in it.

‘Crying All Alone Under the Stands’

For those who don’t know the song or have never listened closely, “Travelin Soldier” describes a young American shipped off to war to fight in Vietnam. Before he leaves home, however, he meets a young girl in a cafe whom he falls for, and the song describes the letters they exchange as he fights in a conflict a world away that neither of them understand.

As the letters fly back and forth, we see the young couple has fallen in love. But happiness is not to be. In the song’s last lines before the chorus, emphasized in the full lyrics below, we learn the young soldier has been killed.

[Verse 1]

Two days past eighteen

He was waitin’ for the bus in his army greens

Sat down in a booth in a cafe there

Gave his order to a girl with a bow in her hair

[Verse 2]

He’s a little shy so she give him a smile

And he said, “Would you mind sittin’ down for a while

And talkin’ to me?

I’m feelin’ a little low”

She said “I’m off in an hour and I know where we can go”

[Verse 3]

So they went down and they sat on the pier

He said “I bet you got a boyfriend, but I don’t care I got no one, to send a letter to

Would you mind if I sent a-one back here to you?”

[Chorus]

I cried

Never gonna hold the hand of another guy

“Too young for him,” they told her

Waitin’ for the love of a travelin’ soldier

Our love will never end

Waitin’ for the soldier to come back again

Nevermore to be alone

When the letter said, “A soldier’s comin’ home”

[Verse 4]

So the letters came from an army camp In California then Vietnam And he told her of his heart, it might be love And all of the things he was so scared of

[Verse 5]

He said, “When it’s gettin’ kinda rough over here

I think of that day sittin’ down on the pier

And I close my eyes and see your pretty smile

Don’t worry but I won’t be able to write for a while”

[Chorus]

I cried

Never gonna hold the hand of another guy “Too young for him,” they told her

Waitin’ for the love of a travelin’ soldier

Our love will never end

Waitin’ for the soldier to come back again

Nevermore to be alone

When the letter said, “A soldier’s comin’ home”

[Verse 6]

One Friday night at a football game

The Lord’s Prayer said and the anthem sang

A man said, “Folks, would you bow your heads

For a list of local Vietnam dead?”

[Verse 7]

Cryin’ all alone under the stands

Was a piccolo player in the marchin’ band

And one name read, and nobody really cared

But a pretty little girl with a bow in her hair

[Chorus]

I cried

Never gonna hold the hand of another guy

“Too young for him,” they told her Waitin’ for the love of a travelin’ soldier

Our love will never end

Waitin’ for the soldier to come back again

Nevermore to be alone

When the letter said, “A soldier’s comin’…”

[Chorus]

I cried

Never gonna hold the hand of another guy

“Too young for him,” they told her

Waitin’ for the love of a travelin’ soldier

Our love will never end

Waitin’ for the soldier to come back again

Nevermore to be alone

When the letter said, “A soldier’s comin’ home”

A young man dying in war is always a tragedy, but there’s a poetry in these lyrics that adds something more.

Though older than the girl, the soldier is little more than a boy himself (“two days past eighteen”) and yet finds himself sent to the jungles of Vietnam. He’s not just frightened but alone, so alone he asks if he can write letters to the girl who showed him the kindness of a smile and a few words on the pier.

As the war gets rougher, it’s the love of this girl (or the idea of the girl) that he just met that sustains the soldier. He loves her, and we see she loved the soldier.

In the most beautiful stanza of the song, we see the girl mourning this shy boy whose name is among those killed in action. As the names are read off one by one at a local football game, she weeps for him alone beneath the bleachers. And unlike those who dutifully recited the Lord’s Prayer and National Anthem to honor those who died, we understand that she cared for the boy in a way they did not.

‘Violence in Concentrated Form’

The philosopher Hannah Arendt once observed the fundamental problem with violence.

“The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world,” she wrote, “but the most probable change is a more violent world.”

There are few—if any—greater expressions of violence than war. And though few people would describe themselves as proponents of war, it’s clear many in our world today have grown comfortable with violence if it achieves the ends they seek.

“The principle of violence finds widespread application all over the world, in America as elsewhere,” philosopher and FEE founder Leonard Read observed in his essay “Instead of Violence.”

When he speaks of violence, Read makes it clear he’s not just talking about dropping bombs or shooting people, but taking things from others without consent:

“Personally, I am opposed to the initiation of violence in any form, by any body, or by any agency, government or otherwise. I cannot make inspired Violence square with ethical concepts. Aggressive coercion, whether socialized medicine or initiating war with Russia, is at odds with principles which seem right. How this brute force can be used and be considered moral, except to restrain violence otherwise initiated, is beyond my capacities to reason.”

It’s an empirical fact that the twentieth century was the bloodiest century in human history, and I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that this distinction was achieved as humans around the world embraced violence in its most pure and efficient form: the state.

It was the twentieth century that witnessed a profound transformation: the completion of the shift away from the idea that government is a necessary evil, designed to protect the rights of individuals, to the idea that government is a force for good that can deliver mankind from poverty and evil.

Read was not the only person troubled by the growing acceptance of state-wielded violence.

Mahatma Gandhi was among those who were deeply troubled by this shift, no doubt largely because he understood the true nature of the state.

“The state represents violence in a concentrated and organized form,” Gandhi wrote in 1935. “The Individual has a soul, but as the state is a soulless machine, it can never be weaned from violence to which it owes its very existence.”

This is why Gandhi saw non-violence as the epitome of bravery, the true antidote to violence driven by “the machinery of government.”

It might sound strange, but I think of this when I listen to “Travelin’ Soldier.” I think of how comfortable Americans have grown with the use of violence at home, whether through property seizures, for instance, or the policing of peaceful activity; of how leaders in our nation’s capital project power around the world and fund conflicts between other nations.

It makes me think Hannah Arendt was right when she observed that violence tends to beget violence. And when I think of that 18-year-old shipped off to Vietnam, who was mourned only by a piccolo player in the marching band, I think of a line from Game of Thrones.

“Why is it always the innocents who suffer most, when you high lords play your game of thrones?” the counselor Varys asked.

It’s not the politicians who fund the wars who pay the ultimate price. Nor the citizens at home who dutifully support and often cheer for conflicts abroad. It’s people like the Soldier, and those who are left to mourn him.

And that’s why “Travelin’ Soldier” always brings a tear to my eye.


  • Jonathan Miltimore is the Senior Creative Strategist of FEE.org at the Foundation for Economic Education.