The end of America’s longest war has been difficult to watch unfold on cable news. “It’s the loss of life and the expenditure,” Lunde says. “And then to have this outcome is such a gut punch to the soul of this country right now.”
The song possesses a sort of martial swing in the melody and rhythm, like a march into battle. It's a spiritual cousin of sorts to the Pogues' cover of Eric Bogle's "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda," another tune about the cost paid by ordinary people marched off to war. Lunde says he came up with the melody while honeymooning with his wife in Vermont and played around with it for a long time before it was transmuted into “Steel Militia.”
“I’ve had that melody for years,” he says. “Some guy told me, ‘It’s like a ‘Celtic mud march,’ but it always felt to me like a war song.”
The lyrics possess a sort of biblical feel: “Wicked are the devil’s children working in the fields of man / Turn the plowmen into soldiers; turn the flesh and body to the plan.” They're lines that wouldn’t feel out of place in the King James Bible — somewhere at the end, when everything goes to hell.
Lunde says he was thinking of the opposing forces that cause endless wars and suffering. He adds that he wasn’t writing about soldiers, however, but the people in power who send young men and women to die.
“I was thinking of bin Laden and Bush,” he says. “I saw these two poles. There is this great evil that creates wars, always. … You have these two fundamentalist ideas — the Christian nationalists in the United States and the Islamic fundamentalists — but they are basically two sides of the same coin.”
Lunde had trouble finishing the song for years. One day he chanced upon the story of the Wise brothers, three men from Arkansas who signed up for the military shortly after September 11. Two of the brothers were killed in action. Lunde was touched by how the brothers came to enlist and eventually ended up in combat zones overseas. Their background didn’t exactly make for a career in the military.
“Their mother was kind of like this Christian pacifist peacenik,” he says. “When they were little kids, she asked them, ‘Who put this in you? You boys could be lawyers and doctors. Who put this in you to be soldiers?’”
Jeremy Wise reminded his mother that she used to read biographies of Douglas MacArthur and other military leaders to the brothers at bedtime. So his answer was, “Mom, you did.” Lunde says the song finally came together after he read the story, and the second two verses and the chorus owe a great deal to the Wise brothers’ story.
“It’s about fundamentalism and nationalism,” he says. “How does it get into us? What makes a man enlist in the war and go to fight supposedly for his country and be willing to sacrifice his life against this kind of unknown force? And what happens when he meets this opposite force on the other side.”
Lunde says he worked at Wind River Ranch, a Christan dude ranch near Estes Park, during a Wounded Warrior Project gathering some time ago. He was afforded the opportunity to play the song for a group of veterans sitting around a campfire, though he was hesitant to do so at first, because he didn’t want them to think he was being critical of soldiers. (And he’s not. The song is anti-war, but not anti-soldier.)
They insisted. One man started to cry.
“He’s like, ‘Man, that’s an amazing song. I want to play it for my brothers,’” Lunde recalls. “He says, ‘I’m so conflicted. I went over there with a sense of mission, with a sense of I’m going to help my country.’”
Lunde says the veteran went on to say that no matter how he tried to frame his time in Afghanistan, he couldn’t escape the nagging feeling that he was an invader in a foreign land. As he saw his friends die around him, his inner conflict only grew.
“It would be like if the Chinese took over [the U.S.] to kick out the Germans,” Lunde says of the conversation. “When you are the invading force, the citizens of that country will look at you as invaders, even if you're supposedly there to help.”
As he tells that story, Lunde is reminded of a statistic he read in the Wise brothers’ story. Men were drafted in huge numbers to fight in World War II. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan unfolded with all volunteer forces, less than 1 percent of the United States population. Most people probably know someone who served in Iraq or Afghanistan, but most people have also never set foot in either country.
“That’s why Afghanistan isn’t going to impact most of us,” he says. “It’s just this thing that was in the background that we know is happening.”
People made a lot of money off of it. So it will probably happen again. It’s the American way, after all.
“Every time we write a check for our taxes, it’s like, how much of that money is going to continue this behavior?” he asks. “That’s the problem with Americans. If we don’t rise up and demand change, it’s just going to continue.”
For more information, visit Erik Lunde online. He plays StoutFest at 6 p.m. Saturday, September 18, at Stout Studios, 2815 South Taft Hill Road in Fort Collins.