Friday, May 26, 2017

In Memory of a Green Beret: The Life and Hard Times of Sgt. Barry Sadler

With Memorial Day fast approaching, it seems timely to eulogize a pop culture hero whose life was profoundly shaped by my generation’s war, the conflict in Vietnam. Back in 1966, Sgt. Barry Sadler’s “The Ballad of the Green Beret” was everywhere. You heard its rat-a-tat cadences on the airwaves; you saw its square-jawed composer perform it on the Ed Sullivan Show. John Wayne’s flag-waving 1968 film, The Greet Berets, used it as an anthem. (The film may have been scorned by critics—and by many vets who considered it a fairytale—but it earned a then- impressive $21 million at the box office.)

The lyrics of “The Ballad of the Green Beret” salute what it deems the  U.S. Army’s most valued assets: “Silver wings upon their chest/ These are men, America's best.” They are, in Sadler’s words, “Men who mean just what they say/ The brave men of the Green Beret.” It has fallen to my friend and colleague Marc Leepson to explore the soldier behind the song.

Leepson’s new biography is titled The Ballad of the Green Beret: The Life and Wars of Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler From The VietnamWar and Pop Stardom to Murder and an Unsolved, Violent Death. At the start of the book, Leepson explains his own bona fides via a dedication “to my fellow Vietnam War veterans and in memory of those who made the ultimate sacrifice in that war.”  It’s his challenge to explain the era to those who think of Vietnam as ancient history. As a former soldier himself, he understands the Army’s reverence for machismo, and for the kind of heroics that show up in John Wayne movies.

Barry Sadler, who’d survived a rough upbringing, found purpose in his life when he joined the Army’s Special Forces and trained as a combat medic. Self-taught on the guitar, he wrote a number of songs that he enjoyed performing for his fellow Green Berets once he arrived in Vietnam in 1965. One of those songs, “The Ballad of The Green Beret,” caught on, to the extent that Sadler was eventually signed to a major recording contract stateside. His album came out in January 1966, and the military was happy to use the handsome soldier as what Leepson calls “a human recruiting poster.”

But once Sadler left the Army, he did not fit in well with civilian life. He spent much of his time drinking, womanizing, squandering money, and getting into heated political arguments. He briefly considered becoming an actor, but could drum up only limited roles in middle-brow TV series like Death Valley Days. There was an attempt to write a Vietnam-themed screenplay, which came to nothing. The surprise was that he eventually found a lucrative niche writing pulp novels full of history and gore. His private life, though, remained messy in the extreme. It was a life in which violence was never very far away.

Marc Leepson speculates that Barry Sadler was victimized by his own success. It was a success that likely would not have come to him if his patriotic song had been released a year or two later, once the nation had begun to turn against the Vietnam War. “Simply put,” says Leepson, “his tough guy brand did not sell as the nation went through the political, social, and cultural upheaval of the Sixties.” Leepson views Sadler, born in 1940, as not a Baby Boomer but a throwback to World War II’s Greatest Generation. His sad life and mysterious death suggest a man out of place and out of time. May he rest in peace.

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