What follows is an excerpt from Bruce Cockburn’s book which you can now pre-order on Amazon. It deals with one of his most famous songs, the controversial “If I had a rocket launcher”, written after a trip to the Guatemalan refugee camps on the border with Mexico.
The dreadful history of the massacre, torture and terrible atrocities done to poor native American communities by forces supported by American money and weapons (and to protect American business interests) is one that I would know nothing about, if not for this song. And we need to know. All these second hand wars fought in the the name of ‘freedom’ …
You can read the full excerpt here.
It seems possible to view the genocide against Mayan people as an extension of thehistoric U.S. policies of extermination at home against Native Americans. The atrocities were not unique. They were part of a pattern of depravity that surfaces again and again all over the globe. In southern Mexico we found raw evidence of the banalityof evil. Not only was it horrible, but for the most part it wasn’t even creative.
Not much has changed in the realm of mass murder since biblical times. Though the tools of the trade have become more sophis-ticated, when we get down to it, it’s somebody bashing someone’s head with a hammer or a shovel, or herding folks into a church and setting it ablaze. Same old shit. The difference for me was that this aspect of us had leapt off the page and become ﬂesh and blood.
Asking God how he could allow such brutality seemed like an irrelevant question. 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, Thanatos projected, all too real.
I felt the violence pulsing through our DNA. These actions are embedded in our social, religious, and political traditions.
A decade later, surveying the mine- strewn beauty of a Mozambican landscape ravaged by the same evils, it struck me that war is the default position of mankind, peace an aberration.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’d 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 had forfeited any claim to humanity. I envisioned myself with an RPG, 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 launcherI’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 launcherI 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
“IF I HAD A ROCKET LAUNCHER,” 1983