The widely reported figure of "22 veteran suicides a day" is an overstatement, with regard to young or recent veterans. Among veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in the early 21st Century, it's about 1 a day. That's still far too many, of course. Each such death sends a shockwave through its community, and this song is the story of one such impact.
But the song takes a moment to reveal its story. It starts with a startling nighttime phone call. The news is sad, and the recipient does not go back to sleep, but prays all night instead.
There was a "price already paid," but now on top of that price comes an awful tax: "A son gone to the grave." Nothing is sadder than outliving one's own children, we are told.
And so there is a memorial service, a "sorrowful parade," to be made to the riverbank.
This son was highly thought of. The high school and police station have shut down for the day so the entire town can attend the service. There is crying and hugging and a choir.
Now we get more information: "Army dude." So, the family lost a son in battle. How terrible-- yet we agree this is noble, and a price both the family and solider were willing to pay.
Except, no. That "price" was already paid. He was gone from his home and family, he was in harm's way, he lost friends to his enemies... he paid his dues.
So, if he didn't die in battle, he died after he came home? Oh, what a horrible irony. It must have been a car crash or something.
No, not that either: "Nowhere to run/ Nowhere to turn to/ He turns to the gun."
It was suicide. Brought on by PTSD, the psychological scars of war or other trauma.
"It's a cross" to bear. It's a "stone," a weight he carried. "It's a fragment of bone," which could be what he saw of a friend, or himself. And he found no one else who could help him carry this weight, or relieve him of it.
The song pivots again to the mourners: "It's a long walk home/ From the riverbank."
And then back to the victim. Surely, we can all understand the veteran's insomnia, his "nightmares" and their incessant reminders that "life is cheap."
We end with the "Army dude's mama." She is "limp as a rag." Among her thoughts must be: "All these people, mourning now... where were they when my son was hurting?"
She is holding a flag presented to her by the Army, folded neatly into a triangle. She is walking home, past the car "dealerships and farms."
And..."Then a triangle of light/ Kissed the red and blue and white/ Along the riverbank."
What might this be? Lights, from a spotlight down to a laser pointer, are usually round, not triangular. Was this a Heavenly light? Is the triangle a reference to the Trinity? I looked up the expression "triangle of light" but found nothing useful. I admit this image has me stumped. (NOTE: A comment by a reader gave me an idea of what it might be, weeks after I had posted this. It could be the sunlight refracting off the triangular, clear case the folded flag is kept in, once it was removed from the casket and folded. See the comments for a more detailed explanation.)
Whatever it is in specific, it is meant to be a calming, reassuring gesture, judging by the word "kissed." (In "Sound of Silence," Simon writes of eyes being "stabbed by a neon light," quite the opposite effect of light.)
In "Wartime Prayers," Simon discusses the kinds of prayers the mothers of soldiers might make. Surely many pray for their sons to come back, and come back whole if possible. But how many pray that their sons, and now daughters, come back mentally whole?
(This is far from Simon's first song about suicide, but his first in a while. Also it is not the first to use the imagery of a "riverbank;" that was also in the song "Can't Run But.")
How abysmally sad, to have a war kill your son even after he'd survived it. Some kinds of shrapnel just don't show up on any MRI.
Flamenco music was a major inspiration for Simon on this album, especially the rhythmic stamping and clapping. One of his percussionists, Jamey Haddad, introduced him to a Boston flamenco troupe. They ended up recording the basic rhythm tracks for four of the songs: this one, "The Werewolf," the title track "Stranger to Stranger," and the first song to debut from the album, "Wristband."
In fact, the song intentionally uses the same clapping rhythm, and some of the same bass lines, as "Wristband."
Next Song: Insomniac's Lullaby