This is the third post in Things Cohenites Don’t Like About Leonard Cohen, a series examining those aspects of Leonard Cohen’s life that, based on my experience blogging and following social media about the Canadian singer-songwriter for the past ten years, have proved overwhelmingly and uniformly unpopular with readers, more than a few of whom have reacted with vehemence that extends far beyond, for example, the strident comments that “nobody should cover Leonard’s songs” or “Jazz Police is Cohen’s worst song.”
The first two topics, His Scientology Phase and His Fondness For Guns, were relatively straightforward, i.e., he was involved with Scientology for a brief period and he candidly talked about his enjoyment of guns. The topic of today’s post is more complicated.
Leonard Cohen & War
A more precise title for this post would be Things Cohenites Don’t Like About Leonard Cohen: Some Of His Perspectives On War.
Things Cohenites Like: Leonard Cohen, His Father’s Military Service, & Remembrance Day
Fans, in fact, have responded positively to information about Leonard Cohen’s embrace of his family’s military experience, such as the following:
Leonard (who pointed out that, in the above photo, Horace R. Cohen was his father’s younger brother and that Herbert A. Vineberg was their cousin) was proud of his father’s (Nathan Cohen’s) military service with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in World War I. Further, his father wanted to send him to a military academy (an ambition Leonard himself shared). Had his father lived, Leonard suggested, he himself might have gone on to become a career man in the Canadian army.1
He has been straightforward about his admiration of the military, telling Harry Rasky,
I always loved the Army. And my father had intended to send me to the Kingston Military Academy actually. And if he’d have lived, I would probably have been in the Canadian Army.
And, Leonard Cohen’s celebration of Remembrance Day2 by displaying the Remembrance Day Poppy, whether on the street or onstage and his recitation of “In Flanders Fields,” the poem written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, have been particularly popular.
Leonard Cohen’s Live Recitation Of “In Flanders Fields”
Los Angeles: 2015
Things Some Cohenites Don’t Like: Leonard Cohen & The Yom Kippur War
The negative responses arise from an observation Leonard Cohen made in association with his participation in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The facts of this episode are reported in Various Positions by Ira B. Nadel:
In short Cohen left Hydra for Israel a few days before the war began in October 1973 in order to test himself and to escape from the turmoil of his relationship with Suzanne Elrod. Partly “to recover from vanities of the singing profession” and, as he wrote in the unpublished prose work “The Final Revision of My Life in Art”, partly “because it is so horrible between us I will go and stop Egypt’s bullet”… When he arrived, he told the press that he flew to Israel to entertain troops during the conflict and “to make my atonement.” He added that in the past he sided with the Arabs in their demands that Israel return territory taken by it in the 1967 war, but now he supported the Jewish state… Shortly after moving to the hotel, he went to see the singer/promoter Sholomo Semach, who was attached to the air force. Cohen wanted to volunteer, and Semach immediately lined him up with an entertainment group in the air force. Before he started, however, the Israeli singer Ilana Rovina invited him to perform one night at an air base near Tel Aviv, which he did. He then joined her group for performances in the Sinai, flying on a Dakota aircraft… Soon after his return to Tel Aviv he had a new assignment: Cohen, Matti Caspi, and a third entertainer drove around and sang at rocket sites, tank encampments, aide stations, and army posts. They were flown by helicopter across the Suez to a former Egyptian air base, where they performed in a concrete hangar… The performances were ad hoc, with soldiers shining flashlights on the singers. “It was very informal ad very intense,” Cohen said. “Wherever you saw soldiers you would just stop and sing.”… After a month or so, Cohen left Israel.
LEONARD COHEN PKG FROM I24NEWS
Video from אורי שפירא
Things Cohenites REALLY Don’t Like: Leonard Cohen’s “War Is Wonderful” Quote
Some fans are clearly uncomfortable with Leonard having anything to do with this war, especially because it epitomizes the Israel-Arab conflict. But, the truly immense negative reaction is in response to this statement:3
Q: It [being in the Yom Kippur War] strikes me as being rather dangerous. You didn’t feel any personal anxiety about being killed?
I did once or twice. But you get caught up in the thing. And war is wonderful. They’ll never stamp it out. It’s one of the few times people can act their best. It’s so economical in terms of gesture and motion, every single gesture is precise, every effort is at its maximum. Nobody goofs off. Everybody is responsible for his brother. The sense of community and kinship and brotherhood, devotion. There are opportunities to feel things that you simply cannot feel in modern city life. Very impressive.
As previously noted, the goal of the Things Cohenites Don’t Like About Leonard Cohen series is simply illuminating an area in Leonard’s life that is unknown to many because it is somehow discomforting. In this case, however, I would submit that it is presenting “war is wonderful” declaration in isolation that evokes the egregious, angry backlash. Consequently, the next post in this series, Leonard Cohen On War, Part II, will (1) follow up on the context of this quotation and (2) address the misperception that Leonard Cohen was anti-war as a cause of the vigorous antagonism to this remark.
More Things Cohenites Don’t Like About Leonard Cohen
- Things Cohenites Don’t Like About Leonard Cohen: Introduction
- Things Cohenites Don’t Like About Leonard Cohen: His Scientology Phase
- Things Cohenites Don’t Like About Leonard Cohen: His Fondness For Guns
- Things Cohenites Don’t Like About Leonard Cohen: His Perspective On War
- That Don’t Make It Junk – Things Cohenites Don’t Like About Leonard Cohen: His Perspective On War Part 2
Credit Due Department: The “Tanks For The Memory” cartoon and text were retrieved from Jem Treadwell’s Leonard Cohen Scrapbook. The name and date of the newspaper publishing the cartoon are not available.
I am republishing selected posts from my former Leonard Cohen site, Cohencentric, here on AllanShowalter.com (these posts can be found at Leonard Cohen). This entry was originally posted May 3, 2018.
- Source: Various Positions by Ira Nadel [↩]
- Remembrance Day has been observed on November 11 in Canada and other Commonwealth countries since the end of World War I to remember the members of their armed forces who died in the line of duty; it coincides with Veterans Day in the US. The emblem of Remembrance Day, the red poppy, bloomed across the battlefields of Flanders in World War I and was memorialized in the lines of “In Flanders Fields.” [↩]
- September 15 1974 Leonard Cohen Interview by Robin Pike (ZigZag magazine: October 1974). [↩]