Drive On (Psalm 88)

This week please read chapter 11, Ragged Old Flag, and chapter 12, Drive On of Richard Beck’s book Trains, Jesus, and Murder – The Gospel According to Johnny Cash. These two songs compose “Section 3: Nation and Nostalgia” of the book which lead us into an evaluation of patriotism, national wars, and their compatibility with the Gospel.


The song Drive On appeared on Johnny Cash’s 1993 album American Recordings. The song is sung from the perspective of a Vietnam veteran’s memory of the war. In an interview, Cash explained that the title of the song came from a book he was reading about Vietnam. When soldiers were on patrol and one was killed by enemy fire, the orders to those remaining were to “drive on” as if the death of someone physically and emotionally close to you “don’t mean nothin’” Looking back on his experiences twenty-five years later, the singer finds that he is still haunted by his war memories, and he cannot talk about those memories with anyone because no one understands. The singer physically survives the war (albeit with a limp) but the real damage to him is emotional and spiritual.


St. Paul is clear, that governments are ordained by God to keep the peace. Rom 13:1. The Church has developed an entire doctrine of just war to determine when it is morally permissible for the state to authorize and command its people to kill others. From the Roman Church’s catechism to the Greek Church’s Social Ethos there are numerous resources to discuss the larger issue of when it is morally permissible for a Christian to support war and to serve in the military.

Cash’s song, however, is not about these larger theoretical issues of the compatibility of waging war and following Christ. Rather, Drive On and similar songs like The Big Battle or Route 1, Box 144, are concerned with what happens to the ordinary forgotten soldiers who survived the war or their families when they did not come home. In war, these are the least of these. Even the most just wars (like World War II) still send back dead and broken men. And, unlike Vietnam War-era songs, Cash is not trying to make a grand political statement regarding Vietnam but is simply requiring us to look in the faces of those who fought there and walk with them in their subsequent internal conflicts.

General W.T. Sherman said that “It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.” War only appears to be a fight waged by a nation or an organization. In reality, it is a fight waged by real people created in God’s image against real people created in God’s image.  Therefore, our question concerning war is less about whether it is just but whether we are willing to send these image-bearers (who are our children and neighbors) into hell.

(As an aside, a similar song about the soldiers of the Iraq/Afghanistan Wars, is Wrong Side of Heaven by Five Finger Death Punch.)


I got a friend named Whiskey Sam
He was my boonierat buddy for a year in Nam
He said is my country just a little off track
Took ’em twenty-five years to welcome me back
But, it’s better than not coming back at all
Many a good man
I saw fall And even now,
every time I dream I hear the men
and the monkeys in the jungle scream

Drive on, don’t mean nothin’
My children love me , but they don’t understand
And I got a woman who knows her man
Drive on, don’t mean nothin’, drive on

I remember one night,
Tex and me Rappelled in on a hot L.Z.
We had our 16’s on rock and roll
But, with all that fire,
was scared and cold
We were crazy, we were wild
And I have seen the tiger smile
I spit in a bamboo viper’s face
And I’d be dead, but by God’s grace

Drive on, don’t mean nothin’
My children love me, but they don’t understand
And I got a woman who knows her man
Drive on, don’t mean nothin’, drive on

It was a real slow walk in a real sad rain
And nobody tried to be John Wayne
I came home, but Tex did not
And I can’t talk about the hit he got
I got a little limp now when
I walk Got a little tremolo when
I talk But my letter read from Whiskey Sam
You’re a walkin’ talkin’ miracle from Vietnam

Drive on, don’t mean nothin’
My children love me, but they don’t understand
And I got a woman who knows her man
Drive on, don’t mean nothin’, drive on

But as for me, O Lord, I cry to you for help; *
   in the morning my prayer comes before you.
Lord, why have you rejected me? *
   why have you hidden your face from me?
Ever since my youth, I have been wretched and at the point of death; *
   I have borne your terrors with a troubled mind.
Your blazing anger has swept over me; *
   your terrors have destroyed me;
They surround me all day long like a flood; *
   they encompass me on every side.
My friend and my neighbor you have put away from me, *
   and darkness is my only companion.
Psalm 88: 14-19

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