Book Review: Ballad of the Green Beret by Marc Leepson

Decades, years even, are roller coasters. They undulate, smoothly at times, precipitously at others. You can catch a glimpse of America’s dizzying ride in the 1960s in about a six month period on the Billboard music charts. On September 25, 1965, Barry Maguire’s version of “Eve of Destruction” (“You’re old enough to kill but not for votin’/You don’t believe in war, but what’s that gun you’re totin'”) was the number one single in the country. Before winter ended, Barry Sadler would reach that top spot with “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” a song praising “Fighting soldiers from the sky/Fearless men who jump and die.”

At the time, the former seemed a slight dip in the roller coaster’s course. Banned by a number of radio stations in 20 of the country’s 50 largest radio markets, “Eve of Destruction” spent a grand total of a week at # 1. “Ballad,” however, not only spent five weeks there, it was the top single of the year. In retrospect, though, the song was a trough that today delineates the end of an era. It was the only notable and popular pro-military song of the Vietnam War era. And just as that war splintered the United States, the song wholly refashioned the life of Barry Sadler, the soldier who wrote and recorded it.

“Ballad” was released in January 1966, a year during which U.S. troop levels in Vietnam would more than double. It sold more than 2 million copies within a month of its release and made Sadler a household name. But other than knowing he served as a Green Beret in Vietnam, his life before and after is little known. Marc Leepson endeavors to change that with Ballad of the Green Beret: The Life and Wars of Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler from the Vietnam War and Pop Stardom to Murder and an Unsolved, Violent Death.

Thoroughly researched, Ballad of the Green Beret takes readers from Sadler’s hardscrabble and chaotic childhood and adolescence through his tour of Vietnam and the creation and success of his chart-topping song. Leepson also delves into Sadler’s life after “stardom,” which included a manslaughter conviction, a series of mass market paperbacks about an immortal mercenary that sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and an exodus to Guatemala, where a shooting left him all but paraplegic for the last 14 months of his life and led to an acrimonious family feud over his care.

Ascertaining Sadler’s story isn’t always easy. He had a tendency to tell people what he thought they wanted to hear. And, as Leepson notes, that Sadler’s own autobiography, released in 1967 when Sadler was only 26, not only was “often vague about dates and places” it was “cluttered with filler and other non-autobiographical chronology detours.” The task didn’t become easier as Sadler tried music, acting and writing careers, and allegedly was an arms dealer in Guatemala. His friends admit it was sometimes hard to tell where the truth ended and where “the legend Barry was creating around himself began.”

This includes the creation of his smash hit. Sadler told several versions but agreed the song went through numerous variations of the song as suggestions from others were added and discarded. Much of it, originally titled “The Ballad of the Green Beret,” was actually composed before Sadler served as a medic in Vietnam. He was there about six months before a punji stick pierced the side of his left knee in mid-May 1965. Following his return to the United States, Sadler sought to record the song. During this process he met Robin Moore, author of the novel The Green Berets, published in 1965. Moore suggested the last word of the title be changed to the plural for cross-promotion with his book. He also received a half interest in the song for writing a new third verse (interestingly, Leeson’s book doesn’t contain the song’s lyrics) and agreeing to do his best to promote the song. Sadler’s photo appeared on the cover of the paperback edition of the book released in 1966 but, ironically, the 1968 film based on the book used a choral arrangement of his song.

Sadler would end up in a recording studio on December 18, 1965. “Ballad” was one of a dozen songs recorded in nine hours that day. The single was released on January 11, 1966, and an album of the same name nine days later. Sadler appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show on January 30, By the end of the week the song began a five week run at the top of Billboard’s pop charts. In becoming the year’s top single, it bested songs now considered classics, such as The Beatles’ “Paperback Writer,” “Paint It Black” by The Rolling Stones and “Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys.

The song’s popularity and surrounding media frenzy came in an America that overwhelmingly supported the Vietnam War. One Missouri newspaper reflected one of the stronger views of the song, opining that it might “inspire some of the pickets and peace demonstrators to put on a uniform and try to win the coveted green beret.” Of course, less than 2,000 U.S. troops died in Vietnam in the year before the song’s release; more than 34,000 died over the next three years.

The Green Berets immediately sought to exploit the song and Staff Sgt. Sadler to its advantage. He was reassigned to the Public Information Office and spent his last 15 months in the military making personal appearances throughout the country. The extent and thoroughness of Leepson’s research shows through in the three chapters examining this period and its effect on Sadler, who felt relegated to what he called a “glorified recruiter.”

Sadler released another album in May 1966. Two months later, it finally reached the album charts –at 132 — and dropped off entirely two weeks later. Yet even that was a bigger success than Sadler’s post-discharge efforts at music, acting and film careers and owning a bar. He spent all his royalties by the end of 1971 and the following year said, “If I had to do it all over again I’d probably throw the song in the trash can.”

Sadler took another shot at music when he moved to Nashville. But there his life would reach its nadir in December 1978. Here, again, Leepson’s meticulous research shows through. He efficiently dissects the events surrounding Sadler shooting and killing an ex-boyfriend of a woman he was seeing and his subsequent conviction for involuntary manslaughter. Some good fortune arose, though, as during this time Sadler managed to sell his eternal mercenary pulp novels.

In January 1984 he moved to Guatemala, where he continued writing and used his medic training to help local villagers. He also supposedly trained Contra rebels and dealt arms, claims Leepson ventures to evaluate. In September 1988, though, Sadler was shot in the head in a cab in Guatemala City. Friends arranged for him to be flown to the United States for medical care but he would remain brain damaged and wheelchair bound until dying in November 1989 at age 49.

Quite readable and straightforward, Ballad of the Green Beret is bolstered by the 70 different individuals Leepson interviewed and an extensive bibliography. This variety of sources and viewpoints leaves the reader pondering how Sadler’s life would have differed had he thrown his song in the trash and remained a medic. Just as Sadler’s one hit wonder today reflects a nation on the threshold of a massive cultural transformation, the book illuminates the law of unintended consequences in one individual’s life.

I’d like to play a medley of my hit.

Barry Sadler in Marc Leepson, Ballad of the Green Beret

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