"The Ballad of the Green Berets" is a patriotic song in the ballad style about the Green Berets, an elite special force in the U.S. Army. It is one of the very few songs of the 1960s to cast the military in a positive light and in 1966 it became a major hit, reaching No. 1 for five weeks on the Hot 100 and four weeks on Cashbox. It was also a crossover smash, reaching No. 1 on Billboard's Easy Listening chart and No. 2 on Billboard's Country survey.
The song was written by Robin Moore and Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler, while the latter was recuperating from a leg wound suffered as a medic in the Vietnam War. Moore also wrote a book, The Green Berets, about the force. The tune itself is borrowed from the traditional American folk song "The Butcher Boy".
"Back at home a young wife waits Her Green Beret has met his fate He has died for those oppressed Leaving her this last request Put silver wings on my son's chest Make him one of America's best He'll be a man they'll test one day Have him win the Green Beret"
The lyrics were written in honor of Green Beret James Gabriel, Jr., the first native Hawaiian who died in Vietnam, who was executed by the Viet Cong while on a training mission on April 8, 1962. One verse was written in honor of Gabriel, but it never made it into the final version.
Sadler debuted the song on television on January 30, 1966 on The Ed Sullivan Show.
The song was the No. 1 hit in the U.S. for the five weeks encompassing March 1966 and the No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100's end of the year chart for 1966, despite the competing "California Dreaming", sharply dividing the popular music market, and the No. 21 song of the 1960s, even though the Vietnam War later became unpopular. The rivalry between "Green Berets" and "California Dreaming" was so fierce that the two records tied for the No. 1 record of 1966, according to Cashbox. "Green Berets" has sold over nine million singles and albums and was the top single of a year in which the British Invasion, led by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, continued to dominate the U.S. charts. For comparison, according to Billboard, The Beatles' top hit in 1966 was "We Can Work It Out" (No. 16), while the Stones' top hit in 1966 was "Paint It, Black" (No. 21).
The song is heard in a choral rendition by Ken Darby in the 1968 John Wayne film, The Green Berets, based on Moore's book. The score of the movie was never released as an album until Film Score Monthly released it in 2005. A film tie-in featuring artwork from the film and a cover version by Ennio Morricone was released in Europe, though the other tracks on the album were soundtracks from A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More.
The song appears in the films More American Graffiti and Canadian Bacon. It can be heard in the gun show scene from the 2002 film Showtime, and in the film Jesus' Son, in a scene that features a hitch-hiking Jack Black.
A vinyl copy of "The Ballad of the Green Berets" makes a brief appearance in "The Simpsons" episode "Homer's Phobia", from the show's eighth season. Guest star and filmmaker John Waters is seen, near the five minute mark, flipping through Homer and Marge's record collection; Sadler's hit is amongst them.
Bill Murray briefly sang "Green Berets" in "Caddyshack" during his nighttime attempt to kill the gopher.
The punk band The F.U's performed a cover of the song, featured on the album This Is Boston, Not L.A.
Many cover versions are in different languages rewritten to reference local units; these include:
- A German version (Hundert Mann und ein Befehl), sung by Freddy Quinn and later again by Heidi Brühl had considerable success in Germany. The German version is a song against the war. It rejects any sacrifice, not only for the son, but for the father as well. Freddy Quinn sings the song from the point of view of the reluctant but forced soldier, Heidi Bruhl from the point of view of the crying girlfriend of the soldier. Freddy Quinn's version was later cover by Welle: Erdball and also by Cryptic Wintermoon.
- The Royal Netherlands Army's Korps Commandotroepen (KCT) use the original lyrics. The only difference is that in the chorus, instead of singing "These are men, America's best", they sing "These are men, The Netherlands' best". Also in the final chorus, referring to the son of a deceased Green Beret, they sing "Make him one of The Netherlands' best". This version of the original ballad is sung to recruits who have successfully completed the harsh Basic Commando Training (ECO), and who receive their Green Beret.
- Rhodesian singer-songwriter John Edmond recorded the "Ballad of the Green Berets" with reference to the soldiers of the Rhodesian Light Infantry (RLI), commando-style fireforce units of Rhodesian Security Forces who wore berets of green color. A "Ballad of the Red Beret" was sung by the Rhodesian Ministry of Internal Affairs at their battlecamp in Chikurubi. In South Africa, the "Ballad of the Green Berets" was recorded as the "Ballad of the Maroon Berets". The Maroon beret is a symbol of the South African Special Forces Brigade and the South African 44 Parachute Regiment. Also this song was re-recorded by South African opera singer Leonore Veenemans as "My Land Suid-Afrika".
- The Swedish version "Balladen om den blå baskern" is a salute to the Swedish soldiers serving in the United Nations' peace-keeping forces (the Blue Berets). It was sung by Anita Lindblom.
- The Croatian Bojna za specijalna djelovanja (BSD) use the lyrics, but instead of "These are men, America's best" they sing "These are men, Croatia's best" and in the final chorus, referring to the son of a killed Green Beret, they also sing "Make him one of Croatia's best". It is unclear when exactly is the song first sung by new recruits, but it is assumed to be sometime after completing training.
- The Italian version is called La Ballata del Soldato, sung by Quartetto Cetra.
- In the Swiss Armed Forces, the Infantry Officer's School uses a quadrlingual version (named The Infantry Ballad) of the song as their anthem, in salute to the bonds created by the very harsh training undertaken by the cadets as well as to the sense of duty (and their motto, Exemplo Ducemus) they vow to respect. It is sung everyday onwards to the morning role call, before the National Anthem.
- In 1968, The Beach Bums, an ad hoc group featuring a young Bob Seger, recorded "The Ballad of the Yellow Beret". The song was a send-up of "The Ballad of the Green Berets", chronicling the adventures of a draft dodger. The record was withdrawn after a cease and desist letter from Sadler.
- The Residents parodied the song on their Third Reich & Roll album.
- Another parody was used on the episode of Saturday Night Live William Shatner hosted in 1986, called "Ollie North, The Mute Marine." Shatner participated in the sketch, outfitted in a USMC Class A uniform, which was a satire of Oliver North and his refusal at that point to speak up about his participation in the Iran-Contra Affair, and in which he had no lines.
- The song is used to humorous effect in Michael Moore's film Canadian Bacon as ill-informed Americans prepare for an invasion by Canada.
- In the movie Wag the Dog, the fictitious unit 303 Special Forces has a song created titled "The Men of the 303" that is played to a deliberately similar but original tune written by Huey Lewis for the film.
- In the film Caddyshack, Carl Spackler, played by Bill Murray, mumbles the song under his breath while he is connecting the wires to the plunger as he prepares for his final battle with his gopher nemesis.
- Comedian Paul Shanklin parodied the song with "Ballad of the Black Beret", referring to the Clinton sex scandal, on his 1999 album Simply Reprehensible.
- Though its usage here is not a parody, in an episode of Cheers, Cliff aborts his plans to emigrate to Canada with his love interest when Sam, Woody, and Frasier appeal to his patriotic side by singing this song.
|Preceded by||Billboard Hot 100 number one single
March 5, 1966 (five weeks)
"Crying Time" by Ray Charles
|Billboard Easy Listening Singles number-one single (SSgt Barry Sandler version)
March 5, 1966 (5 weeks)
"I Want to Go with You" by Eddy Arnold