How Pat Tillman and the Iraq War Inspired ‘World Wide Suicide’
When Pearl Jam returned to the top of the charts in 2006, they did so in an unlikely fashion -- riding the success of an intensely political song, “World Wide Suicide.”
It had been four years since Pearl Jam released their then most recent album, Riot Act. In that span, the George W. Bush administration had pushed forward with an invasion of Iraq; its goal, to remove the country’s weapons of mass destruction and topple the regime of Saddam Hussein.
The decision to invade was divisive across America, as some praised the president’s dedication to the War on Terror, while others argued he was risking the lives of American military personnel in an effort to achieve what his father could not (President George Bush Sr. led America into the Gulf War in the early ‘90s, but stopped short of removing Hussein).
The war and the contentious political climate it bred inspired many musicians at the time. Among them, Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder.
The dynamic rocker was an outspoken anti-war activist, proudly appearing at rallies while also connecting with soldiers who’d returned from duty. Vedder also took pride in staying up to date on current events, religiously watching CNN and reading the newspaper.
“You’ve got an administration that does all this work that is covert and undercover. They willed the country to go to war. They lied to us on deep, criminal levels about WMD’s,” the rocker opined during a 2006 conversation with Relix. “The worst lies they told us was that diplomacy had been exhausted, while all the while they were planning to go in, whether it was unilaterally, preemptively or fundamentally. They did all three.”
“Now you’ve got people confused over whether we should stay now that we are there,” he continued. “Other people say we have created and are supporting one side of a civil war. It’s a mess. I don’t think any Democrat or Republican is going to lead an antiwar movement until there is a shift in the polls that says that movement will be supported. If people are united, forceful and opinionated in letting their voice be heard and they support an antiwar candidate, then we will get one.”
Never afraid to stand behind their beliefs, Pearl Jam had performed in 2004 as part of the Vote for Change tour. The concerts, held over the course of three weeks that fall, encouraged people in swing states to get out and vote. Though the band hoped to spur voters to back Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, W. Bush would be elected for his second term. Following this experience, Pearl Jam returned to the studio to work on new material.
“Looking back, even though the Vote For Change tour was a failed experiment because our candidate did not win, it was also a flexing of the muscle of freedom of speech and preserving the rights that were written into the Constitution by some incredibly smart individuals a couple hundred years ago,” Vedder recalled in an interview with Magnet Magazine. “That’s something kids in school are being reminded of. I was probably not listening that day, but I finally figured it out years later. It’s a very important part of living in America.”
With the election, the Iraq War and the country’s socio-political climate fresh in their minds, Pearl Jam began working on what would become their 2006 self-titled release. Naturally, these themes manifested themselves in many of the songs’ lyrics, including the LP’s first single, “World Wide Suicide.”
For the track, one story in particular fueled Vedder’s lyrics. Pat Tillman, an NFL player who left his football career and enlisted in the army following the 9/11 attacks, was killed in Afghanistan while serving in the War on Terror. His death received national media attention and became more controversial after the army -- which originally reported that Tillman was killed during an enemy ambush -- revealed that the serviceman was actually the victim of friendly fire.
“It’s about [Tillman] and a bunch of the guys who didn’t get as much coverage – the guys who barely got a paragraph instead of ten pages," Vedder explained of “World Wide Suicide.” "The thing about Tillman was, he got ten pages but they were all lies. His family is being blocked by our government in finding out what really happened. Where are the leaders that are going to represent a galvanized view on what to do next?”
The song’s powerful opening lyrics echoed the moment Vedder learned of Tillman’s death. “I felt the earth on Monday / It moved beneath my feet / In the form of a morning paper / Laid out for me to see / Saw his face in a corner picture / I recognized the name / Could not stop staring at the / Face I'd never see again.”
Released March 16, 2006 “World Wide Suicide” was praised as a return to form for the band. Critics noted the song’s “primal punk power” and the “absolute conviction” of Vedder’s lyrics. The track quickly became a radio hit, reaching No. 1 on the Alternative Songs Chart. Given the subject matter, Pearl Jam’s frontman was surprised by the track’s commercial success. “I don't think two or three years ago you could even get a song called ''World Wide Suicide'' with the word soldier in it played on the radio,” Vedder noted to Entertainment Weekly. “The fact that it's getting played a lot, maybe that means that the ocean that is freedom of speech is still healthy enough for a fish to survive in.”