War has been a historical and cultural reality that has dogged humanity since civilization began, and perhaps even before then. Understanding it depends on which era and which culture you’re talking about. At one time, dying in battle was the stuff of legend, from Beowulf, to Charge of the Brigade, to the Ballad of the Green Berets. In more recent times of course, the subject of war as covered in song has been less unified. We no longer necessarily see war as glorious or as a rite of passage. This has a lot to do with the development of mass media, with the real face of war being revealed on TV, starting in the 60s and 70s with the war in Vietnam. But the medium of popular song has raised our awareness as well, with some upholding the necessity of war in certain instances, while others condemning it as a crime against humanity.
Here are 10 songs about war, each one adding to the perspective that war is more than just about the conflicts over wealth, territory, safety, or ideology. Ultimately, it’s about the people who are affected by it either directly or indirectly and even about how the very threat of war sours the quality of life and how we value it even in peace time.
The folk tradition, particularly the revivalism in the early 60s, was a rich breeding ground for singers and writers to explore the issue of war, being as it was in the beginning of the Cold War. From the Weavers‘ take on “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”, to Phil Ochs’ “I Ain’t Marching No More”, to Dylan’s “Masters of War”, it was plain that there had been a shift in perspective since the second world war. Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” nailed the point of view of many of these writers, not singling out the act of war or the threat of it, but also the hatred behind it, and the fear of difference. In this song, there wasn’t much of a barrier between civil rights struggles and the fear of communists, both having boiled up in the churning cultural waters of the 1950s. In the Reagan era of the 1980s, Canadian punk outfit the Forgotten Rebels recorded this song, as the fear of nuclear Armageddon still loomed large, like a leftover from the ideologically polarized world started in the 50s. It’s interesting that these sentiments never really got old – we’re still seeing the outcropping of wars fueled by fear.
Where the folk songs of the recent past have provided eloquent diatribes on why war is immoral, sometimes a more basic approach is required. Enter soul singer Edwin Starr who provided the musical slogan which embodied war fatigue in the early 70s. The protection of innocent lives is the impetus here, including many young lives out of the inner cities who were the fuel of the Vietnam conflict. In many ways, Starr is providing the voice for those who were actually fighting in the jungles, putting the value of life into perspective, even if many of the lives lost were considered to be expendable by those driving the war along. Good God, y’all!
Freda Payne is probably best known for her Northern Soul classic ‘Band of Gold’, a tale of love gone wrong. And this tune, ‘Bring the Boys Home’ was an emotional statement of another kind, reminding listeners that soldiers were not just functionaries of the conflict; they were brothers, husbands, fathers. They were connected to the lives of those at home waiting for them. Soldiers are often looked upon as faceless uniforms. Freda’s pleading tones humanize them. It was a necessary message in the early 70s, and is equally relevant now, albeit with the need to talk about bringing the girls home too. The song received airplay on the time of release, but was banned from broadcast on armed forces radio broadcasts as it was looked upon as a means to “give aid and comfort to the enemy“.
Part of the reality of war is that it affects the health of society on the home front. The shootings at Kent State University in 1970 proved that the psyche of a nation was being shaken to its core, with soldiers at home killing their own people in an effort to stem the tide of dissent surrounding the war. CSN&Y in recording their Deja Vu album that same year wrote the song in fairly short order, offering their horror and bewilderment at the events. I think the line “soldiers are cutting us down” is pretty powerful – these guys considered themselves very much a part of those who had gone through the trauma on the day. The cries of “why?” on the outro of the song are one of the most heartfelt moments in rock history. According to the song’s writer Neil Young on the liner notes for his 1976 compilation album Decade, David Crosby burst into tears at the end of the session. And who could blame him?
One of the key characteristics of the Sex Pistols was their lack of faith in the future – at least on record. Part of the reason for this was the impending threat of war due to opposing ideologies, the physical symbol of this in the late 70s in Europe being the Berlin Wall. “Holiday in the Sun” from their sole (to date) studio album Never Mind the Bollocks recognizes something outside of the usual cartoon nihilism and anarchy for which the band had become known. For one thing, this song provides an image the folk-revivalists of the early 60s would have died for – two men on two sides of a literal political fence looking at each other. The “reason” for a holiday, to see some “history” is due to the fact that the threat of world war three makes it impossible to get the chance to see over the wall, to connect with those on the other side.
By the 1980s, Cold War paranoia had reached a fever pitch, continuing to filter down to pop culture outlets from governments who had swung to the right in an effort to demonize each other. The Superpowers were posturing and vying for supremacy in a trillion-dollar arms race, making the threat of a nuclear confrontation a very real possibility. But in this song by Liverpool’s Frankie Goes to Hollywood, the face of war is presented as something which wears the costumes of a modern age, of efficient destructive technology, but is ultimately unchanged from primitive wars for territory. And the absurdity of point scoring is put into perspective, with only the score of “one” being the logical conclusion, with both sides losing.
In 1969, Robbie Robertson wrote “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” with The Band, which was the story of the civil war from the point of view of a Confederate soldier who had suffered the defeat under Stoneman’s Union Forces. By 1987, the theme of war became more than just a snapshot of a single soldier in the distant past; now it had become mythic, a Biblical struggle to bring about the end of the world. Where once the themes of wars in history served as a means of understanding war in the present, Robertson’s song takes on the idea that war is unavoidable, predestined, with “soldiers of fortune” fighting for reasons which are undetermined. The only thing left to do in this song is to pray. Whether this is vigilance against the possibilities of war, or a prayer for those who will inevitably suffer is unclear. Such were the fears of the time, when the future couldn’t be predicted, and certainly couldn’t be guaranteed. I suppose this is still the case when it comes to Armageddon, when the conflicts of the past have seemingly taught world leaders nothing.
The best of hip hop has provided us with a hand-held camera view of life on the street. And in Eric B. & Rakim’s “Casualties of War” from their 1992 album Don’t Sweat the Technique we get that view of the battlefield too – and harrowing view it is. This is the portrait of a soldier who is assailed by gunfire, bombs, and crushing self-doubt and confusion; confusion over who the enemy really is, and confusion over the need to kill those who are, in the end, not much different from himself. There is also the aspect of being duped by one’s own government, to be pulled into a conflict that makes no sense on a personal level through propagandistic messaging – “be all the you can be/another dead soldier…”.
One of the emotions which are stirred during wartime is anger. In recent years, a lot of anger has been built up around the events of September 11, 2001 when 3000 people lost their lives in the attack New York’s Twin Towers. One of the voice of anger came out in the form of country singer Toby Keith’s song “The Angry American (Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue)”. Yet this anger seemed to be less about the loss of life, and more about the effrontery of the enemy to attack a nation’s honour. The real offense seems to centre on calling the supremacy of America into question. It is interesting that in times of war, the bulwark of self-mythology seems strongest. And it’s easily understood why this is; a unifying message during wartime has its advantages. It may give voice to those who are legitimately wounded by loss. But, it also can be used to ensure consent, even when the intentions and goals of war are less than upfront.
Another phenomenon that has been common down through the ages is the idea of a Holy War – a conflict that is initiated by those who claim to have God’s ear. In recent years, this has been more applicable than ever before, with the political ideologies of the past in many ways supplanted by religious conviction or affiliation on both sides. Yet in the minds of many, the idea of faith and devotion to God seems to run contrary to ordering thousands of people to carry out violent acts. Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst’s song “When the President Talks to God” tries to unpack this quandary, this seemingly disingenuous notion that war, or any other device of social oppression, can be the will of God. This is another kind of anger which stands in opposition with that of Toby Keith’s. In this, the heart of anger is more than jingoistic outrage. This is pure disillusionment over the policies that affect the lives of real people, presided over by those who claim devotion to upholding the principles of peace and compassion.
War; what is it good for? Well, despite Edwin Starr’s clear message, it would appear that war is a powerful subject to sing about at very least. But, in this age of information, it would seem that war is good for a great many things including pulling together a nation and uniting a political platform that might otherwise not be viable.
It is interesting that the cries against war in the arts seem to go largely unheeded by those who initiate war. Surely a true democracy values its artists, who in turn reflect a mirror image of the society out of which their art comes, doesn’t it? Yet with all things, this is too simple to be true. The idea of saving the world with a record seems naïve, unless we drastically expand the record collections of world leaders. Hmm…now there’s something worth pursuing…