Hundreds of anti-war songs have been written throughout the centuries and none have ever prevented or stopped a war.
Wikipedia has a fairly comprehensive list, a little light on the traditional side, but enough to demonstrate the many attempts by songwriters to raise awareness of the evils of war through protest, satire or graphic descriptions of the human cost of armed conflict.
But none of them achieved the desired effect. I am not aware of any high-level confabs of top government officials where one of the participants said, “Hey, I was listening to Phil Ochs the other day and he made a pretty convincing case against going to war,” or “Hey, maybe John Lennon was right—maybe we should give peace a chance.”
You’d think that after centuries of effort with nothing to show for it that songwriters would have abandoned the practice, but Wikipedia lists ten songs protesting the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Guess what? I don’t think Putin gives a shit. I found out why on Study.com:
Why Do Wars Start?
Wars usually begin due to a dispute between nations and break out because governmental leaders cannot solve their problems peacefully. Most leaders try to avoid war, but there are many instances of bellicose individuals enthusiastically seeking out armed conflict.
Whether the cause is bellicose individuals, incompetent leaders, territorial pissing, religious differences or rabid patriotism, it’s highly unlikely that war will soon become a thing of the past. Given human history, the resurgence of the “strongman fetish” and the extreme political polarization engulfing many countries, I’d say the chances are pretty high that a fairly significant war will occur in our lifetimes and even the greatest anti-war song ever composed will be unable to stop it.
So, why should songwriters waste so much time and effort fighting a hopeless battle?
Here’s the thing: human progress is by its very nature glacially slow. Human beings cling to the familiar because they believe that sticking to the people, surroundings and traditions they know is the safer bet—and they continue to embrace the familiar even when presented with rock-solid evidence that doing so will lead to their demise. As W. H. Auden put it:
We would rather be ruined than changed
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.
The collective effect of billions of change resisters is reflected in the institutions that govern society—institutions that are largely dedicated to preserving the status quo. There are good reasons for taking a conservative approach to government design—the shitshow referred to as the French Revolution conclusively proved that trying to change an entire system overnight is a guaranteed path to chaos. The flaw in the conservative design approach is that those in power have no interest in changing anything that would cause them to forfeit that power—which quirkily feeds into the desire of the masses for the familiar. In democracies, this powerful bias towards the status quo leads to electing the same old farts year after year, who in turn do nothing to change failing policies or decrepit institutions. Strangely enough, this stuck-in-neutral situation makes for a happy populace—not only because it helps to preserve the familiar, but because there are few things people enjoy as much as bitching about the government.
Alas, there are few things in human history as status quo as war. War fills the pages of our history books; the first war in recorded history took place in 2700 B.C, which means we have five thousand years of familiarity with war under our belts. Out of 195 countries in the world today, only 16 have no military forces. According to globalcitizen.org, there are currently twenty-seven ongoing conflicts today affecting one-quarter of the world’s population. “Globally, conflict and violence are on the rise, according to the United Nations. The UN has warned that peace is more under threat around the world than it has been since World War II.”
Let’s get real. The struggle to secure equal rights for women and minorities has been going on for centuries and there’s still a long way to go. It will likely take centuries for human beings to discover healthier paths to glory and safely abolish war. To ignore this scourge of humanity and keep silent about the horrors and sheer wastefulness of war is simply unconscionable, and anyone who has the courage to write an anti-war song in a world conditioned to accept war as a viable option is a hero in my book. A particular song may only impact a few minds, but I’ll take one-baby-step-forward over one-big-step-backward.
I’ve covered many anti-war songs in various reviews; for this essay, I’ll focus on three anti-war songs that have moved me the most.
“War” – Performed by Edwin Starr, music and lyrics by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong
The original version by The Temptations appears on side two of Psychedelic Shack. Motown refused to release it as a single because they thought it would alienate the more conservative elements in the fan base.
And they didn’t think an album with the word “psychedelic” in the title would alienate conservatives? Go figure.
Norman Whitfield kept pushing for a single, which led to a compromise of sorts—management would allow him to record the song, but he’d have to find another singer. As luck would have it, Edwin Starr had been hanging around Hitsville U. S. A. for about a year patiently waiting for the brass to give him a follow-up hit to “Twenty-Five Miles.” He heard about the controversy surrounding the single and volunteered for duty, recording the song with Norman Whitfield producing.
Once you’ve heard Edwin Starr’s version (and who hasn’t?), it’s really hard to take the original seriously. The Temptations’ version suffers from over-arrangement, a ridiculous waste of bass singer Melvin Franklin’s talents (chanting “hup, two, three, four” in the background) and a detectable lack of commitment to the song’s lyrics (The Temptations sided with the Motown brass and opposed releasing their version as a single).
There is no detectable lack of commitment or even a hint of squishiness in Edwin Starr’s rendition. This song needed the hell-fire outrage of a preacher railing against sin and Edwin Starr was more than up to the task of exposing war as the worst of all sins. You feel his anger about “the destruction of innocent lives,” you feel his outrage that “war has shattered many a young man’s dreams/Made him disabled, bitter and mean,” and above all, you feel his absolute disgust at a human race that refuses to end the utter madness of war.
“GOOD GOD, Y’ALL!”
By pure happenstance, the song was released a few weeks after Nixon’s incursion into Cambodia and the subsequent tragedy of Kent State. “War” immediately shot to #1 and became “the most successful protest song to become a pop hit.”
Great song, great performance—but it changed nothing. The Vietnam War continued for another four years. Congress passed the War Powers Act to prevent future presidents from pulling another Nixon-like stunt and . . .
“Since it was passed, the War Powers Act has been honored in the breach—that is, presidents have reported to Congress what they intend to do anyway and have mostly ignored the War Powers Act when it would have inconvenienced their plans,” says Andrew Preston, professor of American History at Cambridge University and co-author with Logevall of Nixon in the World: American Foreign Relations, 1969-1977.
“Indeed, presidents have almost dared Congress to do something about the lack of respect they’ve shown to the War Powers Act. If Congress’s intention with the War Powers Resolution was to reduce American military intervention and to restore the balance between executive and congressional war powers, then it can only be seen as a failure,” Preston says. (History.com)
Sorry, Virginia, but Donald Trump wasn’t the only American president who played fast and loose with the law. Presidents know they can always get away with “foreign incursions” because they know that Congress is full of gutless losers who are terrified of being labeled “soft” or “unpatriotic.” It’s always “God bless our troops and god bless America because goddammit I’m up for re-election!”
Due to its immense popularity, I’ll give the Most Baby Steps Forward Award to Edwin Starr.
June Tabor/Eric Bogle “No Man’s Land/Flowers of the Forest” (also titled “Green Fields of France” in several cover versions)
If you’ve ever visited any of the World War I cemeteries in Belgium or Northern France, the experience that inspired Eric Bogle to compose “No Man’s Land” will speak for itself. “I wrote this song after a short and very sobering tour round one of the vast military cemeteries in Northern France. There were a lot of Willie McBrides buried there . . . ” (liner notes from Eric Bogle—LIVE). In the liner notes on Now I’m Easy, he was even more succinct: “A song about the waste and futility of war. Pure and simple.”
Waste and futility hardly begin to describe the horrors that took place on the Western Front in World War I. After the initial German offensive petered out on the Marne, two lines of trenches stretching from the English Channel to the Swiss border defined the field of battle. The open space between the trenches was referred to as No Man’s Land, with good reason. While the Germans took the offensive only once in the next three years, the French and British generals launched several attacks, all of which failed with appalling loss of life. Most of the battles involved frontal assaults; men leaping out of trenches into No Man’s Land were immediately cut down by German machine guns (it is estimated that 20,000 Allied soldiers died in the first hour of the third Battle of the Somme). The trenches themselves were hardly safe harbors:
With soldiers fighting in close proximity in the trenches, usually in unsanitary conditions, infectious diseases such as dysentery, cholera and typhoid fever were common and spread rapidly.
Constant exposure to wetness caused trench foot, a painful condition in which dead tissue spread across one or both feet, sometimes requiring amputation. Trench mouth, a type of gum infection, was also problematic and is thought to be associated with the stress of nonstop bombardment.
As they were often effectively trapped in the trenches for long periods of time, under nearly constant bombardment, many soldiers suffered from “shell shock,” the debilitating mental illness known today as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). (History.com)
Both sides resorted to poisonous gas to facilitate a breakthrough, again with little success.
Presentations of dry history and statistics rarely touch the human heart; we’re conditioned by the education system to remember the salient facts long enough to be able to regurgitate them for the midterm exam and then immediately erase them from the memory bank. By giving one of those statistics a name (Willie McBride) and making an effort to suss out his backstory, Eric Bogle reminds us that those statistics represent individuals with families, sweethearts, hopes and dreams. And though “No Man’s Land” has been covered by many notables, there are few vocalists capable of expressing the empathy and righteous indignation the song demands as June Tabor. Accompanied only by piano for the song proper, she wisely allows the story to tell itself, imbuing the lyrics with emotion and emphasis only when appropriate.
Well, how’d you do, Private William McBride,
D’you mind if I sit down down here by your graveside?
I’ll rest for awhile in the warm summer sun,
I’ve been walking all day, and I’m nearly done.
And I see by your gravestone you were only nineteen
When you joined the glorious fallen in 1916,
And I hope you died quick and I hope you died “clean,”
Or, William McBride, was it slow and obscene?
I sense a strong hint of sarcasm in the phrase “the glorious fallen,” a hackneyed phrase invented by war leaders to justify sending a young man to his death long before his time. I don’t think Willie McBride felt even a tiny bit of glory when he died, whether it was slow or obscene. The chorus follows each verse, describing the usual rituals and solemn music of a military funeral. What strikes me about the chorus is its impersonality—these rituals were assembly-line productions with no thought given to the individual lying in a coffin.
Did they beat the drum slowly, did they sound the fife lowly?
Did the rifles fire o’er ye as they lowered ye down?
Did the bugles sing “The Last Post” in chorus?
Did the pipes play the “Flowers of The Forest”?
The visitor to Willie’s grave starts to wonder about his life before the war and who might (or might not) be waiting for him to come home.
And did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind
In some loyal heart is your memory enshrined?
And, though you died back in 1916,
To that faithful heart are you always nineteen?
Or are you just a stranger, without even a name,
Forever enclosed behind some glass pane,
In an old photograph, torn and tattered and stained,
And fading to yellow in a brown leather frame?
As in the first verse, Bogle presents two possible options; “slow or obscene” is replaced by “remembered or forgotten.” Either option is heartbreaking; the simple truth is that a man was denied the opportunity to live a full life for reasons beyond his control.
In the third verse, Bogle shifts the perspective from the individual grave to the thousands of graves surrounding him:
Well, the sun it shines down on these green fields of France;
The warm wind blows gently and the red poppies dance.
The trenches have vanished, now under the plow;
No gas and no barbed wire, no guns firing now.
But here in this graveyard it’s still No Man’s Land;
And the countless white crosses in mute witness stand
To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man.
And a whole generation who were butchered and damned.
June imbues that last line with palpable emotion and understandable disgust that never fails to bring tears to my eyes.
In the final verse, Bogle makes a powerful and moving statement on “The War to End Wars.”
And I can’t help but wonder now, Willie McBride,
Do all those who lie here know why they died?
Did you really believe them when they told you “the cause?”
Did you really believe that this war would end wars?
But the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame,
The killing, the dying, it was all done in vain,
For Willie McBride, it’s all happened again,
And again, and again, and again, and again.
And again, and again, and again, and again.
Dire Straits – Brothers in Arms – Written by Mark Knopfler
While I’m 100% anti-war, I have a deep respect for the troops who fight the battles. I just wish we lived in a world where we didn’t need troops to protect us.
Many of those who served in wartime had no choice due to conscription; those who joined voluntarily often believed in the mission and/or viewed the opportunity as a form of meaningful service. In “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” the much-maligned-by-sixties-leftists Sgt. Barry Sadler gave meaning to the death of the Green Beret in the line, “He has died for those oppressed,” and I have no reason to doubt that he truly believed in that interpretation of the mission.
People who serve in the military often develop strong feelings of camaraderie, particularly those who have gone through battle together. In battle you learn that success and survival are highly dependent on mutual trust—each member of a squad has a sacred obligation to protect his fellows and in turn, each member of the squad has to feel confident that the others will do what they can to protect them.
Written sometime in 1982 during the Falklands War, Mark Knopfler’s “Brothers in Arms” manages to respect that camaraderie while making a poignant statement about the sheer absurdity of war. I’m not a big Dire Straits fan, but I would classify “Brothers in Arms” as a lyrical and musical masterpiece without reservation.
The narrator of the song is a dying soldier sharing his last words with his brothers in arms. In this situation, Mark Knopfler’s limited vocal capabilities are a perfect match for song and story, his voice barely rising above a whisper, roughened to match the narrator’s quickly fading strength. His lyrics are supported by one of the finest guitar counterpoints I’ve ever heard, a master class in musical sensitivity.
When we first encounter the dying man, we find that he has accepted his pending death in the faraway “mist-covered mountains” while still yearning for his true home in the Scottish lowlands. He also expresses the wish that his comrades will return to “your valleys and your farms” and find less dangerous paths to the magical experience of collaboration:
These mist-covered mountains
Are a home now for me
But my home is the lowlands
And always will be
Someday you’ll return to
Your valleys and your farms
And you’ll no longer burn to be
Brothers in arms
In the second verse, the soldier expresses his deepest gratitude toward the men who helped him find meaning amidst the madness:
Through these fields of destruction
Baptisms of fire
I’ve witnessed your suffering
As the battle raged high
And though they did hurt me so bad
In the fear and alarm
You did not desert me
My brothers in arms
The bridge presents the dying soldier exploring the meaning of existence in our troubled world and the stubborn reluctance on the part of the world’s inhabitants to realize the truth in JFK’s commencement address at American University: “For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”
There’s so many different worlds
So many different suns
And we have just one world
But we live in different ones
His last message takes an unusual turn filled with deep insight. Reflecting on his battlefield experience, he now recognizes that the enemy was motivated by similar passions and forged similar bonds. The soldiers on both sides were simply trying to survive a difficult situation; on a fundamental level, they had much in common with one another.
Now the sun’s gone to hell and
The moon’s riding high
Let me bid you farewell
Every man has to die
But it’s written in the starlight
And every line in your palm
We’re fools to make war
On our brothers in arms
The meaning of “Brothers in Arms” became crystal clear to me when the song was featured in the final episode of The Americans. It’s impossible to appreciate the impact of the song in that context unless you watch the entire series, so I’ll spare you an attempt at a summary and pronounce “Brothers in Arms” one of the most truthful songs ever written about human beings and war.
Wars do not solve problems, they create them, and the problems they create lead to more war. Whether you measure the cost of war in terms of loss of life or economic damage, war isn’t worth it. Even five-star General Dwight D. Eisenhower figured that out:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. . . . This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.
I have to admit that part of the inspiration for this chapter in the Song Series has to do with the fact that I’ve never been as close to a real shooting war as I am now, and that all it will take to bring the EU into the conflict is for Putin to employ one tactical nuclear weapon in battle. Ray Davies’ line “I don’t want to die in a nuclear war” has never had as much meaning for me as it does now.
As luck would have it, I was recently presented with an opportunity to play a small part in facilitating an end to the Russian-Ukraine conflict. About a month ago I noticed a significant uptick in Russian visitors to altrockchick.com. At first I thought some loser had launched a bot attack, but after checking the spam folder and the security apps, I was able to confirm that no evil farts were involved—just curious Russian music lovers who stumbled across the site.
So, now that I have a Russian audience, I would like to take a baby step forward and send them a message, courtesy of The Clash:
Kick over the wall, cause governments to fallHow can you refuse it? Let fury have the hour, anger can be power Do you know that you can use it?
Or, in more pithy language: take that motherfucker out!
Спасибо и удачи!
Another great article Altrockchick. There are so many anti-war songs but thought I’d mention two which are often overlooked but are by well known artists: Richie Havens’ magnificent Minstrel from Gaul tells the story of the French defeat in Vietnam; while Glen Campbell’s – Galveston, written by Jimmy Webb, says so much about homesick American G.I.s in the same conflict years later. Keep writing, it’s much appreciated.
Great writing as always. You should check out Mark Knopfler’s Remembrance Day and Piper To The End from his Get Lucky album.
Beautiful article. War songs will not change the mind of world leaders anywhere, but they (like all songs that dare ask for hope in general) help give more decency to this world. They show the good side of mankind. Yes, because no one would write an anti-war song if they don’t believe in the hope for a better future. Ultimately, that’s what anti-war songs are about. Hope. And trying to live as ethically and morally as possible, even when life wants to make you succumb, even in the toughest moments of endurance.
Great writing as always.
I can recommend Remembrance Day and Piper To The End by Mark Knopfler from his Get Lucky album.
A fine essay, but then we expect that by now.
You and I share admiration for June Tabor. Singing long ballads is hard work physically and artistically. Few do it well, and she did it time after time. So, I’m always glad when you remind me of one of hers.