Sixteen Anti-War Songs


“Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.” — UNESCO

 

I made a list of sixteen anti-war songs that have meant something to me for a while, including a few lyrics from each and then a brief description. It would be too cumbersome to include all of the lyrics, or to make a comprehensive list, though you can find one here. Most are in English, so this will be limited in scope. I guess the songs are sort of “ranked,” but it’s not meant to be scientific; it’s just a list from which I find some meaning. Originally I sought to create a top ten list; however, it just kept growing.

Perhaps you have your own list, and it’s likely different than mine. We probably have different tastes, and that’s OK. I’m not going to fight anyone over anti-war songs. Maybe this list will do some a tiny bit of good, at a time when divisions appear to be growing.

 

 

16. Radiohead – “Harry Patch: In memory of” (2009)

Give your leaders each a gun and then let them
Fight it out themselves

 

This is Radiohead’s tribute to Harry Patch, the World War 1 veteran who died at age 111 in 2009. Patch once said that “War is organised murder and nothing else….politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organizing nothing better than legalized mass murder.”

15. Pink Floyd – “Two Suns in the Sunset” (1983)

Finally I understand / The feelings of the few
Ashes and diamonds, foe and friend/ We were all equal in the end

 

This songs takes the perspective of a single person about to be killed in a hypothetical nuclear explosion. It addresses the horror of coming to grips with the finality of death and the permanent loss of loved ones (“and you’ll never hear their voices”). It also confronts the potential for our extinction (“could be the human race is run”), and that, tragically, it is only in their final moments that the protagonist realizes all people are equal through their mortality.  

 

14. unknown – “Mrs. McGrath” (19th century)

All foreign wars, I do proclaim,
live on the blood and a mothers pain.
I’d rather have my son as he used to be
Than the King of America and his whole navy. 

 

This is the Springsteen version of an old Irish song. He modified the lyrics a bit to fit the mood of the day, after the 2003 US-led coalition invasion of Iraq.

 

 

13. Bruce Springsteen – “Devils and Dust” (2005)

We’ve got God on our side/ We’re just trying to survive
What if what you do to survive/ Kills the things you love? 
Fear’s a powerful thing / It’ll turn your heart black you can trust
It’ll take your God filled soul/ Fill it with devils and dust

 

The second Springsteen song on this list is said to be about an American soldier in Iraq. I think this song is partly about post-traumatic stress and moral injuries (intense guilt). I think it’s about a soldier wrestling with difficult choices due to extraordinarily difficult circumstances, caught between survival and adhering to his own moral code (“the things you love”). 

 

12. Bob Marley – “War” (1976)

That until there are no longer/ First class and second class citizens of any nation
Until the colour of a man’s skin/ Is of no more significance
Than the colour of his eyes/ Me say war.

 

The lyrics are derived from a speech by Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia. The causes of war are complex, though I think some of the ones enumerated in the song – classism, racism, inequality – are often part of the equation. 

 

11. Buffy Sainte-Marie – “Universal Soldier” (1964)

He’s a Catholic, a Hindu, an atheist, a Jain
A Buddhist, and a Baptist, and a Jew.
And he knows he shouldn’t kill
And he knows he always will kill
You for me, my friend, and me for you.

 

From Sainte-Marie’s website:  “I wrote “Universal Soldier” in the basement of The Purple Onion coffee house in Toronto in the early sixties. It’s about individual responsibility for war and how the old feudal thinking kills us all.” This is one of the more thought-provoking songs on the list, laying (partial) blame for war not just on governments, but on the rank and file soldier. I think it’s tacitly about psychology and how we’re prone to certain tendencies, like the bias toward our ingroup (no matter our religion or cause), and our tendency to listen to authority. 

 

10. Eric Bogle – “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” (1971)

And so now every April, I sit on me porch, and I watch the parades pass before me,
And I see my old comrades, how proudly they march, renewing their dreams of past glory.
I see the old men march slowly, all tired, stiff and sore, the weary old heroes of a forgotten war,
And the young people ask, “What are they marching for?” … And I ask myself the same question.

 

Below, Liam Clancy performs his version of Eric Bogle’s song about an old Australian veteran reflecting back on his hellish experiences during the First World War, and how he questions what motivates people when they memorialize past wars. To me, this song is reminiscent of the divide between mythic war and sensory warMythic wars are advertised as some great noble cause against another cause or group that is allegedly evil. By comparison, sensory war is simply the hellish reality on the ground. The veteran describes the damage done to his fellow soldiers, including the dead and the injured (“the legless, the armless, the blind, the insane”). He also laments the freedom that his his war injuries cost him and the fact that he’ll no longer be able to “waltz matilda” (i.e., essentially to travel by foot and to camp across the Australian countryside). For non-Australians, like myself, “waltzing matilda” is also the title of another old song, considered the unofficial anthem of Australia, and the one referred to in the refrain. 

 

9. Bob Dylan – Masters of War (1963)

You fasten the triggers/ For the others to fire
Then you set back and watch/ When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion/ As young people’s blood
Flows out of their bodies/ And is buried in the mud

 

Dylan later said that “Masters of War” was “speaking against what Eisenhower was calling a military-industrial complex as he was making his exit from the presidency. That spirit was in the air, and I picked it up.” 

 

8. U2 – “Mothers of the Disappeared” (1987)

Midnight, our sons and daughters
Cut down, taken from us
Hear their heartbeat
We hear their heartbeat

 

This was written after U2 met with a group of mothers in El Salvador whose children had been killed or “disappeared” by the government during the Salvadoran Civil War. The song was later dedicated to mothers in Argentina and Chile whose children were also presumably killed by the governments in those countries. I think the power of the song is its simplicity, and its emotional appeal by inducing the listener to empathize with a mother who’s child was taken from them. Although not on the album version, in concert Bono would add the lyrics “el pueblo vencerá” (the people will overcome), adding some hope to tragedy.

 

 

7. Barbara – “Göttingen” (1964)

May it never come back
The time of blood and hatred
Because there are people I love
In Göttingen, in Göttingen.

 

You can find a more thorough history of this song here. That website describes “Göttingen” as a song that helped thaw relations between France and Germany, roughly two decades removed from World War 2 with animosities still lingering. The song is written from the perspective of a French citizen who visits the German city of Göttingen. She found that she loved the people there and saw their common humanity. She was actually apologetic about this, presumably toward her fellow French citizens who may still have harbored resentments at the time, even toward German children (“May the others forgive me/ But children are the same/ In Paris or in Göttingen”). 

6. U2 – “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (1983)

Fuck the revolution!

And the battle’s just begun
There’s many lost, but tell me who has won?
The trench is dug within our hearts
And mothers, children, brothers, sisters torn apart

 

A lot has already been written about this one, so just a couple of points. When performing the song to live audiences, the band often prefaced it by saying “This song is not a rebel song.” Rather, the song is simply anti-conflict, pointing out the widespread suffering caused by “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland (“there’s many lost, but tell me who has won?”). I think the version below is the most powerful one I’ve heard, coming on another bloody Sunday on Nov 8, 1987 after an IRA bombing in Enniskillen. The concert that day was held in Denver, and a noticeably emotional Bono scolded Irish-Americans who glorified the conflict (here is another example of that mythic vs. sensory war divide again). Instead, he castigated them (“Fuck the revolution!”) and asked, angrily, “Where’s the glory in bombing a Remembrance Day parade of old-age pensioners, their medals taken out and polished up for the day!?”  Although U2 and Bono were extremely popular at the time, there was at least some fear of reprisal for speaking out in the way he did.

 

 

5. Pete Seeger – “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” (1965)

Where have all the soldiers gone?/ Long time passing
Where have all the soldiers gone?/ Long time ago
Where have all the soldiers gone?/ Gone to graveyards every one
When will they ever learn?/ When will they ever learn?

 

The original was written by Pete Seeger (and Joe Hickerson) , but I first heard this version by Marlene Dietrich in the movie “A Perfect Day.” The story it tells is cyclical, like the parable of the lowly stonecutter, as it starts and ends with flowers, but is punctuated in the middle by the fate of soldiers. There is a theme of exasperation (“when will they ever learn?”) over the way people keep getting ensnared by the same traps throughout history.

 

4. Passengers “Miss Sarajevo” (1995)

Here she comes/ Beauty plays the clown
Here she comes/ Surreal in her crown

The title refers to a 1993 beauty pageant held in a basement while the city of Sarajevo was under siege. Whatever you think about beauty pageants, to me the lyrics are about a need for distraction during the war (“beauty plays the clown”), the pining to return to normalcy and the mundane (“is there a time… for getting on with your day?”) and for frivolity (“is there… a time for kiss and tell?”). It also suggests that war doesn’t discriminate as the lyrics are interspersed with “first Communion… Mecca … Christmas trees”; it is an equal opportunity destructive force. The famous image of beauty contestants holding a banner, in English, that said “Don’t Let Them Kill Us” is emotionally powerful, an appeal to the world for help. And, yes, it’s another U2 song (I know we may have different tastes), but this one also had Pavarotti. 

 

2. Eric Bogle – “No Man’s Land/ Green Fields of France” (1976), performed by the Dropkick Murphys

And I can’t help but wonder, oh Willy 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?
Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame/ The killing and dying it was all done in vain,
Oh Willy McBride it all happened again/ And again, and again, and again, and again.

 

The second Bogle song on the list, this is a one-sided “conversation” between Bogle and Willy McBride, a young soldier who died during World War 1. By focusing on a single soldier, we can quickly empathize with him in a way that is difficult when thinking about a multitude, an effect psychologist Paul Slovic called “psychic numbing.” After all, “a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” Bogle didn’t know McBride, and he wonders about the way he was killed, as well as what he lost — a girlfriend? A family that remembered him? From there, Bogle extends that single tragedy to a wider scale (“a whole generation was butchered and damned”), and the tragedy of human fallibility (“man’s blind indifference to his fellow man”). The song closes with Bogle wondering whether McBride and his generation bought into the myth that “the Great War” would be the “war to end all wars,” adding that their efforts and their deaths were “in vain.” 

 

2. Bob Dylan – “With God on Our Side” (1964)

So now as I’m leaving/ I’m weary as Hell
The confusion I’m feeling/ Ain’t no tongue can tell
The words fill my head/ And they fall to the floor
That if God’s on our side/ He’ll stop the next war.

 

A classic. This is about how people, Americans specifically, are taught that the wars of their country’s past were just, perhaps even divine. I think it’s a powerful indictment of how people can be indoctrinated. Maybe we go along willingly, wanting to see ourselves as being on the side of good, a protective psychological mechanism. There’s also a theme of cognitive dissonance in the lyrics. After a brutal WW2 and all of the atrocities committed by the Nazis, it was still possible to get back into God’s graces (“the Germans now too have God on their side”), pointing to our ability to re-categorize who is friend or foe.  

1. Phil Coulter – “The Town I Loved So Well” (1973), performed by Luke Kelly

Now the music’s gone but they still carry on
for their spirit’s been gone never broken
they will not forget but their hearts are set
on tomorrow and peace once again.

 

It was hard to pick a number one for this list, but I chose Phil Coulter’s “The Town I Loved So Well,” performed by Luke Kelly and the Dubliners. I like it for a few reasons. We’re taken through different stages of Coulter’s life and his affection for his hometown of Derry/Londonderry before and during “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland. It starts with the innocence of childhood, and his nostalgia a time when things seemed happy despite the poverty surrounding him. From there he becomes an adult, marries, and then briefly moves away before returning to see how drastically Derry had changed for the worse. Coulter also distributed blame among paramilitary and regular forces (“armored cars” and “the bombed out bars”) for despoiling the town’s innocence, focusing more on the destructive force of conflict than on partisanship. Ultimately, the song concludes with themes of coming to terms with irretrievable loss, but also resilience and of course hope.  And I think I needed to end this list with some hope.

 

 

I’m open to suggestions…

hands-across-derry

Hands Across the Divide Statue, Derry Northern Ireland (source)

8 thoughts on “Sixteen Anti-War Songs

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