Top 10 Songs About War
When you mix classic rock and songs about war, you expect plenty of songs about Vietnam. How could you not? The conflict in Vietnam permeated rock and roll in the ’60s and ’70s so much that writing a pro-love song could be seen as a protest against the war.
Although that war and its myriad stories have dominated classic rock subject matter, there are some artists who’ve chosen to explore both older and more recent wars in their songs. In honor of all those who served and continue to serve, here are the Top 10 Songs About War and its consequences.
James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich wrote ‘One’ based on Dalton Trumbo’s 1939 book, ‘Johnny Got His Gun.’ The song tells the story of a World War I soldier who has lost his eyes, ears, mouth and limbs. However, his mind remains intact, leaving him a prisoner in what remains of his body. Hetfield growls the thoughts of this wounded veteran, while the song’s furious finale conveys his anger and desperation as he prays for death.
There are few songs more associated with the Vietnam conflict than this sarcastic sing-along, one of the Top 10 Songs About War. Country Joe McDonald wrote it in 1965, but Vanguard Records refused to release it on his band’s debut album. Apparently, in the course of two years, public opinion on the war had changed drastically enough for the label to acquiesce. Although it was never a big hit, the folksy tune was popular enough that when Country Joe performed the song solo at Woodstock, he got the whole crowd to sing along.
The Boss has written about the folks in our armed services a fair amount, especially those who served in Vietnam (‘Born in the U.S.A.,’ ‘Shut Out the Light’) and Iraq (‘Gypsy Biker,’ ‘Last to Die’). More often than not, these songs are focused on the aftermath, but in ‘Devils & Dust’ he puts us right there on the Middle Eastern battlefield. Springsteen views war not as a battle between armies, but a battle within oneself between fear and faith. “What if what you do to survive kills the things you love?” he asks.
Even casual Pink Floyd fans know that Roger Waters has an obsession with World War II, due to the fact that his father died at the hands of the Nazis. Eric Fletcher Waters was part of Operation Shingle in Italy, where British forces were overrun by an attack by German tiger tanks – hence ‘When the Tigers Broke Free.’ In the song, Roger blames the British high command for being callous with human lives. The Pink Floyd bassist originally planned this for ‘The Wall’ album, but it was vetoed by other members for being too personal to Roger. It was subsequently featured in ‘The Wall’ movie and soundtrack instead.
The first Iron Maiden single to feature the venerable Bruce Dickinson on vocals, ‘Run to the Hills’ was inspired by the wars between Native Americans and white settlers. The song is told from both sides (first the Native Americans, then the settlers), depicting the senseless brutality as the track breaks into a gallop. Bassist Steve Harris is the only official writer on the song, even though Dickinson contributed, because a previous contractual arrangement didn’t allow the vocalist any writing credits.
In his coldest, most unrelenting protest song, Dylan spews a torrent of bile in the direction of the military-industrial complex and any others “masters of war” responsible for the Cold War arms race. For an anti-war song, the end is pretty violent. Dylan not only wishes a swift death for those responsible, he wants to stand by their grave just to make sure that they’re gone. Bob reportedly said that the song’s death wish scared him a bit, but he couldn’t help himself given the subject matter.
‘War Pigs’ actually began life as ‘Walpurgis’ and focused on a witches’ sabbath. But, after Black Sabbath played an American Air Force base in Europe and heard a few war stories, the godfathers of metal changed the lyrics. The band lashed out at the rich and powerful who send poor kids to war. Of course, Sabbath being Sabbath, they had their cake and ate it too by keeping some occult references in the song. Witches show up in the first verse, and Satan makes a cameo at the end to ensure the “war pigs” get their just desserts.
The Band sure embodied the spirit of the ’60s . . . the 1860s. Robbie Robertson wrote this Civil War song after becoming curious about the history of the war from his many tours through the American south. With help from Levon Helm (the Band’s sole American and Southerner), Robertson treated the lyrics like a book report and went to the library. The result was nothing short of extraordinary – a song that conveys the weary pride of the Confederate states via carefully chosen words and a beautifully anguished vocal from Helm (especially in ‘The Last Waltz’).
You can’t have the Top 10 Songs About War without ‘War.’ There aren't too many protest songs that also managed to become No. 1 hit records, but Edwin Starr’s anti-Vietnam rant achieved this feat in 1970. Starr channeled his inner James Brown in order to shout and shriek the lyrics, while Norman Whitfield produced one of the hardest-rocking Motown singles with prominent guitar and propulsive percussion. Bruce Springsteen revived the song during his Born in the U.S.A. tour, and eventually released his live version as a single, which hit the Top 10 in 1985.
John Fogerty said he wrote this furious CCR hit in response to the wedding of David Eisenhower (the grandson of the former President Dwight Eisenhower) and Julie Nixon (the daughter of then-President Richard Nixon). Fogerty said he knew that well-connected young men and women would have nothing to do with the escalating war in Vietnam, leaving the fighting to the less fortunate. The tune remains a rock and roll touchstone of the Vietnam era, as well as a rallying cry against those who have no problem sending other people’s kids to war.