Memorial Day is about remembering those we lost in battle during times of war, including the multiple wars America faces today. Classic rock artists have always has the soldiers in their thoughts in their anti-war protest songs, but the message isn’t always one of remembrance and hope.
Unfortunately, many of the best anti-war songs describe the dark side of battle, the horrors soldiers face in times of war, and the pain that they and their families have to endure when they leave home for wars they may not even understand or support. Legendary artists like Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and many others have served to raise awareness of the anti-war sentiment that permeates all soldiers and anyone who has known or been related to one.
Here are ten timeless anti-war songs with mixed messages to soldiers, all tied to the idea that “War is Hell” and delivers far more brutality than is ever desired or necessary, supporting the soldiers at the center of the battles.
Bob Dylan – “Masters of War”
This Dylan classic is much less a tribute to fallen soldiers than an indictment on the governments that send millions of soldiers to die in war. Musically, it struts with big bluesy confidence, and lyrically it contains some of the most caustic counterculture attacks of Dylan’s career.
And of course the words are as poetic as any in rock & roll: “You fasten all the triggers/For the others to fire/And then you sit back and watch/When the death count gets higher.”
Jimi Hendrix – “Machine Gun”
Better than any other musician in history, Jimi Hendrix forgoes words and impeccably expresses the horrors of war through sonics in his legendary guitar solo performance “Machine Gun.” Listen to Jimi’s feedback-heavy “dive-bomb” techniques and try not to picture rockets and bombs going off in battle.
Dire Straits – “Brothers in Arms”
The title track to Mark Knopfler & Co.’s classic album Brothers in Arms tells a story from the perspective of a person witnessing human atrocities, whether themselves or vicariously through someone else. It could be argued that the song is simply about brotherhood and loyalty and not necessarily soldiers, but references to war (“Through these fields of destruction/Baptisms of fire/I’ve witnessed your suffering/As the battle raged higher”) are sprinkled throughout the song.
Creedence Clearwater Revival – “Fortunate Son”
When considering wartime songs and stories of soldiers sent to battle, one of the first songs that comes to mind is the CCR staple “Fortunate Son.” It captured the American discontent during the Vietnam war perfectly, cementing its status as an undisputed anti-war classic. Those who were sent to war back then weren’t exactly ‘Senator’s sons,’ after all.
Johnny Cash – “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”
The story of Ira Hayes was immortalized in the Clint Eastwood movie Flags of Our Fathers, but long before Eastwood was even famous Johnny Cash told his poignant story in song. Hayes did not die in battle, but returned home less of a hero than he expected and died tragically years later after battling alcohol abuse.
Cash speak-sings “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” with vivid details in lyrics like “He died drunk one early mornin’/Alone in the land he fought to save/Two inches of water in a lonely ditch/Was a grave for Ira Hayes.” Few anti-war songs have captured the story of individual soldiers so powerfully.
Edwin Starr – “War”
One of the most famous anti-war songs, funk-rocker Edwin Starr’s unmistakable hook “War!/Huh!/What is it good for?/Absolutely nothing!” is practically the theme song for anti-war protests. Perhaps unfortunately though, lost in all the bombast of the chorus is some serious commentary on the destructive nature of war to families of fallen soldiers, exemplified in lyrics like “Oh, war, I despise/’Cause it means destruction of innocent lives/War means tears to thousands of mothers’ eyes/When their sons go off to fight and lose their lives.”
Its hook is so undeniably catchy, the song almost completely buries its relevant and thoughtful message under the chorus. But it remains a war protest staple, and for good reason.
Bruce Springsteen – “Devils and Dust”
Springsteen favors intimate, nuanced storytelling over sprawling anti-war sentiments in the acoustic ballad “Devils and Dust,” which chronicles the life of a soldier far away from home addressing someone named “Bobbie” about his yearning to be home. It effectively captures the mindset of soldiers stuck in battle feeling defeated before the battle is even over.
Donovan – “Universal Soldier”
Newly crowned Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Donovan’s take on Canadian singer Buffy Saint-Marie’s anti-war song is controversial and unusual for protest songs, because instead of honoring soldiers it actually blames them for all the war and fighting. In retrospect that seems pretty ridiculous, because many soldiers have gone to battle with little to no other choice.
The guys who choose to send soldiers to war, ie. the Governments, make much more sense to blame for wars, but “Universal Soldier” still makes an interesting point that soldiers come from all different countries and cultural backgrounds, yet still fight and die in wars for basically the same reasons.
The Who – “Won’t Get Fooled Again”
In addition to one of the greatest vocal screams in the history of rock & roll from Roger Daltrey, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” also delivers one of the most powerful anti-war messages of all classic rock songs released during the Vietnam war. Every time a new war comes along, the powers declaring it always have a message of hope.
Millions of tragic deaths later, what really changes? Many are left to wait until the next war while families mourn their losses. Lines like “The men who spurred us on/Sit in judgment of all wrong/They decide and then the shotgun sings the song” tell the whole story.
Thin Lizzy – “Soldier of Fortune”
This classic Thin Lizzy tune tells the story of not a fallen soldier, but one who returns home after witnessing death and atrocity in battle. He re-lives the horrors through witnessing all the families around him mourning losses (“When will it end?/When will it end?/The bells toll for those about to die”), but ultimately expresses hope for a better future even in the face of hopelessness, as many of us might do in times of war (“He will carry on when all hope is gone”).
The end of the song says the soldier in question is “destined to keep on marching,” implying that the war never leaves his mind. This is true for many soldiers who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Even if a soldier survives war to return home instead of losing his life in combat, parts of him still die inside. It’s important to keep all soldiers, not just the ones we lost, in our thoughts on Memorial Day.
What other classic anti-war songs and soldier tributes do you like? Let us know in the comments.