A Duffel Bag of War Songs for the Thoughtful Listener

by | Feb 9, 2016 | Arts & Culture, Creative Nonfiction, Music

Well, here we are—it’s 2016, and yet another year of our seemingly never-ending War Against Terror—both abroad and at home. As a result, the catalogue of songs dealing thematically with war, at least in some small way, becomes ever larger and more resonant. And, of course, more dead bodies litter the ground, here, there and everywhere, for reasons beyond most of us.

I could easily post a best-of war music list every week in 2016 and each week would be different, filled with spectacular songs and incredible commentary. However, here’s an off-the-cuff desert-island disk of ten songs that come to mind as a thoughtful person’s war song primer. These are not the most obvious choices or even necessarily the best songs on the topic of war, but they are the ones rattling around my mind at this juncture.

“Girl in the War” by Josh Ritter (2006)

Appearing early in the Iraq War, Josh Ritter’s somber, reflective “Girl in the War” offers an original take on the well-worn soldier off at war song. Here the man is left behind—and he doesn’t like it. He frets, and with good reason. “I got a girl in the war Paul I know they can hear me yell/If they can’t find a way to help her they can go to hell.” Considering the new rules about women serving in battle this song was prescient.

“We Don’t Need No More Trouble” by Bob Marley and the Wailers (1973)

Reggae is, at its heart, a genre of protest and certainly the number of anti-war songs written and performed by Bob Marley and his Wailers rivals any. We normally think of “Buffalo Soldier,” but Marley was topical throughout his incredible musical legacy. In the less specific “We Don’t Need No More Trouble” he offers a statement of fact, and a plea. “We don’t need no trouble.” And repeat. It’s universal and simple and damn effective, a la Marvin Gaye’s infinitely more famous “What’s Going on?”

“Cortez the Killer” by Neil Young (1979)

We don’t usually think of “Cortez the Killer” as a war song. We think of it as a broad historical canvas which gave Young the chance, early on, to prove his guitar chops. However, it’s clear from the get-go that Young isn’t happy with Cortez’s colonialist mission and attempt to take “that palace in the sun” at whatever cost. Cortez “came dancing across the water/with his galleons and guns.” Though Neil Young’s depiction of the lives of the Aztecs seems overly romanticized and askew, the sense of loss and death permeates this song. And yet the song ends in ambiguity. Who is “she”? And where is “there”? Mexico? And who is speaking anyway? Still, the song ends with conviction: “Cortez, Cortez/What a Killer.” This song is perhaps the most apropos for our current wars of vagueness. Also check out the very-worthy covers by Built to Spill and Gillian Welch.

“Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen (Live in New York City, 2001)

We all know the story. Ronald Reagan used “Born in the USA” on the campaign trail, Bruce balked. But less known is the fact that “Born in the USA” has imbedded in its testimonial narrative a biting commentary on the Vietnam War. “Got in a little hometown jam so they put a rifle in my hand/Sent me off to a foreign land to go and kill the yellow man/Born in the U.S.A.” In this slowed-down sitar heavy take, Springsteen’s lyrics take the forefront after the long sitar introduction. This version is less an anthem than a melancholy short story. And when Bruce Springsteen lingers for seemingly minutes on the speaker’s dead brother, it’s haunting. “Had a brother at Khe Sahn fighting off the Viet Cong/They’re still there he’s all gone.” He draws out the O, as a kind of pained howl. This version is absolutely spine-tingling.

“Some Mother’s Son” by The Kinks (1969)

“Some mother’s son lies in a field/Someone has killed some mother’s song today/Head Blown up by some soldier’s gun.” The Kink’s—the universe’s most under-rated band—cranked out quality song after quality song for decades, and yet the legacy of the Beatles and the Stones overshadows them still. But a closer look at the gems produced by this great band reveals a number of songs which specifically took on war directly. No cloaked meanings, no metaphors—nothing can hide the brute fact of the “mother’s son,” “head blown up.” It’s a visceral and powerful commentary, unadorned.

“Zombie” by The Cranberries (1994)

“With their tanks and their bombs/And their bombs and their guns/In your head in your head they are crying.” Prior to “Zombie,” The Cranberries had mostly been known for pretty ballads featuring Dolores O’Riordan’s pretty voice. Their 1993 album, “Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?” was on the mellow side, perhaps influenced by 70’s folk rock more than anything else. So it was somewhat of a shock to hear O’Riordan belt out a grunge-influenced protest against violence in Ireland. Zombie is one of the great recent statements of moral disgust and the lingering after-effects of continual warfare.

“The Vacant Chair” by The New Lost City Ramblers (1960)

I wanted to include at least one folk song, this one with roots in the American Civil War. The lyrics speak to the sense of loss a family suffers as a result of a lost soldier and in the hands of the New Lost City Ramblers, the song takes on the powerful tenor of a bluegrass spiritual. The song is all firm upper lip and Stoic acceptance. The family continues on, in the memory of the fallen family member but the image of the vacant chair alone speaks volumes.

“War on War” by Wilco (2002)

Released right after 9/11, Wilco’s “Yankees Hotel Foxtrot” is a masterpiece of surrealistic swirling rock lyricism and high craftsmanship. In my mind 9/11 and this album are inexorably linked—the songs reverberating with shaking buildings and dreamy death images. “War on War” is, despite its apparent simplicity and mid-tempo sing along melody, a paradox. “You have to learn how to die/If you want to want to be alive.” Like all paradoxes, it makes absolute sense yet defies exact explanation. The song seems to confront death and war and offer the insight that life is most meaningful when lived on the razor’s edge, at least at some point in one’s life. Trial by fire=a life rife with passion.

“If I Had a Rocket Launcher” Bruce Cockburn (1984)

This was an 1980s’ hit and like most hits from that decade, it is lathered with too much keyboard and synthesizer. However, the message of this song is on point. The speaker is exasperated by the injustices of war, specifically in Central America at this time. “If I had a rocket launcher, some son of a bitch would die.” It doesn’t get much more frank than that. The song’s power has not diminished, a testament to the frustration and helplessness citizens feel during times of conflict.

“Ghost Dance” by Robbie Robertson (1994)

I saved the best for last. Robbie Robertson, of half-Mohawk lineage, created a masterpiece with his 1994 album Music for the Native Americans. From this album, my favorite is his song “Ghost Dance,” which stands up to the so-called victors/conquerors (the American government). According to Robertson’s song spiritual triumph will be had, even if the Native American tribes came out on the losing end. “You can kill my body, you can damn my soul/For not believin’ in your God and some world down below/You don’t stand a chance against my prayers/You don’t stand a chance against my love. We shall live again.” It’s a song of mystical transcendence and an overwhelming testament to the fact that death is not necessarily the end of the story in terms of war. Moreover, the song echoes the tradition of the Ghost Dance and provides a history lesson for the uninitiated (“Crazy Horse was a mystic, he knew the secret of the trance….”). It’s an extremely powerful song that has grown even more powerful with time.


Photo by Arctic Warrior

About The Author

Nathan Leslie

Nathan Leslie’s nine books of fiction include Root and ShootSibs, and Drivers.  He is also the author of The Tall Tale of Tommy Twice, a novel, and Night Sweat, a poetry collection.  His work has appeared in hundreds of literary magazines including BoulevardShenandoahNorth American Review, and Cimarron Review. Nathan was series editor for The Best of the Web anthology 2008 and 2009 (Dzanc Books) and edited fiction for Pedestal Magazine for many years.  He is currently interviews editor at Prick of the Spindle and writes a monthly music column for Atticus Review.  His work appears in Best Small Fictions 2016.  Check him out on Twitter and Facebook as well as at www.nathanleslie.com.