Music is one of the oldest forms of storytelling and war is one hell of an inspiration for it. Screenshot from YouTube.
Just about every generation in America has its own war, and its own war songs along with it. While most of the American public will never directly experience war, they can get some sense of what combat is like through art, photography, and music.
For those who’ve fought, songs of war are not just songs to nod your head to, they’re songs about our lives. We lived it, we survived it, and we’re glad to still be here to enjoy the music. In no particular order, here are our picks for the 10 best war songs ever written.
Released in 1989 from their fourth studio album “…And Justice for All,” Metallica’s thrash metal single “One” portrays a World War I soldier who is severely wounded by a land mine in combat and left in a vegetative state. Unable to communicate with the outside world, the soldier is trapped within himself and desperately attempts to communicate his suffering to the outside world via Morse code. Metallica frontman James Hetfield stated that the anti-war film Johnny Got His Gun shares similar themes, which is why the band used footage from the film for the song’s official video.
Written by English heavy metal band Black Sabbath, the now legendary single “War Pigs” wasn’t originally meant to specifically be an anti-war song. Originally titled “Walpurgis,” the single was more of a broad statement against evil, according to Black Sabbath bassist and lyricist Geezer Butler.
“It wasn’t about politics or government or anything. It was Evil itself. So I was saying ‘generals gathered in the masses / just like witches at black masses’ to make an analogy. But when we brought it to the record company, they thought ‘Walpurgis’ sounded too Satanic. And that’s when we turned it into ‘War Pigs’. But we didn’t change the lyrics, because they were already finished.”
Released on May 27, 1963, Bob Dylan’s Cold War protest song “Masters of War” is a painful, angry statement to those responsible for the Cold War as well as the military industrial complex. In the album notes, American historian Nat Hentoff quotes Dylan as saying, “I’ve never written anything like that before. I don’t sing songs which hope people will die, but I couldn’t help it with this one. The song is a sort of striking out […] a feeling of what can you do?”
Is it really a war movie if it doesn’t have Hendrix in it?
Did you know that Jimi Hendrix served in the United States Army? The fact that one of the greatest guitarists of all time was also a veteran is almost as interesting as the fact that one of his most recognizable songs — as well as one of the most popular war songs of all time — “All Along the Watchtower” wasn’t actually written by him.
Although it was originally recorded by Bob Dylan in 1967, “All Along the Watchtower” didn’t achieve its now legendary status until Jimi Hendrix covered the song in his own signature style. Dylan reportedly loved Hendrix’s cover and played it the way that Hendrix did for years after.
A strong statement against the Vietnam War and the political climate of the 1960s, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s rock hit “Fortunate Son” also punched at prevailing class inequality in America at the time.
CCR’s frontman John Fogerty said, “‘Fortunate Son’ wasn’t really inspired by any one event. Julie Nixon was dating David Eisenhower. You’d hear about the son of this senator or that congressman who was given a deferment from the military or a choice position in the military. They seemed privileged and whether they liked it or not, these people were symbolic in the sense that they weren’t being touched by what their parents were doing. They weren’t being affected like the rest of us.”
Originally written as an anti-Vietnam War soul song by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong in 1969, the single “War” was first recorded by The Temptations but was later pulled and rerecorded with Edwin Starr as the vocalist out of concern of alienating some of The Temptations’ more conservative fans.
Recognized as one of the most popular protest songs of all time, Starr’s performance of “War” hits harder knowing he served in the United States Army for three years, and not by choice.
Alice in Chains frontman Jerry Cantrell wrote this grunge hit for his father, Jerry “Rooster” Cantrell Sr. — a United States Army veteran who fought in the Vietnam War. Cantrell wrote the song from the standpoint of his father, saying of the song:
“It was the start of the healing process between my Dad and I from all that damage that Vietnam caused. This was all my perception of his experiences out there.”
The Irish anti-war song “Zombie” was written by alternative rock band The Cranberries’ lead singer Dolores O’Riordan as tribute to Johnathan Ball and Tim Parry — two children killed in the 1993 IRA Warrington bombings.
“There were a lot of bombs going off in London and I remember this one time a child was killed when a bomb was put in a rubbish bin — that’s why there’s that line in the song, ‘A child is slowly taken’. We were on a tour bus and I was near the location where it happened, so it really struck me hard — I was quite young, but I remember being devastated about the innocent children being pulled into that kind of thing. So I suppose that’s why I was saying, ‘It’s not me’ — that even though I’m Irish it wasn’t me, I didn’t do it. Because being Irish, it was quite hard, especially in the UK when there was so much tension,” O’Riordan recalled years later.
Written by rock royalty the Rolling Stones and featuring vocalist Merry Clayton, the 1969 classic “Gimme Shelter” covers a litany of bleak topics like war, crime, and fear.
On “Gimme Shelter,” Rolling Stones vocalist Mick Jagger said in a 1995 interview with Rolling Stone magazine:
“Well, it’s a very rough, very violent era. The Vietnam War. Violence on the screens, pillage and burning. And Vietnam was not war as we knew it in the conventional sense. The thing about Vietnam was that it wasn’t like World War II, and it wasn’t like Korea, and it wasn’t like the Gulf War. It was a real nasty war, and people didn’t like it. People objected, and people didn’t want to fight it. […] That’s a kind of end-of-the-world song, really. It’s apocalypse; the whole record’s like that.”
A veteran himself, the Man in Black Johnny Cash wrote the anti-war song “Drive On” after sending a letter to George H.W. Bush protesting the Gulf War.
“Drive on—it don’t mean nothing—is an expression they used a lot in Vietnam when I was there,” Cash said.
From paying respects to those killed in combat every day to just liking the color, several stories exist as to why Cash always wore black — he clarifies the age-old question in this interview.
Eric Miller is a former Army Combat Medic from Parkersburg, West Virginia. He holds a bachelor’s degree in history and has worked with homeless populations and veteran services throughout the state. He is an avid outdoorsman and has recently become interested in woodworking.
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