Top 5 Anti-War Songs

December 27, 2017

I’ve never been the “pro-war” type. I think there’s only been once or twice when it was truly justified (World War II, for example). And it’s always controversial.  As well it should be. But with growing tensions around the world due to a hawkish president throwing hissy fits over everything, it’s obviously been on my mind a lot, causing me to reflect on some of my favrotie anti-war tunes.

1. “Too Many Puppies” by Primus (1990)


This is an intense, heavy, freight train of a song. It’s chugging base line has the rhythm of marching feet, for obvious reasons. It’s a real “pump you up” kind of song. The type of shit you can lift weights to. But for all of its feeling of masculine aggression the song has a pacifist message to it. Now just what in the hell do “puppies” have to do with war? Let’s take a look at some lyrics. Here’s the second verse:

Too many puppies are taught to heel
Too many puppies are trained to kill
On the command of men wearing money belts
That buy mistresses sleek animal pelts

“Puppies”, in this case, is obviously referring to soldiers. In particular the ages of soldiers, especially enlisted soldiers, whose ages are often between 18 and 20. You’ve heard the expression “dogs of war”? This song turns that phrase on its head by calling them “puppies”. Puppies are young, impressionable, and easy to train. The song is about how young men are sent to die for the benefits of the wealthy. It’s about the loss of innocence, and how the “men” being sent to fight and die “for their country” are, in the grand scheme of things, still just kids. And what they're fighting for is really more about lining pockets than protecting freedom.

And if that doesn’t drive the point home, the music video is a teenager in a diaper getting his head shaved in a plain white room and then acting more and more animalistic. They’re not even being subtle about it.

2. “Hell Broke Luce” by Tom Waits (2011)


Poetic as usual, Tom Waits’ criticism of war focuses on the impact going to war has on a soldier’s thought process. The lyrics and music call to mind a cadence, each verse describing a horror witnessed and experienced during war. The dissonance of the music adds to the song’s central theme: PTSD. It talks about losing ones hearing because of a bomb, a friend forgetting to put on kevlar, and digging graves. It also delves into the impact of returning home, alludes to drug abuse and self medication, and being forgotten by the politicians who started the war and have used it to boost their own status.

One of the coolest elements of this song is the word play. The narrator is having independent thoughts, thinking about home and such, but a “connecting word” brings them right back into the war, and a mentality of following orders.. The opening line of the song, for example:

I had a good home but I left
I had a good home but I left, right, left

A later verse does a similar play:

Can I go home in March?

Every time they think about home, their mind is brought right back into the war. The thought process of who they were before the war is constantly interrupted by the “following orders” mindset. Another aspect the song focuses on is trying to come to grips with who you are after going to war, because it’s often not the same person you were before.

What did you do before the war?
I was a chef, I was a chef
What was your name?
It was Geoff, Geoff

The fact that these lines are in the past tense is devastating. Especially the second stanza. “What was your name?” Fucking brutal. “What did you do? What was your name?” This about coming to terms with what you’ve seen and what you’ve done, and trying to come to terms with how much those have changed you. Are you even the same person anymore? And what does the president give them in return? A fucking parade.

3. “Let’s Go” by Ministry (2007)

This song is… damn. It’s a bit different in that, unlike the other entries so far, it’s extremely tongue-in-cheek. It’s fast, intense, driving industrial metal. It’s a soundtrack for a killing spree; the type of song you might hear in the background of an ultraviolent action scene. Just hearing the song without listening or taking lyrics at face value you’d never guess it was an anti-war song. “Let’s Go” is the opening track off 2007’s The Last Sucker. The entire album was a savage criticism of the Bush administration in general. So there’s a lot to choose from on this album, and that larger context of the album’s concept makes it more obvious that the song is ironic. Also how over the top the lyrics get should be a bit of a clue. Such as:

Let's go for the final attack
Let's go for a war in Iraq
Let's go for starting up World War III

Also, unlike the rest so far, this mentions a specific war. But what the song is about is the general concept of dehumanizing the enemy and, in the process, one’s self. The song’s refrain “Let’s go insane” is about disconnecting from the logical mind, cutting loose, and cutting the enemy down.

The lyrics take the point of view of soldiers pumping themselves up before battle. It starts off basic enough. “Let’s go faster” “Let’s go at ramming speed.” But it escalate until it gets so intense it even makes me blush:

I mean, look at the third, and final verse. Jesus Christ:

Let's go for the ultimate crime
Let's go for the end of time
Let's go for an ethnic cleansing spree
Let's go for the final battle
Let's slaughter them all like cattle
Let's go to our graves in victory

I mean, goddamn, is that brutal or what? The reference especially to “slaughtering them like cattle”  shows directly that in war people stop seeing the other side as human. In this case, cattle. Animals. Not just animals but “cattle;” which has a very specific connotation: mindless animals whose purpose is to die. There’s few words that can be applied to other living things that is a detaching as “cattle”. When we stop seeing others as human, we stop being human ourselves.


4.”Let Them Eat War”  by Bad Religion (2004)

The always political Bad Religion also released this song during the Bush administration. It shouldn’t be surprising that some of my favorite anti-war songs were written about wars that occurred during my lifetime. This song stands out from the previous two entries by focusing on the homefront and the reasons for going to war, more than the experiences and mentalities of soldiers. This is more about the citizens. The song suggest that the reasons a government goes to war has more to do with distracting citizens, than protecting them from anything.

From the force to the union shops
The war economy is making new jobs
But the people who benefit most
Are breaking bread with their benevolent hosts
We never stole from the rich to give to the poor
All we ever gave to them was a war
And a foreign enemy to deplore
Let them eat war
Let them eat war
 That's how to ration the poor

The song talks about problems at home. Jobs, income inequality, and a government bowing to lobbyists. So a country goes to war to give the people “a foreigner enemy to deplore” to keep them from fighting or rising up against the enemies at home, or even focusing on domestic issues. It’s a strategy right out of 1984. With America’s wealth inequality being larger than France’s in 1776, when they revolted for pretty much that reason, and tensions with North Korea escalating, this song is as relevant in 2017 as it was in 2004. But even if you go back to well before the song was written, or hear it in another 50 or 100 years, it will still have a point. War is a shiny object, it is misdirection.

5. “What’s Going On?” by Marvin Gaye (1971)  


This song stands out in several ways from the rest on the list. Other than being a soul/motown number on a list of mostly hard rock and punk songs. The song focuses on the anti-war movement itself, and the impact war has on families. And while the other songs are about how awful war is, this song actually pleads for peace.

Father, Father
We don’t have to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate

So that’s pretty straight forward. I don’t think those second two stanzas need further analysis. However, those first two lines stand out. Throughout the song there are numerous references to family.

Mother, Mother
There’s too many of you cryin’
Brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dyin’

The first line obviously conjures the image of mothers who have lost their sons to war. But the use of “brother” in this case, doesn’t at all suggest a biological “brother.” Since it’s a song by a black artist in 1971, some might conjecture that he means “fellow black man.” However, I posit that he means everybody. “My fellow man.” Everyone is his brother. We’re all human, we’re all connected. We are all brothers and sisters to one another. The “father” he implores not to escalate, is also not biological. It refers to someone in a position of power, the ones who make the decisions to go to war. But, again, he sees everyone as essentially being family. Because if everyone sees each other as family, it brings about the love needed to conquer hate.

The song also references picket lines and long hair, obviously referring to the hippy movement at the time. So, rather than being about the horrors of war, or the manipulative reasons people go to war, or the psychological impact it has one those who fight it, this song talks about the war at home. Not just the mothers weeping, but the fight for peace by the anti-war movement.