At the 11th hour, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, we’re asked to remember — lest we forget — the sacrifice of those who fought and died fighting for ‘freedom and democracy.’ Originally called Armistice Day when first marked in 1919, it commemorated the end of the First World War. Then came World War II, and the phrase “Never Again” fell from the tongues of those marking Remembrance Day. Sadly “again and again” is more apropos to the point. Indeed, I now find a Tim Horton’s poster reminding me to wear a poppy beneath a photo of a soldier fighting in Afghanistan.
Edwin Starr — “War” [from The Very Best of Edwin Starr]
I know we often heap praises on the most verbose writers (song- or otherwise), calling them ‘eloquent’ or other effusive sobriquets but oftentimes the best writing is the most direct and simple. Case in point, this number penned by Barrett Strong and made famous by Starr: “War, huh, yeah/What is it good for/Absolutely nothing.”
Bob Dylan — “Masters of War” [from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan]
Freewheelin’ also features “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” meaning this album scored a hat-trick for protest songs. “Masters of War” is a scathing screed against the military-industrial complex and war profiteers who “hide behind desks” and play with the world with the same finesse a toddler brings to a block set.
Tom Paxton — “Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation” [from I Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound]
No surprise that this song is about the Vietnam War — and no surprise that that misguided war birthed a number of protest songs. Our current misguided war has failed to light a creative spark on the protest song front, but it’s such a strange beast none of us seems to know how to approach it.
Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler — “The Ballad of the Green Berets” [from Ballads of the Green Berets]
After all these protest songs, here’s one sung from the other side of the rifle-scope. A paean to the elite special force Green Berets, this ballad was number one on the billboard chart for five weeks in 1966. Sadler co-wrote the song while recovering from a wound suffered during the Vietnam War.
Billy Bragg — “Everywhere” [from Don’t Try This At Home]
While this album from Britain’s social conscience is best known for the hit single “Sexuality,” my favourite track is this heartbreaking indictment of war. “Over here/over there/it’s the same everywhere/a boy cries out for his mama/before he dies for his land.” That right there is why Bragg is Woody Guthrie’s spiritual descendent.
Gustav Holst — “Mars, the Bringer of War��� [from The Planets, Op. 32]
The Romans named the planet Mars after their god of war because of its blood-red appearance in the night sky. Since then, the red planet has inspired all sorts of art from the campy Mars Attacks! to this magisterial symphonic piece. I’m certain this is where John Williams cribbed ideas for the themes to Superman and Star Wars, but Mr. Williams, please don’t sue me for libel.
Richard Wagner — “A Roman War Song” [from Rienzi]
From the man that brought you the “Bridal Chorus” (a.k.a. “Here Comes the Bride”) comes this tribute to the Roman Empire and its warring abilities. I’m guessing that this piece and the Ring cycle are the reason Wagner was Adolf Hitler’s favourite composer, but maybe he was a sucker for weddings. Bonus war-song-points go to Wagner for also composing “Ride of the Valkyries,” used so effectively in Apocalypse Now. Of course he loses all of those points for being a giant anti-semite.
Iron Maiden — “Fortunes of War” [from The X Factor]
Admittedly it’s on one of their weaker albums, but the lyrics to “Fortunes of War” are a very sympathetic portrayal of the emotional wringer soldiers returning home are put through. Considering it came out in 1995, the band tapped into the post-traumatic stress disorder zeitgeist pretty early.
U2 — “Sunday Bloody Sunday” [from War]
They called them “The Troubles,” but the civil-war in Northern Ireland and before that the Republic of Ireland’s battle for independence from the UK count as “war” if Afghanistan and Iraq do.
The Royal Guardsmen — “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” [from Snoopy vs. the Red Baron]
Yes, I know Snoopy was a fictional beagle created by Charles Schultz in his Peanuts comic strip, but the Red Baron was real. The World War One flying ace whose real name was Manfred von Richthofen had 80 confirmed air combat victories, though in this 1966 novelty song, Snoopy challenges the Red Baron to a dogfight and bests him — one more reason to love beagles.
Incidentally, the Royal Guardsmen also wrote what may be the only non-Christian pro-abstinence pop song ever with “Baby Let’s Wait,” also found on Snoopy vs. the Red Baron. We’ll call that our quasi-history lesson this time ‘round.