10 Songs About the Horrors of War
Rock music came of age during Vietnam. The war was one of the major events that facilitated the music’s maturation and inspired artists to go from writing songs about teen crushes to songs with more thematic weight. As a result, war has since been a recurring topic in one form or another. With the holidays upon us and John Lennon‘s classic ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’ all over the radio, we thought it time to make this list of 10 Songs About the Horrors of War — tunes that explore the toll that armed conflict takes on the bodies, hearts, minds and souls of those involved in man’s least noble pursuit.
Over a martial drum beat and a menacing groove, Hendrix attacks the senselessness of war by singing from the perspective of a civilian farmer. The titular weapon is “tearing” his “body” and “family” apart, and he wields an axe in a futile attempt to defend himself, declaring “You blast me down to the ground.” Ultimately, the only explanation the farmer comes up with for what’s happening is that soldiers are pawns in a bigger game: “Evil man make you kill me / Evil man make me kill you / Even though we’re only families apart.”
‘That Man I Shot’
This blistering MC5-by-way-of-Muscle Shoals track is like the flipside of Hendrix’s “Machine Gun.” Here, a soldier justifies killing a civilian during wartime because “he was trying to kill me.” But back home, the soldier’s conscience eats at him — “can see him when I should be sleeping” — and he finds himself thinking, “I was just doing my job / maybe so was he.” The soldier tries to take comfort in his children, but the common humanity he shares with his victim only plagues him. “Did he have little ones that he was so proud of that he won’t see grow up?” he’s left to wonder.
‘Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914)’
This is among the oddest songs ever released as a single. Over Rod Argent’s creepy harmonium playing, bassist Chris White delivers his only lead vocal with the band and details a soldier’s mindset going into World War I. In peacetime, he worked in the meat business, and given the carnage of the battlefield, he reasons, “A butcher I may have stayed for the slaughter I see.” A preacher advises he “go and fight / do what is right,” but the images of a friend hung “on the wire like some rag toy” leave him wondering if the holy man would still “preach for the sound of guns” if he knew the reality of the situation. All the while, White unnervingly moans over the chorus, “My hands won’t stop shaking / My arms won’t stop shaking / My mind won’t stop shaking / I want to go home.”
‘The Words That Maketh Murder’
This takes the prize for second oddest song ever released from an album. PJ Harvey’s ‘Let England Shake’ album tackled war and its history, and this track engaged with the subject at its most gruesome. Over jaunty autoharp chords, Harvey sings in an atypically girlish voice about how she’s “seen and done things I want to forget.” Specifically, she’s seen “soldiers fall like lumps of meat.” “Arms and legs were in the trees,” she adds, “flies swarming everyone,” “flesh quivering in the heat.” Behind all this carnage, though, Harvey is preoccupied by how this results from the words of powerful people who will never suffer this fate. Ultimately she wonders whether she should “take my problem to the United Nations?” to use her own words to stop the bloodshed.
‘Us and Them’
It’s only logical for soldiers to think hard about the meaning of war and ponder the events that have led them into their predicament. As Roger Waters observes, “God knows it’s not what we would choose to do.” When you’ve witnessed the senselessness of a general ordering soldiers onward even though “the front rank died,” one can’t be blamed for asking why. “Haven’t you heard, it’s a battle of words,” someone says, offering one explanation for the killing, but in Waters’ cynical estimation, it’s all “for want of the price of tea and a slice” that people are giving their lives.
There are two classics that simply must appear on any list of songs about war. Sabbath’s ‘War Pigs’ is one of them. Much like PJ Harvey, bassist and group lyricist Geezer Butler is concerned with the politicians and generals who “plot destruction” and keep the “war machine keeps turning,” oblivious to the body count. As much as Sabbath were demonized in their gloomy heydey, Butler and frontman Ozzy Osbourne were always big moralizers, and here, they imagine the war pigs “begging mercies for their sins” as “Satan laughing spreads his wings.”
The other song about war that can’t not be mentioned is this ‘80s thrash metal chestnut. Metallica’s first real hit, it’s been a staple for so long that it’s easy to forget how disturbing the song is. Inspired by the Dalton Trumbo novel ‘Johnny Got His Gun,’ it tells the tale of soldier who’s lost all of his limbs to a landmine. James Hetfield sketches the spiritual isolation facing this man. He’s been stripped of everything he needs to live, and yet in a cruel twist, he continues to breathe — and to think. Confronted with the horror of being “trapped in myself, body my holding cell,” all he can do is “hold my breath as I wish for death.” Total Top 40 stuff.
‘Angel of Death’
As per the unwritten rules of ‘80s thrash metal, Metallica went dark, so Slayer had to go 10 times darker. While James Hetfield is concerned with the spiritual devastation of war, the late great Jeff Hanneman was preoccupied with the moral vacuum it creates. On ‘Angel of Death,’ Tom Araya viciously spews Hanneman’s lyrics, detailing in unflinching horror the medical “experiments” of infamous Nazi doctor Joseph Mengele. Back in the day, reactionary critics accused Slayer of being Nazi sympathizers, but the point of the song is clear: The moral degradation and corruption of power in the theater of war distorts the mind and soul into committing unspeakable acts. A fact as true at Auschwitz as it was at Abu Ghraib.
‘Hell Broke Luce’
If you manage to survive the many horrors of war, you may still be left to battle the psychological scars they leave behind. On ‘Hell Broke Luce,’ Tom Waits’ soldier character barks like mad about his experience overseas. On any given day, Waits explains, you can dig “big f—ing ditches in the middle of the road” just as easily as catch a bad cough or get your thumbs blown off. The soldier’s existence runs the gamut from mundane to terrifying, in other words, and coming home and continuing life can be just as scary. “When I was over here I never got to vote,” he sings. “Left my arm in coat.” “Now I’m home and I’m blind and I’m broke. What next?”
Returning from a decade-long hiatus this year with ‘The Next Day,’ David Bowie explored many war-related lyrical themes undoubtedly influenced by recent American adventures. On this poppy psychedelic shuffle, a boy soldier is plagued by memories of his time in service. He’s especially troubled by the adults involved — everyone from the gossipy civilians who support the war to the “generals full of s–” who run it. Bowie’s vet now walks around stuck with his guilty memories and seeking only one recourse: “I’d rather be high / I’d rather be flying / I’d rather dead or out of my head than training these guns on the men in the sand.”