War in Popular Music

War is an experience that has shaped societies for all of written history. Many of the oldest surviving stories of mankind, such as the epic works of Homer and the narratives of the opening books of the Bible, relate tales of men at war and the impact that war has had on civilizations and on individuals. Recent decades have been no exception to this rule, as the experience of two world wars, the Vietnam War, and, most recently, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, have worked to shape the culture of the United States and other countries involved in these conflicts. The popular culture of the United States is steeped in the experiences of its citizens at war, and, vice versa, the various mediums of popular culture have shaped the American experience of war, including both shaping the events as they occurred and, after the events, crystallizing the collective memory of the experience (Naddaff-Hafrey and Trodd, 2010, p. 257). Music, as one of the most popular and powerful of these mediums of popular culture, has served as one of the primary means by which opinions on war have been voiced and has had an especially significant influence on Americans’ perceptions of war.

When approaching representations of war in American popular music, one of the most noticeable features of the content of the songs is that remarkably few feature pro-war themes. On the contrary, the vast majority of songs are overtly antiwar while a significant minority are not incontestably antiwar but focus on topics which tend to inspire and reflect antiwar sentiments, such as the untimely deaths of young men.

Although such antiwar themes and views have come to dominant popular music, this has not always been the case. Some of the earliest popular songs about war enthusiastically express support for the wars to which they pertain. In fact, songs were often specifically created and distributed for the purpose of pro-war propaganda during World War I (Wells, 2004). The popular song “Over There,” written by George M. Cohan about World War I and recorded by Billy Murray in 1917, for instance, is exuberantly patriotic and encouraging toward the war effort, and was designed both to encourage recruitment and to raise funds for the war effort (Cohan, 1917). “Johnny,” the fictional subject of the song acts as a stand-in for all American soldiers and, by extension, for all American males as potential soldiers. In the course of the song, he is urged to “get your gun,” to “hurry right away, no delay, go today” to win the war “over there,” and “make your mother proud of you / and the old red, white, and blue.”

There is little deviation from this decidedly pro-war stance of the music of World War I when the music of World War II is examined. There is, however, a discernable change in style which may reflect the greater awareness of the costs of war which Americans had gained during their experiences in World War I. One of the most popular songs of World War II, for example, “This is the Army, Mister Jones,” by Irving Berlin, lists the hardships men entering the military will encounter in transitioning from civilian life (Berlin, 1943). The hardships listed, however, do not include physical injury, psychology trauma, or death, but cleaning the barracks and lacking common luxuries like personal rooms, and the overall mood of the song is playful. It seems, indeed, that the realities of war are actively avoided in the lyrics of the song.

The first popular song about war which I encountered in my research that mentions a soldier dying is Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler’s “The Ballad of the Green Berets” (Sadler, 1966). This song is also unique in that it is the only song which I could find that appeared actively supportive of the American war effort in Vietnam and the only one I could find that was written by a soldier who had fought in the war. Sadler, with Robin Moore, wrote the song while recovering from a wound incurred in combat in Vietnam. Sadler, in the final verses of the song, sings that “back at home a young wife waits” but her husband, a member of the Green Berets, “has died for those oppressed.” He quickly transforms what might otherwise have led naturally to an expression of antiwar opinions into pro-war bravado, however, going on to say that the dying Green Beret left a final request that his wife direct his son to also become a Green Beret. The effect is somewhat muffled and the final stanza, expressing the Green Beret’s wishes concerning his son, is a bit awkward in the light of the preceding verses. The end of the song seems naturally to make the listener wonder why a man would want his son to “win the Green Beret” given that it means he’ll be one of the “men who fight by night and day,” as the singer describes the Green Berets, and could very likely meet a fate similar to his father’s.

Nonetheless, “The Ballad of the Green Berets” is the last overtly pro-war popular song I encountered. From that point on, popular songs about war take a clearly antiwar stance and frequently express pessimism and disillusionment with the motivations and establishments that lead to wars. This is probably reflective of the unpopularity and imminence, the latter caused by the institution of the draft and more pervasive news media, of the Vietnam War. The war in Vietnam came, especially for young Americans, to symbolize war in general and displeasure with that war translated into sentiments against war in general.

For example, following “The Ballad of the Green Berets” in 1966, the next song explicitly about war that made it into the top ten most popular songs for its year of release was Edwin Starr’s “War” in 1970 (Whitfield and Strong, 1970). In the song, Starr asks repeatedly “war / what is it good for?” to which a chorus of singers replies emphatically “absolutely nothing.” Throughout the song, Starr details the evils of war, including “tears to thousands of mothers’ eyes” and the fact that a “young man” could be “disabled” or die. He tells us that “the point of war blows my mind” and questions the methods and motivations of those who “say we must fight to keep our freedom.” The disaffection expressed by Starr pervades nearly all popular songs about war which were created during or after the Vietnam War.

The Vietnam War, in fact, inspired such overwhelmingly negative impressions among Americans that songs continued to be made about it and against it well after it had ended. Alice in Chain’s grunge rock song “Rooster,” for instance, released in 1993, nearly 20 years after the end of the Vietnam War, discusses the horrors of war in vivid detail and with a great deal of emotion in the lyrics, enhanced by the hard-driving guitars of the band (Cantrell, 1993, track 6). The singer, for instance, tells us all at once that he’s “got my pills against mosquito death / my buddy’s breathing his dying breath / oh God please won’t you help me make it through.” “Rooster” goes even further than most of the songs about the Vietnam War made at the time of the Vietnam War in not only its exploration of war itself but of the treatment of war veterans upon their return home to the United States. He tells us, for instance, that ‘they spit on me in my homeland.”

What is remarkable about the circumstances surrounding the production of “Rooster” is that the writer, Jerry Cantrell, wrote the song about his father’s experiences during the Vietnam War. The song is about an experience of the previous generation, yet the writer is able to make the experiences of that generation present and relevant through his lyrics. According to Rick Berg (1986), “the music industry sings its sad song of Vietnam to a generation that … knows little more about Vietnam and its victims than the media’s revised images” (p. 94).

The stamp of the Vietnam War and the tragedies that accompanied it on the American consciousness are evident even today in popular music. The ghost of the Vietnam War pervades the 2010 country song “Raymond” by Brett Eldredge, for instance, in spite of the song’s subject matter not being war (Eldredge, 2010). In the song, “Catherine Davis,” an elderly woman suffering from Alzheimer’s, mistakenly refers to the singer, one of her caretakers, by the name “Raymond.” We find out near the end of the song that “there’s a small white cross in Arlington / reads Raymond Davis, ‘71.” The implication, which is allowed to go unstated because of its obviousness to an American living in the post-Vietnam War era, is that her son was a soldier who had been killed in Vietnam in 1971.

The Vietnam War’s effect on the American consciousness is also evident in the treatment of the United States’ most recent wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, in popular music. It is worth noting here that I could not find any popular songs which overtly expressed support for either of these wars. There are some that appear to do so, such as Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American),” often thought to be a pro-war anthem and frequently played as such (Keith, 2002, track 1). Keith himself has stated on several occasions, however, that he has never supported the war in Iraq and intended “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)” and other songs he has made in a similar vein to be expressions of support for American soldiers rather than the wars they are currently engaged in fighting (Morales, 2009).

This differentiation between the soldier and the war the soldier is fighting has become a staple of recent antiwar music, whereas many earlier songs and other expressions of antiwar sentiments did not make such a distinction, or at least did not make it clearly. This new awareness of and focus on that distinction is largely the result of the abuse, such as that mentioned in the song “Rooster,” directed at returning veterans by antiwar individuals.

Some recent songs have even gone so far as to couch their antiwar message in a description of the thoughts of soldiers. One such song is Everlast’s 2008 folk/hip-hop song “Letters Home from the Garden of Stone” (Schrody, 2008, track 10). In the song, the singer explores themes that include fear, confusion, and patriotism in warfare, all expressed through the façade of a letter home written by a soldier at war in Iraq. Near the end of the song, Everlast seems to turn the patriotic pro-war bravado of George M. Cohan’s popular World War I song “Over There” on its head. Where Cohan tells his soldier to “make your mother proud of you / and the old red, white, and blue,” as cited previously, Everlast’s soldier seems to answer directly back to this charge when he asks his mother, “Do you think I should be fighting? / Ma, are you proud? Are you ashamed? / Really I’m trying to do the right thing / I hope my government can say the same.”

The gung-ho “Johnny” of “Over There” and the Green Beret who wants his son to grow up to be a Green Beret as well of “The Ballad of the Green Berets” has become the reluctant but good-intentioned doubter questioning his own participation in the war in “Letters Home from the Garden of Stone.” This new, somewhat ambivalent approach to songs about war is reflective of a generation of young men who have become soldiers but have been raised in the shadow of the Vietnam War. As a result, they view all war through the lens of the Vietnam War, including its tragedies and its ultimate failure in the eyes of the American public, which view permeates popular culture. The unpopularity and loss of the Vietnam War seems to have permanently altered the approach taken to war in popular music and popular culture in general to such a point that it is no longer possible to make a clearly pro-war song at all. The pro-war must instead be cast as pro-soldier while only the antiwar is allowed to be explicit. The experience of the realities of war has informed popular culture, which has in turn redefined perceptions of war among the public at large. This process by which events shape popular culture and popular culture then shapes perceptions and events has permanently altered the way that Americans view and engage in war in the modern world.


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