10 great anti-war songs that don’t use the word “war” (2023)

The brutalities of conflict have inspired some of the greatest music of all time. The need to translate senseless violence into something meaningful is one of the most storied traditions in art: painting, novels, and even oral epics stretch back as long as humans have been fighting each other. You don’t need to be fluent in history of Rage Against the Machine lyrics to see that armed conflict has inspired centuries of great artistic work.

War is hell. Always has been and always will be. Although different eras have had varied reactions to the battles that have plagued mankind, there hasn’t been a single time in modern music history where there hasn’t been a potent anti-war song to act as a counter. That’s probably because humanity never stops going to war. Go figure.

While some of the best kickbacks are ones that deal with war and conflict in a direct and literal sense, music has the wonderful ability to convey messages that go beyond direct references. In other words: you don’t actually have to say the word “war” for everyone to know that you’re singing an anti-war song. Through poetic license, metaphors, or vague gestures, the intentions of artists can be crystal clear, even if their word usage isn’t.

Since war is a timeless theme, here are ten great songs that don’t use the word “war” when giving their message.

Bob Dylan – ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’

The original master of the anti-war protest song, Bob Dylan does have plenty of songs that deal with war directly. ‘Masters of War’ and ‘Talkin’ World War III Blues’, both from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, find Dylan at his most heightened and cautionary. But another track from that album conveys the same messages in a more poetic fashion.

‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ is one of Dylan’s most famous protest songs. The imagery strewn throughout the track conveys a brutalist view of conflict victims and those who don’t do enough to protect them. Or, it could mean something completely different. Dylan wasn’t the kind of guy who was going to hold your hand and explain everything to you, but the central message of ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ is hard to misinterpret.

The Band – ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’

It was a tricky perspective to take: singing from the side of the Confederacy during the American Civil War. Even more than 100 years after the conflict ended, there was still something taboo about potentially glorifying the states that seceded from the union, largely over the desire to uphold slavery, and who eventually lost America’s toughest conflict.

(Video) Barry McGuire - Eve Of Destruction

But Robbie Robertson turns his focus to an everyman caught in the middle of the battle in ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’. Beaten down and struggling to survive, there’s nothing glorious about Virgil Caine and his life story. Through Levon Helm’s iconic southern twang, Robertson is able to convey the futility of the civil war and how ordinary people were the biggest victims. Even those who end up on the wrong side of history have some pride that they need to hang on to.

Pink Floyd – ‘Us and Them’

The themes of The Dark Side of the Moon are simple and universal: time, money, death, and madness. War fits right into that list since just about every nation on Earth has entered into violent conflict with another at some point. As earnest as he was naive, Roger Waters sought to break war down to its most basic elements for ‘Us and Them’.

The result is something remarkable: an anti-war song that doubles as a plea to embrace humanity and empathy. Direct mentions of front ranks and generals make the intentions of ‘Us and Them’ clear, at least until Waters turns his focus to the normal people who tend to be anti-conflict on the whole. It’s a potent mix of direct war-time references and oblique civilian life that stands as one of Pink Floyd’s most stirring compositions.

Black Sabbath – ‘Children of the Grave’

Geezer Butler was a sick bastard to write a song as brutal as ‘Children of the Grave’. Lifting up the veil, Butler reveals one of the most tragic truths about war: it’s a whole lot of angry kids being told to march and kill while being led to their deaths. It’s pretty heavy stuff, but then again, this is the same guy who wrote ‘Electric Funeral’, ‘Paranoid’, and ‘War Pigs’, so it at least fits.

Ozzy Osbourne even gets a chance to spout some peace and love hippie thoughts with lines like “show the world that love is still alive, you must be brave,” but only under the warning that if they don’t, “you children of today are children of the grave.” Even for a band as dark and uncompromising as Black Sabbath, ‘Children of the Grave’ remains one of their most brutal songs.

(Video) I Didn't Raise My Boy to be a Soldier - the first anti-war hit record

The Clash – ‘Spanish Bombs’

No rock star has ever shoved more obscure military conflicts into a famous band’s canon than Joe Strummer. Militant in his anti-war stance and privy to just about every battle going on around the world, Strummer made a point to keep his audience actively engaged in some of the less-covered atrocities that were either ongoing or part of the recent past.

Leave it to Strummer to bring attention to the bombings of hotels off the coast of Coastal Brava and connect it to the lingering effects of the Spanish Civil War. Of course, if you just plugged into the jangle chords and poppy sound on ‘Spanish Bombs’, you probably would never have known. It takes a fair bit of research to truly get at what Strummer is talking about in the song, but one has to believe that that was Strummer’s intention.

Elvis Costello and the Attractions – ‘Oliver’s Army’

It’s not what Elvis Costello didn’t say in the lines of his 1979 single ‘Oliver’s Army’ that caused controversy. Instead, it was one specific term that he did decide to use, one that remains ill-advised for any white person to try on. It’s important to note that the context is actually anti-racism and anti-bigotry, but it’s hard to focus on anything else after you hear Costello use the n-word.

That’s a shame because ‘Oliver’s Army’ is one of the catchiest, smartest, and most potent anti-war tracks ever written. Covering the atrocities of The Troubles in Northern Ireland and turning into pop music, Costello stuffs in some biting critiques into the upbeat Armed Forces track. So who is Oliver? Oliver Cromwell, probably, but also just one of the millions of working-class kids recruited to do the bidding of a higher power.

R.E.M. – ‘Orange Crush’

It’s a classic American tale. The young high school football star has it all: the car, the girl, and the admiration. But when his country calls on him, what more can a young man do but serve with a smile on his face? A band like R.E.M. would never be that direct or straightforward, but at its core, that’s the basis of ‘Orange Crush’, making the song’s sing-along verses seem a lot colder and more sinister than they initially let on.

The titular “orange crush”, as you can probably guess, isn’t the soft drink of the same name: it’s napalm. The military march that gives ‘Orange Crush’ its iconic drive leaves little to the imagination, but the overlapping vocals and less-than-direct references force the listener to conjure up their own thoughts about whatever Michael Stipe is on about. Like all of R.E.M.’s best work, this is a puzzle worth solving.

(Video) Music from the Vietnam War

Alice in Chains – ‘Rooster’

Jerry Cantrell’s father was one of the many souls who came back from the Vietnam war scarred and broken. Through his father, Cantrell experienced a second-hand version of the destruction and trauma that going through war does to a person. Without malice or bitterness, Cantrell simply wanted to empathize with his father by putting himself in his shoes during the horrific struggles.

Out of that spark came ‘Rooster’, one of the most hauntingly beautiful songs in the Alice in Chains canon. Taking on the role of his father, Cantrell (through Layne Staley) calls for pictures of his family as the paranoia of getting snuffed out by the enemy surrounds him at every turn. It’s tremendously dark, but the focus on surviving and keeping some semblance of your humanity intact through conflict shines through even in the darkest corners of ‘Rooster’.

The Cranberries – ‘Zombie’

The Troubles affected every Irish generation that followed in its wake. More than a decade after Elvis Costello commented on the conflicts, Dolores O’Riordan had her side of the story to tell. Inspired by a real-life IRA bombing that killed two children, O’Riordan channelled that senselessness and rage into a new song, ‘Zombie’.

“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,” O’Riordan explained in 2017, “that’s why there’s that line in the song, ‘A child is slowly taken’.” ‘Zombie’ would become one of The Cranberries’ most iconic songs, and although it never mentions war or The Troubles by name, it’s impossible to misinterpret O’Riordan’s heartbreak and seething anger.

Radiohead – ‘Harry Patch (In Memory Of)’

Henry Patch was born in 1898, served in the First World War, and still lived long enough to almost see a Radiohead single get named after him. As the longest-living WWI veteran, Patch was the last connection to what, at the time, was supposed to be the war to end all wars. Just a few weeks before Patch’s death at the age of 111 in 2009, Radiohead recorded a song in his honour.

(Video) War/No More Trouble feat. Bono | Playing for Change | Song Around The World

‘Harry Patch (In Memory Of)’ came out just after Patch’s death and became a tribute to the man. To extend their gratitude, Radiohead donated all of the song’s proceeds to the Royal British Legion, a charity that helps aid war veterans. It was a song that was more than a century in the making.

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