“War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothin'” sings Edwin Starr.
The sad reality is that humans still use aggression to further their political and ideological goals, even in the 21st century. Worse still, we have the power to completely annihilate ourselves (via nuclear war) but that doesn’t seem to matter. We still want to take from our neighbor.
So here’s our pick of some of the most powerful songs about war. Unsurprisingly, they’re all anti-war songs.
- Gimme Shelter – The Rolling Stones
- Masters of War – Bob Dylan
- Games Without Frontiers – Peter Gabriel
- Eve of Destruction – Barry McGuire
- The Dogs of War – Pink Floyd
- Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag – Country Joe McDonald & The Fish
- Love Vigilantes – New Order
- A Pair of Brown Eyes – The Pogues
- Love and War – Neil Young
- The Unknown Soldier – The Doors
- There is a War – Leonard Cohen
- War – Edwin Starr
- Give Peace a Chance – Plastic Ono Band
- Harry Patch (In Memory Of) – Radiohead
- Army Dreamers – Kate Bush
- Spanish Bombs – The Clash
- War Pigs – Black Sabbath
- Devils and Dust – Bruce Springsteen
- Zombie – The Cranberries
- Orange Crush – R.E.M.
- How Does the Grass Grow – David Bowie
- Hammer to Fall – Queen
- Draft Morning – The Byrds
- Stoned Love – The Supremes
- Oliver’s Army – Elvis Costello And The Attractions
- When The President Talks To God – Bright Eyes
- One – Metallica
- Run To The Hills – Iron Maiden
- Fortunate Son – Creedence Clearwater Revival
- With God on Our Side – Bob Dylan
- The Partisan – Leonard Cohen
- So Much Trouble In The World – Bob Marley & The Wailers
- When The Roses Bloom Again – Billy Bragg & Wilco
Gimme Shelter – The Rolling Stones
‘Gimme Shelter’ was released on the Let It Bleed album in 1969. It was written during a time of social and political uncertainty. There were race issues in the US, and the Vietnam War was happening simultaneously.
The song shows the amount of tension everyone experienced at that time, showing that everyone felt that they were “just a shot away” from utter mayhem.
We include this track on our list of stormy songs.
Masters of War – Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan wrote this anti-war song as a criticism of government officials. He blames government leaders for allowing wars to happen and people to lose their lives fighting. The song’s music is gentle, but the lyrics are angry as Bob criticizes how they hide in mansions and instill fear in everyone. Although this song was written about the Vietnam War, it’s been used ever since then to protest wars and conflicts over the years.
Dylan was famous for protest songs in his early career with songs like ‘The Times They Are a Changin’ (which you can hear on our songs about change list) and of course ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ (which you can hear here.)
Games Without Frontiers – Peter Gabriel
This song is a criticism of government leaders. It equates them to children playing childish games on the playground, but instead of playing with toys, they’re playing with people’s lives.
The games governments are playing are most likely wars and political decisions that affect the people who have nothing to do with it. This song reached the Top 10 in the UK, and although it only reached 48 in the U.S., it helped establish him in the States.
This track appears on our playlist of whistling songs.
Eve of Destruction – Barry McGuire
Barry McGuire points out the hypocrisy and indifference people seemed to have about the war in the 1960s. Back then, US citizens could be drafted for the war at 18 but couldn’t vote until 21. People hated other people who were different than them, but they’d still say a prayer before eating.
Barry wonders how “you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction” despite all the wrongs there are in the world.
The Dogs of War – Pink Floyd
The “dogs of war and men of hate” in this song are politicians who engage in covert wars and remain hidden. The politicians are in “a silent uproar” as they quietly discuss costs and fund operations that most citizens won’t ever hear about.
While most people believe war is wrong, it’s probably unanimous that a secret war driven by money is unacceptable.
Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag – Country Joe McDonald & The Fish
This one is a satirical song about how flippant the US government appeared to be about sending people off to war. It also criticizes how those drafted had to be forced into it whether they wanted to or not, hence why they don’t seem to care in this song.
Sometimes you have to laugh, or you’ll cry, and that’s certainly the direction this song leans.
Love Vigilantes – New Order
‘Love Vigilantes’ tells the story of a soldier who can’t wait to go home to see his family. He finally got to go home, and when he did, he found his wife crying on the floor with a telegram saying that her husband had passed away in the war. So, this soldier got to go home as a ghost.
This upbeat song cynically draws attention to how painful war is for families.
A Pair of Brown Eyes – The Pogues
This song is about a guy who’s drunk at a pub when an old man starts talking about his war experiences. He goes on about terrible, gruesome things that happened while in the war and finishes his story about how he once saw a pretty girl but never saw her again.
The guy who’s listening to the old man is also in a similar situation with a girl, and that seems to make him angry.
Love and War – Neil Young
Neil Young sings of the complications of both love and war. He doesn’t seem to know where he stands on the issues; he knows that they’re both difficult topics that many people disagree about.
You can tell that this song is about him trying to understand his feelings about it when he says, “I said a lot of things that I can’t take back, but I don’t really know if I wanna.”
The Unknown Soldier – The Doors
‘The Unknown Soldier’ probably could’ve been more popular if radio stations had played it more often, but many didn’t want to because of the violent themes. Even so, it sold pretty well.
The song tells of a soldier who passed away in the war. While he fought and lost, life back home continued to go on – people read the news and fed their children – and eventually, everyone celebrated the end of the war with little thought given to the unknown soldiers.
Also, see our playlist of songs about heroes.
There is a War – Leonard Cohen
The wars in this song aren’t necessarily about actual country vs. country wars, even though this song came out during the Vietnam war, but rather about “wars” between people.
There are wars between races, genders, and economic statuses. They seem to be trivial battles to Leonard Cohen since he says, “pick up your tiny burden,” as if to say that there are bigger, actual wars we can focus on instead of squabbling with our neighbor.
War – Edwin Starr
What’s war good for? “Absolutely nothin’!” Edwin Starr points out everything wrong with war – crying mothers, death, troubled youth, and broken hearts. It doesn’t do anything but cause more problems, and it only benefits the ones who start it; that is to say, the governments.
Edwin questions the sentiment that we have to fight for freedom, saying that there has to be another way.
Related: this (quite rightly) appears on our playlist of iconic Motown songs.
Give Peace a Chance – Plastic Ono Band
John Lennon and Yoko Ono had a “Bed-In” to protest the Vietnam war and promote peace. They didn’t leave their hotel bed for eight days, but it was a productive week because they received media attention and recorded ‘Give Peace a Chance.’
In this classic peace song, they’re asking everyone to stop the violence and try to be peaceful.
Harry Patch (In Memory Of) – Radiohead
Henry John Patch was the last living WWI veteran. He passed away in 2009 and lived to be an impressive 111 years old! Thom Yorke of Radiohead wrote this song based on a 2005 interview with Harry and even based some of the lyrics directly on Harry’s words.
The song is written from the perspective of a soldier who believes that humanity will never learn how to stop fighting.
See our list of classic fight songs.
Army Dreamers – Kate Bush
This song is sung from the perspective of a mother who lost her son in the war. The song says that going to the army is a waste of a perfectly good life. The young man died as a teenager and never had the opportunity to seek out higher education, become a rockstar, or become a family man.
He didn’t know what to do with his life, so he joined the army, only to lose it. The BBC banned the song from being played on the radio in 1991 during the Gulf War.
Spanish Bombs – The Clash
You’ll get a history lesson from this song since it’s about the Spanish Civil War in 1936-1939. Joe Strummer had the idea for the song when he learned about tourist hotels getting bombed in Costa Brava in 1979. The song seems to go back and forth between the 1930s and 1979 since it mentions the historical events and disco casinos.
War Pigs – Black Sabbath
‘War Pigs’ criticizes politicians for starting wars but not fighting in them and accuses them of “making war just for fun” as if it were a game of chess. They show the politicians having an unfortunate (but deserved) fate of the devil laughing at them as they beg for forgiveness.
Devils and Dust – Bruce Springsteen
This song is about a soldier who says God is on his side, but he’s struggling to keep his faith as he sees horrific things on the battlefield. The soldier feels that war will “take your God-filled soul and fill it with devils and dust.”
This song is an anti-war song written about the Iraq War. It wasn’t played on the radio often, but it won a Grammy and was nominated for two more.
Zombie – The Cranberries
‘Zombie’ was written in response to an attack by the Irish Republican Army in 1993 that resulted in dozens of injured people and two children who lost their lives. The song is a call for peace between Ireland and England.
Lead singer Dolores O’Riordan passed away in 2018, and it wasn’t until her passing that the parents of one of the boys who died in ’93 learned that the song was essentially written about their son.
This song also appears on our list of easy guitar songs.
Orange Crush – R.E.M.
Orange Crush is a sugary soft drink, but that’s not what R.E.M. is singing about. They’re singing about Agent Orange, a harmful herbicide used by the US in the Vietnam War to kill off all the plants so enemies could be more visible. Agent Orange causes many health complications, and since R.E.M. didn’t make this song blatantly anti-war, people mistaking it for the soft drink can lead to a conversation about how people often don’t realize how destructive war can be.
How Does the Grass Grow – David Bowie
This anti-war song is about how soldiers are trained to be heartless and cruel in battle. In the chorus, “How does the grass grow? Blood, blood, blood!” is taken from what soldiers were trained to say as they practiced using bayonets. In one part of the song, David sings from the perspective of a soldier who sees himself as having a stone heart after having to do so many horrible things during a war.
Hammer to Fall – Queen
The hammer Freddie Mercury references in this song is death, which is something everyone will face whether you’re “rich or poor or famous.”The song is basically telling you to make the most of the time you have. Many people thought this song was about the Cold War and atomic bombs since it mentions a mushroom cloud. It’s certainly an underlying theme, but the song is more about life and death and the inevitable arrival of the Grim Reaper.
Draft Morning – The Byrds
In this song, you see a young man on his draft morning contemplating what he’ll have to go through since he’s getting drafted into the Vietnam War. He’s not in a rush to join the war and harm innocent lives and questions why it should even happen in the first place. The song will make you think of all the drafted men and women who probably thought these same thoughts on their draft day.
Stoned Love – The Supremes
No, it’s not that kind of “stoned.” The stones you find in nature are solid and tough to break, and that’s the kind of love they’re singing about – sturdy and eternal. The song sings of forgiving each other and how young people need to stand up to those in charge to demand peace. Released in 1970, this song is obviously about the Vietnam War, but it holds true to every conflict since then.
Oliver’s Army – Elvis Costello And The Attractions
Elvis Costello wrote this song about how the British Army often recruited young men as young as 16. They were often poor and couldn’t find work, especially since unemployment rates were at an all-time high when this song was written. It’s meant to be a cynical criticism since Elvis sings “it’s a professional career” from the perspective of an army recruiter.
When The President Talks To God – Bright Eyes
The idea for this song comes from when US President George W. Bush said he “talks” to God in his prayers – the singer questions what they chat about during this time. He wonders if Bush asked for horrible things.
One – Metallica
This tragic song is about a soldier who lost everything but his life because of a landmine. He can’t see, talk, hear, or move and doesn’t want to be here anymore. The song was based on the 1939 World War I novel Johnny Got His Gun, and the music video uses clips from the 1971 movie adaptation.
The song brings attention to the tragedies that war can cause people to face.
Run To The Hills – Iron Maiden
‘Run To The Hills’ is a historical song about the settlers who arrived in North America and began battling the Native Americans. The song mentions the horrible things done and uses three different perspectives. The first verse is from the Native Americans, the second is from the settlers, and the third is a third party who wasn’t involved in the battles.
It did well on the charts in the UK, hitting number 7, but it didn’t make the charts in the US.
Fortunate Son – Creedence Clearwater Revival
‘Fortunate Son’ brings attention to how some people felt the wealthy had the means to escape the draft for the Vietnam War while those in poverty had no choice but to go.
It’s an anti-war song in that the singer says he wasn’t “born made to wave the flag” and didn’t “inherit star-spangled eyes,” but it’s also a song about being poor.
With God on Our Side – Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan questions the common belief that God is on the same side of the United States. He mentions many wars the US was involved in, from fighting Native Americans to World War II, and questions if God was really on their side.
This song shows that American politicians claim God is on their side to excuse their morally questionable decisions.
It leaves Dylan confused about why God would ever approve of these events to happen.
The Partisan – Leonard Cohen
This song is a cover of a 1940s French song, ‘La Complainte du partisan.’ The song is about the French Resistance in WWII and everything they did to weaken the Germans.
Leonard Cohen sings from the perspective of someone in the French Resistance who has had to change their name and hide from the Germans many times.
Although he’s lost everything, “j’ai la France entie ‘re,” or “I have all of France.”
So Much Trouble In The World – Bob Marley & The Wailers
This song laments how much wrong there is in the world. It criticizes wealthy people with big egos and even the governments for sending people to the moon rather than dealing with what’s happening here on the earth. Marley says it’s the “street people” who are struggling.
While this song focuses more on the troubles rather than solutions, it does suggest that karma will be served eventually.
When The Roses Bloom Again – Billy Bragg & Wilco
The second track from Wilco and Billy Bragg’s final collaborative album, Mermaid Avenue Vol. III (a superb collection of Woody Guthrie covers set to newly created music). This wistful number which, incidentally, has lyrics written by Will D. Cobb and Gus Edwards (not Guthrie) sees a soldier about to head off to war, telling his sweetheart that if he doesn’t return, he’ll be with her when the roses bloom.