It is said that war is hell, but popular music historically has been more interested in the premise that war is wrong. While policy makers in this and other countries have found no shortage of causes for which to take up arms, musicians, like most artists, have tended to oppose them. Whether it was the Woodstock generation’s very focused effort to end the U.S.’s involvement in Vietnam or the general peace-loving ethic of a John Lennon or Pete Seeger, the idea was that, whatever the conflict may be, it’s not worth fighting or dying (or killing) for.
But after this country’s ignominious withdrawal from southeast Asia, overt antiwar positions became increasingly regarded as unpatriotic or even traitorous. A love-it-or-leave-it backlash found its way into popular music, most notably through country artists like Charlie Daniels and Lee Greenwood, and a healthy strain of red, white and blue remains woven into the fabric of today’s music. Nuanced songwriters like Bruce Springsteen have shown the ability to engage both camps — hate the war, but support the soldiers fighting it — but in general the view is you’re either with America or against it.
That’s a shame, because artists can and should do better. Conflicts associated with love, marriage, friendship or family are terrifically complicated and have inspired some great music worthy of their depth. While the dynamics of the battlefield would seem to be comparatively simple (kill or be killed), there is music that challenges us to dispense with the rallies (either protest or pep) and look at war through the eyes of the people fighting it. Pink Floyd’s “Us and Them,” for example, points out the absurdity from the perspective of those on the front line:
‘Forward!’ they cried from the rear
And the front rank died
The generals sat, and the lines on the map
Moved from side to side
Then, amid the frenzy of Reagan-era fist-pumping, Dire Straits offers a touching characterization of the bond between soldiers in “Brothers in Arms.” The questionable morality of fighting a war is supplanted by an underlying code of the battlefield:
Through these fields of destruction
Baptisms of fire
I’ve witnessed your suffering
As the battle raged higher
And though they did hurt me so bad
In the fear and alarm
You did not desert me, my brothers in arms
The Decemberists take this bond a step further in “The Soldiering Life,” which dares to suggest an undeniable exhilaration of the battlefield experience in a refrain that’s almost celebratory:
I never felt so much life
Huddled in the trenches
Gazing on the battlefield
Our rifles blaze away
We blaze away
Critics may charge these songs with treading uncomfortable ground. Surely, you can’t adequately address the horrors of war with mundane complaints about incompetent superiors across layers of a government bureaucracy. Or a solemn death on a smoldering field, at peace in the knowledge that our closest comrades haven’t abandoned us. Or jubilation over the amazing display of firepower that can only be experienced at the front. No, these songs won’t support the simple proposition that war is hell when it is, in fact, so much more.