Wars have been in existence since time immemorial. Unfortunately, even in the 21st century, humans still resort to aggression to achieve political goals. Hence, wars here and there.
And as long as war occurs, so does music. Songwriters use the avenue of music to make their stand on war or to inspire people to stop seeking a war.
Today, we have compiled 35 powerful songs about war and anti-war to encourage those going off to war or protest against it. Read on to find out more.
1. “War” By Edwin Starr
One of the best songs that embodies the horrors and futility of war is Edwin Starr‘s “War.” It works as a protest song against any war, with Starr clarifying that it was about neighborhood wars and conflicts in general.
In the lyrics, the narrator portrays his negative views on war, particularly its devastating effects on life. He questions the purpose of war by asking, “War… What is it good for?” The answer? “Absolutely nothing.”
In fact, war destroys innocent lives and leaves countless mothers, spouses, and families grieving. He further expresses his outrage by mentioning that war is “an enemy to all mankind” and only causes unrest.
2. “One” By Metallica
The powerful anti-war song “One” by Metallica exposes the brutal realities of war. The track won a Grammy Award for Best Metal Performance in 1990 and became one of the band’s most popular pieces.
Lyrically, the song centers on a soldier of World War I who was severely wounded in battle. He stepped on a landline, blowing off his limbs and jaw. It left him blind and deaf and unable to speak or move. He was trapped in his own body, unable to communicate with the world around him.
Such were his injuries that he begged God to take his life. He suffered so badly that he likened it to living in hell.
This emphasizes war’s true cost – not just lives lost but the lasting physical and psychological damage that survivors go through.
3. “Zombie” By The Cranberries
Up next is a protest song about the violence in Northern Ireland. The Cranberries‘ lead singer, Dolores O’Riordan, wrote “Zombies” as a response to the death of two kids in an IRA bombing in Cheshire.
The title is a metaphor for the dehumanizing effects of violence and war. The song claims that unending conflicts create mindlessness in people, making them like zombies. It criticizes how these conflicts keep repeating, leading to a cycle of violence that never ends.
Further, “Zombies” contrasts the images of joy and death while at the same time focusing on the realities of war. The song serves as a critique of the war and a call for peace.
4. “The Unknown Soldier” By The Doors
Another anti-war song on our list is The Doors‘ “The Unknown Soldier,” which they released in 1968. Though it’s a protest song against the Vietnam War, its themes can be applied to war and its effects in general.
The title represents the countless faceless soldiers who die in wars. Their sacrifices are easily forgotten, and their deaths become mere statistics. And while they die in combat, life continues at home, as represented by the phrases “news is read” and “children fed.”
The song concludes with the lines, “It’s all over, The war is over.” However, it does not signify that the wars stop or come to an end. Rather, it signifies that the war is over for the soldier, possibly through death.
5. “War Pigs” By Black Sabbath
In Black Sabbath‘s “War Pigs,” the title refers to military commanders and politicians who instigate wars. This is a potent anti-war song that protests acts of war, equating it with evil.
The band takes aim at these powerful people who are driven by their desire to destroy and control. They are considered the instigators of evil and are compared to sorcerers and “witches at black masses.”
Further, the song accuses them of starting wars and denying any responsibility for the aftermath. What’s worse is that they use the poor and innocent people to carry out the fighting for them.
6. “Masters Of War” By Bob Dylan
Another protest song against the government, military, and all instigators of war is Bob Dylan‘s “Masters of War.” He wrote it to criticize American leaders at a time marked by escalating tension during the Cold War.
According to him, these masters create wars solely for profit. This song with “war” in the title expresses anger toward these people, condemning their actions and the consequences that affect the victims.
This song is not just a protest song but also a critique of the socio-economic structures that only serve to perpetuate war. It brings attention to the injustice of the powerful individuals, sending the poor and young to die in wars while they fatten their pockets.
7. “Gimme Shelter” By The Rolling Stones
Written during the Vietnam War, “Gimme Shelter” by The Rolling Stones depicts this tumultuous era. It addresses the brutal realities of war, including murder and fear.
Many consider “Gimme Shelter” an “end-of-the-world” song because of its dark undertones. It reflects the chaos brought about by the Vietnam War and the protests against it.
The line “Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away” vividly depicts the horrors and immediacy of violence, suggesting that peace is fragile and can be shattered in an instant. This song is a reminder of the cost of war and the need for a safe place away from such conflict and violence.
8. “Fortunate Son” By Creedence Clearwater Revival
From the album Willy and the Poor Boys by Creedence Clearwater Revival comes “Fortunate Son.” This Vietnam War-era protest song is a statement against the war and the political establishment in the late 1960s.
The song particularly highlights the social inequality in place during this time. Such is obvious in the fact that the wealthy and privileged were exempt from the sacrifices of war. The title refers to these people who can use their status to avoid enlistment.
“Fortunate Son” is widely associated with the anti-war movement and is often featured in pop culture depictions of the Vietnam War. In essence, it critiques the American establishment and the unfair system where the poor are drafted to war while the rich are untouched.
9. “Eve Of Destruction” By Barry McGuire
One of the anthems of the anti-Vietnam War movement is “Eve of Destruction” by Barry McGuire. It was released in 1965 at the height of the said war.
The lyrics paint a grim picture of the world and delve into social and political issues. The song mentions various international conflicts, reflecting the widespread fear and unrest during the mid-1960s.
In addition, the song criticizes how the government handled these crises and expresses dismay over the state of the world. The narrator repeatedly states that “we’re on the eve of destruction,” conveying the senseless violence and destruction wars case.
10. “Devils & Dust” By Bruce Springsteen
The song “Devils & Dust” by Bruce Springsteen reflects the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It’s written from the perspective of a soldier who experiences internal struggles as he serves in war.
The song highlights the harsh realities of war along with the emotional and spiritual turmoil the soldier endures. The title, “Devils & Dust,” holds deep symbolism. “Devils” represent inner demons that haunt the soldier, while “dust” refers to the fragile nature of life.
Throughout the song, the narrator questions his role in the conflict, reflecting a sense of fear and confusion. The song also depicts the impact of war on human emotion, stirring feelings of disillusionment, fear, and the haunting presence of death.
11. “Orange Crush” By R.E.M.
In R.E.M.‘s “Orange Crush,” the title refers to Agent Orange and not the orange-flavored drink. This anti-war song is about the realities and consequences of the Vietnam War.
During the war, the US military extensively used Agent Orange, a chemical herbicide defoliant. Unfortunately, this chemical had lasting and devastating effects on the land, people, and even the veterans exposed to it.
“Orange Crush” is a critique of the war and the use of such chemicals, highlighting the physical and psychological damage these caused. The song also explores how the war affected soldiers who returned home, who often dealt with blame and judgment from their own land.
12. “Harry Patch (In Memory Of)” By Radiohead
In 2021, Radiohead released “Harry Patch (In Memory Of)” as a tribute to Harry Patch. He was the last surviving combat soldier who fought in the trenches during World War I. He died in 2009 at the age of 111.
This song is an anti-war statement that draws on Patch’s experiences. It paints a picture of the horrors he witnessed on the battlefield, particularly seeing his comrades go down. The song underscores the brutality and senselessness of war, with Patch comparing it to seeing “hell upon this Earth.”
The song perfectly captures the fear, violence, and loss that marked the experience of soldiers during the war. It’s a reminder of what war costs and a call for peace.
13. “Give Peace A Chance” By John Lennon And Plastic Ono Band
The first hit song John Lennon had outside of The Beatles is “Give Peace a Chance,” credited to The Plastic Ono Band. This renowned anti-war anthem was a powerful voice during the Vietnam War era.
In the lyrics, the narrator sends a clear and direct message: consider peace as a necessary alternative to war. The repeated chorus, “All we are saying is give peace a chance,” became a rallying cry for those who opposed the Vietnam War and all forms of conflict.
Beyond the song’s context, it speaks to the universal human desire for peace and harmony. It tells us that conflicts can be better resolved through dialogue and understanding.
14. “Stoned Love” By The Supremes
The common theme among songs from the late 1960s and early 1970s is the plea for love and peace. “Stoned Love” by The Supremes is one of those, calling for an end to the war through understanding and love.
“Stoned Love,” a song with “war” in the lyrics, reflects the widespread anti-war sentiments of the time. The title does not refer to drugs but to a solid, perpetual display of affection. The narrator believes that “a love for each other will bring fighting to an end.”
Aside from love, the narrator calls for us to forgive those who commit mistakes against us. We must reject war and embrace love and understanding instead.
15. “How Does The Grass Grow?” By David Bowie
Up next is a thought-provoking commentary on the nature of war and violence. David Bowie‘s “How Does the Grass Grow” is about World War I.
The title is part of a mantra taught to soldiers during bayonet training. They chant, “How does the grass grow? Blood, blood, blood!” This symbolizes the dehumanizing process of turning ordinary people into killers capable of doing unthinkable acts in the name of war.
The lyrics reflect on the psychological impact of this transformation and explore themes of guilt, trauma, and their struggle to reconcile their acts with their sense of self.
16. “The ‘Fish’ Cheer/I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag” By Country Joe And The Fish
The satirical anti-war song “The ‘Fish’ Cheer/I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” by Country Joe and the Fish is from the Vietnam War era. It became popular because of it being a biting commentary on the war.
The song uses dark humor and irony to critique how the government handled the Vietnam War and the draft. It begins with a “Fish” cheer, during which the band spells out the word “F-I-S-H” as cheerleaders do in football games.
Despite the lighthearted cheer, the song delivers a scathing indictment of the war. It highlights the disconnect between the government’s anti-war propaganda and the harsh reality that both soldiers and civilians faced.
17. “Draft Morning” By The Byrds
Emerging from the Vietnam Era, the song “Draft Morning” by The Byrds portrays the harsh realities of the draft. This is where young men are required to enlist for state service.
The lyrics delve into the experience of a soldier drafted and about to be sent to Vietnam. The draft was the scariest time for young people during the war, and The Byrds perfectly captured the sentiment in this song.
It begins with a peaceful morning scene but is abruptly disrupted by the realization that war is looming. The closing line, “Why should it happen?” reflects what most parents, spouses, and loved ones thought on that morning.
18. “Run To The Hills” By Iron Maiden
The 1982 song “Run to the Hills” by Iron Maiden explores themes of war in the context of historical events. Specifically, it examines the conflicts between the Native Americans and the European settlers from both perspectives.
The first verse is from the point of view of a Native, lamenting how the “white man came across the sea,” bringing them “pain and misery.” The second verse is from the white man’s view, who describes his involvement in the American Indian Wars. The last verse is a third-person narrative that condemns the horrors of war and colonialism.
“Run to the Hills” demonstrates how violence can lead to suffering and upheaval. The title symbolizes the Natives’ desperate attempts to flee from the violence and seek refuge. This underscores the tragedy of displacement caused by war.
19. “Spanish Bombs” By The Clash
The song “Spanish Bombs” by The Clash deals with the Spanish Civil War. It confronts the violence and oppression of the dictatorship of the Franco regime during the late 1930s.
The lyrics reference Andalucia and “the days of ’39,” both of which point to the time and place of the war. The song also mentions Spanish poet and playwright Federico Lorca, whom the Nationalist forces killed during the war. This is a powerful symbol of the repression and brutality of the Franco regime.
“Spanish bombs” is a metaphor that highlights the destructive impact of the war on Spain and its people. It underscores the chaos that the conflict caused.
20. “Hammer To Fall” By Queen
Written in 1984 by Queen‘s guitarist Brian May, “Hammer to Fall” is about life and death. May himself said that the hammer is a metaphor for the Grim Reaper doing his job. However, the song can also be applied to war.
Hammer to fall can be an allusion to nuclear war being dropped. This symbolizes the looming threat of destruction in the context of the Cold War era, during which the band members grew up. The hammer may also refer to the USSR emblem bearing the hammer and sickle.
The song also says that life and death come to us and do not spare anyone, whether you are “rich or poor or famous.”
21. “This Is War” By Thirty Seconds To Mars
Released in 2009, “This is War” by Thirty Seconds to Mars carries a resonant theme about conflict. The lyrics and theme are connected to the concept of war in many ways.
First of all, it’s about fighting for what you believe in and standing firm despite the forces that bring you down. This can be a metaphor for conflict or war, where soldiers and nations stand up for their ideals.
Secondly, songwriter Jared Leto has said that the song is about the inevitability of conflict but also its blessings. The song basically says that war is not just a destructive force but that it can bring about change and growth.
All in all, this song that mentions “war” uses the theme of conflict to convey messages about resilience and the power of belief. It is a reminder of our struggles and the strength we need to get through them.
22. “Love And War” By Neil Young
The anti-war song “Love and War” came from Neil Young‘s Le Noise album. It reflects on the troubles in Afghanistan and Iraq and the complexities of both love and war.
In the line “When I sing about love and war, I don’t really know what I’m saying,” Young means he is baffled as to why we keep getting into wars. The song underscores the devastating consequences of conflict and the transformative power of love.
All in all, “Love and War” is a commentary on the socio-political issues of war and conflict. It uses personal narratives and emotive language to highlight the harsh realities of war and its impact on human lives.
23. “Hero Of War” By Rise Against
The deeply emotional “Hero of War” by Rise Against is next on our list. It talks about the harsh realities of war, including what goes on on the battlefield and its psychological impact on the soldiers.
The song was inspired by The Ground Truth: After the Killing Ends, a documentary on soldiers who experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The lyrics follow the story of a soldier’s journey, from his enlistment to his return home from war.
At first, they are filled with pride in serving their country. Then, they face the brutal realities in the warzone, where they end up torturing a prisoner and killing a civilian.
The line “A hero of war, Yeah that’s what I’ll be” sounds sarcastic as it shows the disparity between the glorified image of a war hero and the traumatic experiences they endure.
24. “American Soldier” By Toby Keith
Country music singer-songwriter Toby Keith wrote “American Soldier” in tribute to these selfless individuals who are headed off to war. The song highlights the extraordinary sacrifices they make and focuses on their commitment to family and country.
The soldier in the song embodies the courage and selflessness often associated with military service. He is proud to say, “I’m an American soldier,” and serve his country for freedom.
Despite the pain of leaving his family behind, he fulfills his duty as a soldier. This is the stark reality that soldiers and their families face during times of war.
25. “The Drums Of War” By Jackson Browne
The anti-war anthem “The Drums of War” by Jackson Browne was released in 2008 from his album Time the Conqueror. It’s a commentary on the political conflicts of the time, specifically the Iraq Invasion.
Here, the narrator expresses his dismay about the American government’s eagerness regarding the Iraq Invasion. He is frustrated over the senseless violence of war and the lack of accountability when things go wrong.
The song poses a series of questions that make the listeners stop for a while and think about it. It puts the focus on who is responsible for the instigation of wars and who is on the receiving end of a gun. The narrator calls on people to start questioning authority and challenge the status quo.
26. “Love Vigilantes” By New Order
In our next song, “Love Vigilantes,” English rock band New Order tells the story of a soldier returning home from war. The narrative follows his longing to once again see his wife and child, who are also awaiting his return.
This longing to see one’s family is a universal sentiment among soldiers. Being away from them and serving the country by fighting in a war is a sacrifice they have to make in the name of freedom.
Despite the upbeat melody, “Love Vigilantes” carries a somber message about the consequences of war. The unexpected ending of the song is a reminder of the tragic reality that soldiers and their families face due to war and conflicts.
27. “Wind Of Change” By Scorpions
Released in 1991, Scorpions‘ “Wind of Change” became one of the best-selling singles of all time. But more than that, this power ballad symbolizes the end of the Cold War and the hope for peace and unity.
The band’s own experiences in Moscow at a time when Russia was embracing openness inspired the writing of this song. The lyrics evoke a sense of change and optimism, reflecting the socio-political shifts happening at that time.
This song also became an anthem for the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unification of Germany. This represents a huge shift away from conflict toward peace.
28. “People Let’s Stop The War” By Grand Funk Railroad
In “People Let’s Stop the War,” Grand Funk Railroad is calling for peace and an end to war. The song sends a strong message of unity and urges listeners to unite in stopping the violence and bloodshed caused by war.
The American rock band opposed the Vietnam War, and this song is the best way to share their peace advocacy. The lyrics reflect their perspective on the futility of war and call for change instead.
While the song does not specify any war, the fact that it was released in 1971 implies the Vietnam War. It criticizes the political decisions leading to war and the unnecessary loss of life because of them.
29. “The Dogs Of War” By Pink Floyd
Our next song focuses on the destructive nature of war and the manipulation of power. Pink Floyd‘s “The Dogs of War” refers to politicians who are instigating wars and suggests that the motivation is money.
The song is a scathing indictment of war and human aggression. It criticizes the politicians who start wars under the guise of righteousness. They portray themselves as the “good guys,” whereas the enemies are the evil.
In addition, the song condemns politicians who are driven by personal interests. It highlights the fact that war is now more than just a form of defense. It’s a pointless act fueled by lies and deceit.
30. “There Is A War” By Leonard Cohen
While Leonard Cohen‘s “There is a War” is not about war in the traditional sense, it describes various forms of conflict and tension in society.
The song explores deeper societal and personal conflicts, such as war between man and woman, between rich and poor, and between black and white. These represent the social, political, and economic divides that exist. The song suggests that these divisions create ongoing conflict, much like war.
Interestingly, the song closes with the line, “Why don’t you come on back to the war…?” It is satirical. However, it highlights the inescapability of these conflicts and the unending need for negotiation and compromise.
31. “Ballad Of The Green Berets” By Barry Sadler And Robin Moore
The patriotic song “Ballad of the Green Berets” by Barry Sadler and Robin Moore was released in 1966. It highlights the pride, honor, and sad realities associated with being a Green Beret. Though it was released at the height of the Vietnam War, the song does not mention it.
The “Ballad of the Green Berets” is just one of the few songs that shed the military in a positive light. It was written to boost the morale of the American troops who fought in Vietnam.
The song talks about the challenges and sacrifices that soldiers had to face. It underscores bravery, resilience, and commitment to serve even in dangerous conditions.
32. “Civil War” By Guns N’ Roses
Another protest song on our list is one from Guns N’ Roses. “Civil War” strongly condemns all wars. It claims that conflict leads to discord and the suffering of many people.
According to the song, war breeds hate, feeds fear, leaves men fighting with each other and dying, and leaves women crying for lost lives. The mechanism of war only serves the rich and “buries the poor.”
In addition, war is futile and destructive. Nothing good comes from it, except death and honor. However, humans seem stuck in a cycle of violence and the failure to get along with others.
33. “The Battle Of New Orleans” By Johnny Horton
The focus of Johnny Horton‘s version of “The Battle of New Orleans” is the war fought in 1815 between British troops and American forces. The song is told from the perspective of an American soldier.
In the lyrics, the narrator describes the battle in a comical way despite the serious subject matter. He depicts the American soldiers’ determination to defend their land from the British invasion, even as far as using alligators as makeshift cannons.
Despite the lighthearted tone, the song depicts the harsh realities of war. It mentions casualties and the fear of the soldiers, showing a glimpse into the dark side of war.
34. “There’s A Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere” By Elton Britt
The patriotic anthem “There’s a Star-Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere” by Elton Britt encapsulates the sentiment of World War II.
The song is told from the perspective of a disabled man who yearns to fight for his country despite his physical limitations. He dreams of a place where he can be free from his disability and contribute to the war effort.
The narrator respects and admires the “Star-Spangled Banner,” which, for him, is a symbol of freedom and bravery. He imagines it waving in a distant land, or “somewhere,” which is the equivalent of Valhalla.
35. “Courtesy Of The Red, White And Blue (The Angry American)” By Toby Keith
To complete our list, we have Toby Keith‘s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American).” He wrote the song in response to two tragic things. First is his father’s death, who was a veteran. Second is the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.
In the context of wars, the lyrics depict America’s readiness to defend freedom and retaliate against those who threaten it. The song reflects Keith’s support for the military and a stance on the use of force when needed.
The song also encapsulates the emotions that many Americans felt after the September 11 attacks. It’s a call for unity during a time of national crisis and war.
Summing Up Our List Of War And Anti-War Songs
The songs above agree that wars are futile and only lead to unnecessary loss of lives, pain, and destruction. At the same time, they embody a range of emotions, from patriotism and heroism to sorrow and loss.
Many of us were not around during the big wars. But these songs, which immortalized specific events and sentiments related to wars, allow future generations to gain a better understanding of past conflicts.
We hope that the songs resonated emotionally with you and provided insights into the different aspects of war and its implications.