Top 10 Pop Songs About War
‘Sunday Bloody Sunday,’ U2 (1983)
Although it was never officially declared a war, the “troubles,” first as part the Republic of Ireland’s battles for independence and then as violence between factions in Northern Ireland, amounted to drawn-out civil war. This anthem expressing frustration with the violence helped bring U2 to world attention. The lead track from the album “War,” it hit the top 10 on rock radio in the U.S. “Time” magazine named “Sunday Bloody Sunday” as one of the top protest songs of all time.
The incident that spurred the title to the song became known as “Bloody Sunday.” On Jan. 30, 1972, British soldiers shot 26 unarmed civilians during a peaceful protest march in Derry, Northern Ireland; 14 died from their wounds. It was the most people killed during a single shooting incident in the entire conflict.
“And the battle’s just begun
There’s many lost, but tell me who has won
The trench is dug within our hearts
And mothers, children, brothers, sisters torn apart”
‘World Destruction,’ Time Zone (1984)
In 1984 punk legend John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols) got together with hip-hop godfather Afrika Bambaataa to record this cross-genre classic. “World Destruction” is credited as one of the first songs to effectively combine rap and rock music. The video makes extensive use of clips of President Ronald Reagan speaking about nuclear war.
Bambaataa was already perceived as a pioneer of hip-hop when he put together the band Time Zone in 1983. His 1982 single “Planet Rock,” fusing influences from the band Kraftwerk with rap to create what was known as electro, is considered one of the most influential singles of all time.
For “World Destruction,” Bambaataa reportedly asked producer Bill Laswell to come up with somebody “really crazy” for a collaborator on the record. The suggestion was Lydon.
“This is the world destruction, your life ain’t nothing
The human race is becoming a disgrace
Nationalities are fighting with each other
Why is this? Because the system tells you”
‘War,’ Edwin Starr (1970)
Edwin Starr had been recording soul hit singles, including the top 10 pop hit “25 Miles,” since 1965, but he wasn’t widely recognized as one of America’s top soul singers at the end of the decade. That changed when the anthemic protest song “War” went to the top of the charts in 1970. It remains one of the most powerful simple statements about the futility of war and is considered one of the most commercially successful protest songs of all time. Bruce Springsteen took his live version of “War” into the pop top 10 in 1986.
“War” was originally recorded by the Temptations for Motown and released on their 1979 album “Psychedelic Shack.” The label received letters from fans requesting that the song be released as a single, but Motown balked, fearing damage to group’s public image. Starr, hearing of the demands for a single, volunteered to record “War” for the Motown label Gordy. The result was a much more intense record than the Temptations original. Starr earned a Grammy Award nomination for Best Male R&B Vocal for “War,” and it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.
“War – What is it good for? – Absolutely nothing!”
‘Mosh,’ Eminem (2004)
Rapper Eminem released this song with its accompanying video on Oct. 24, 2004, to encourage young people to vote against George W. Bush. While the song is a generalized attack on the Bush presidency, most of the specific complaints are related to the Iraq War. “Mosh” appears on the album “Encore,” which earned a Grammy Award nomination for Best Rap Album.
The accompanying video for “Mosh” is animated and uses multiple direct references to the Bush administration. The last scene shows a crowd entering a voter registration site. After the 2004 presidential election, a second version of the video was released in which the crowd enters the U.S. Capitol during Bush’s State of the Union speech. At the end of the clip Vice President Dick Cheney suffers a heart attack.
“Let us beg to differ
As we set aside our differences
And assemble our own army
To disarm this Weapon of Mass Destruction
That we call our president, for the present
And mosh for the future of our next generation
To speak and be heard”
‘Ballad of the Green Berets,’ Sgt. Barry Sadler (1966)
Barry Sadler served as a Green Beret medic and an Army staff sergeant during the Vietnam War, but he had to return home after being seriously wounded. Robin Moore, author of the bestselling book “The Green Berets,” encouraged Sadler to record his often strongly patriotic songs about being a soldier. This song became the biggest pop hit of 1966, revered by those who supported the war and reviled by those opposed. “Ballad of the Green Berets” also topped the easy listening chart and went to No. 2 on the country chart. The melody is borrowed from the folk song “The Butcher Boy.” Sadler’s follow-up single “The A-Team” hit the pop top 30.
The original lyrics for “Ballad of the Green Berets” mentioned Green Beret James Gabriel Jr., the first native Hawaiian to die in the Vietnam War, but the verse mentioning him was left off the final recording. Sadler performed “Ballad of the Green Berets” live on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1966.
“Put silver wings on my son’s chest
Make him one of America’s best
He’ll be a man they’ll test one day
Have him win the Green Beret”
‘Billy Don’t Be a Hero,’ Paper Lace (1974)
By 1974 much of America had turned against the Vietnam War. The British band Paper Lace recorded this song detailing the story of a soldier dying heroically. It ends with his fiancee throwing away the note bringing her the news. Paper Lace had a No. hit with “Billy” in the UK, but the American band Bo Donaldson & the Heywoods beat them to the American charts. Because of the timing, many assumed the song is about the Vietnam War, but others have pointed out lyrics that indicate it is more appropriately situated in the American Civil War.
Donaldson and the Heywoods’ stardom was short-lived. They returned to the pop top 20 with the song “Who Do You Think You Are,” another song originally a hit in the UK by a British band. In this case, it was the talent-show-winning group Candlewick Green. Donaldson and the Heywoods hit the pop top 40 one more time with the song “The Heartbreak Kid.”
“I heard his fiancee got a letter
That told how Billy died that day
The letter said that he was a hero
She should be proud he died that way
I heard she threw that letter away”
’19,’ Paul Hardcastle (1985)
It took a British jazz musician/producer to educate much of the American public, particularly young people, about the full horror of the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Much of the film footage in the accompanying music video came from American news broadcasts in an era when the government still allowed free reporting from war zones. These clips are in sharp contrast with news coverage of the Iraq War. Versions of “19” were recorded in multiple languages and it hit No. 1 in countries around the world including the UK. In the U.S. “19” topped the dance chart and reached No. 15 on the pop chart.
Paul Hardcastle took his inspiration for “19” from the documentary “Vietnam Requiem,” an ABC News documentary about veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“In 1965 Vietnam seemed like just another foreign war
But it wasn’t
It was different in many ways, as so were those that did the fighting
In World War II the average age of the combat soldier was 26
In Vietnam he was 19″
‘Give Peace a Chance,’ John Lennon and Plastic Ono Band (1969)
John Lennon and Yoko Ono spent a week in bed in late May and early June 1969 in Montreal talking and singing about peace. This followed a similar event during their honeymoon earlier that year in Amsterdam. On June 1, 1969, surrounded by news cameras, they sang and recorded this song. Among celebrities attending were Timothy Leary, Tommy Smothers, and Dick Gregory. “Give Peace a Chance,” Lennon’s first single outside the Beatles, hit No. 14 in the U.S. and No. 2 on the UK pop singles chart.
According to reports, when Lennon was asked by a reporter what he hoped to achieve by staying in bed, he answered, “Just give peace a chance.” That was the nucleus of the song, which was quickly adopted as a singalong anthem by the anti-Vietnam War movement. Ono released a dance version of “Give Peace a Chance” in 2008 that hit No. 1 on the US dance chart.
“All we are saying is give peace a chance”
‘Eve of Destruction,’ Barry McGuire (1965)
Barry McGuire gained fame as one of the lead vocalists for the folk-pop New Christy Minstrels. “Eve of Destruction” was his first hit as a solo act, and, although the subject matter ranges more widely, it caught the mood of the debate raging in the U.S. over the Vietnam War and other social justice issues. The song was initially offered to the Byrds, who rejected it. The Turtles recorded a version around the same time as McGuire. He never again reached the top 40 on the pop singles chart, but he became a notable Christian singer in the 1970s.
“Eve of Destruction” was assisted in its rise to the top of the pop charts by mainstream media criticism. An answer record “The Dawn of Correction” was released by the trio The Spokesmen. Conservatives also rallied around “The Ballad of the Green Berets” released a few months later. Some U.S. radio stations refused to play “Eve of Destruction,” claiming it harmed U.S. efforts in the Vietnam War.
“The eastern world, it is exploding
Violence flarin’, bullets loadin’
You’re old enough to kill, but not for votin’
You don’t believe in war, but what’s that gun you’re totin’”
‘One,’ Metallica (1989)
“One” is one of the most chilling statements about what warfare can do to individuals. The heavy metal band Metallica bought the rights to the film “Johnny Got His Gun” so they could use it to create the video for “One.” It details the hell on earth of a wounded soldier who is left nearly immobile as well as deaf, dumb, and blind but unable to die. The result was Metallica’s first top 40 pop hit in the U.S. and an unforgettable music video. “One” earned a Grammy Award for Best Metal Performance and reached No. 13 on the UK pop music chart. Metallica performed “One” live at the 2014 Grammy Awards with classical pianist Lang Lang.
“Hold my breath as I wish for death
Oh please God, wake me
Now the world is gone I’m just one
Oh God, help me hold my breath as I wish for death”