Throughout human history, wars have been a common occurrence, but humans have also been making music for a variety of reasons for the same length of time. Music is well known to reach certain areas of the human brain and activate emotional centers that inspire you to feel a certain way, either for or against, and music has been used to both encourage those going off to war, and protest against it. Songs about war have been used to bolster the troops as well as inspire the people of the country to no longer seek a war that has been going on endlessly.
The following songs have been popular in one form or another during many different wars, demonstrating the power of music during military conflicts.
1. “Battle Hymn of the Republic” – Lee Greenwood
This hymn, penned by Julia Howe in 1861 and popularized by the Union army during the American Civil War, was a favorite of the former. Many of its songs refer to biblical analogies in which a righteous Almighty God judges the wicked, giving wars fought for perceived injustices like slavery in the American Civil War a crusade lean.
Immediately following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, recording artist Lee Greenwood released a rendition of the song, and it was extensively played by individuals who urged war against countries sheltering terrorists, as the attacks were religiously motivated.
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2. “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” – Toby Keith
It was Toby Keith’s fervent patriotism following the September 11 terrorist attacks that led him to record several songs that saw radio time, played by mainly conservative-leaning politicians and servicemen as they fought terrorists in the Middle Eastern countries that housed them.
To warn the listener, presumably an opponent of the US military, that an angry American army was on its way, the song’s lyrics mention Americans’ fury following the unjustified attack. Some have criticized it for presenting America as a reactionary angry bully, yet it was a popular rallying cry among conservative soldiers in the US military.
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3. “Over There” – George M. Cohan
During World War I and, to a lesser extent, World War II, this song was a favorite among the American public and the US military. In the early years of World War I, many people regarded the war as a fun pastime, a great party, but that changed soon when the horrors of trench warfare became a reality. This song plays with a jovial melody, almost making it appear as if those who are joining up to go to war were ready to take a fantastic vacation.
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4. “Ballad of the Green Berets” – Barry Sadler & Robin Moore
Sergeant Barry Sadler’s song, which was more popular among the military than the general public, was one of the few songs to emerge from the Vietnam Conflict, notably in 1966, which offered a favorable picture of the military and the war itself.
The song encourages people to have a positive opinion of the military and its members, especially the Special Forces, and even to encourage their children to pursue military service as a career. It stayed at the top of the music charts for five weeks, and saw use in pro-war films, specifically one with John Wayne featuring the Green Berets.
5. “There’s a Star-Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere” – Elton Britt
The song, written in 1941, came out of World War II and speaks of an idealistic heaven reserved for American warriors battling the Axis Powers. Analogous to Valhalla, it is referred to “somewhere” in the song’s title. This is the story of a young crippled man who still longs to battle and earn his place in this patriotic afterlife, as told in the poems.
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6. “Battle of New Orleans” – Johnny Horton
Even though this song was released in 1959, it is actually about the Battle of New Orleans, a major battle in the War of 1812 against the British that signified the end of the war with the defeat of the British army on the outskirts of the city. The lyrical language is less artistic and more southern pidgin in nature, with references to outlandish things like cannons made of alligators.
The song is fairly comical. Despite its humorous tone, the song does raise awareness of the situation of the soldiers who fought in this fight with inadequate supplies and only enough food to last them till dinner. During Jimmy Driftwood’s tenure as a school principal, he wrote the song and arranged it to the melody of “The 8th of January,” a popular song at the time, to help his students recall important facts about American history.
7. “American Soldier” – Toby Keith
Toby Keith, a conservative country singer, penned another song in the days immediately following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, this time emphasizing the hardships of the common citizen who volunteers to serve his country in the military. The song tells the story of a reservist who must leave his wife and family behind when his unit must report for combat duty.
Despite its eloquent sentimentality amid the politically charged context of the moment, this song received a significant amount of criticism from individuals who thought the United States should avoid going to war in order to pursue those who attacked it, including reservists, as a matter of course. Still, the song is profound and conveys a sense of gratitude to those who choose to put their lives on the line to protect our nation.
Next: Best soldier songs of all time (our list)
8. “Dawn of Correction” – The Spokesmen
Every war is politically motivated, and those with opposing politics will use whatever means necessary to advocate for their side. As a direct response to the far more popular “Eve of Destruction” during the Vietnam War, this song employs the same tune and beat, but with new lyrics to address the critique that was popularized in the original song. This song speaks to the causes of the Vietnam War, which are the fight against communism in Asia, the defense of democracy-loving people, and the defense of the United States.
9. “What We’re Fighting For” – Dave Dudley
This is yet another rare pro-war song from the Vietnam era, the lyrics of which encourage the mother of a deployed soldier to speak out against the antiwar protesters and remind them why the war is being fought. The soldier in the lyrics implores the listener to remember that defense of the country following Pearl Harbor and other attacks was necessary, and that the Vietnam War itself was justified for a similar reason. It was not as popular as the more antiwar songs of the time, but still considered poignant nonetheless.
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10. “B.O.B” – Outkast
When the September 11 attacks occurred, this song seemed a bit misplaced, written with a high-tempo beat that includes drum and bass rhythms as well as guitar riffs and organ accompaniment, but delivering a pro-war message. In spite of the fact that it was not a big hit for the otherwise well-known rap duo, it is widely regarded as one of the greatest rap & hip hop songs ever due to its lyrical composition and beat. After the second Iraqi invasion in 2003, the song acquired popularity, with its release only a few weeks after the September 11th attacks.
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11. “All Along the Watchtower” – Jimi Hendrix
This song was initially written and sung by Bob Dylan, but it was Jimi Hendrix’s version that garnered the greatest attention. As a result of the public’s growing dissatisfaction with the mishandling of the Vietnam War by the American government, Jimi Hendrix’s rendition became more popular with the military and the public.
12. “Seven Nation Army” – The White Stripes
In spite of the song’s anti-celebrity and anti-pedestal-building message, it became popular during the Iraq War due to politicians’ advocating for war, often perceived as a prelude to yet another pointless conflict. Despite this, both political viewpoints claimed ownership of the song for their own side.
13. “Fortunate Son” – Creedence Clearwater Revival
There were several well-known anti-war songs written during the Vietnam War era, but few are as well-known as this one by Creedence Clearwater Revival. The song mocks the fact that the children of the middle and lower classes are the ones who are conscripted and sent to war, rather than the wealthy and privileged elites who initiate and support wars. The singer is both angry and truthful when he says he’s going to war because he’s not the son of a senator or another member of the social elite who can always get a deferral against the draft. According to the lyrics, despite the fact that you give your life, the eyes of warlords don’t see it as enough.
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14. “Eve of Destruction” – Barry McGuire
Another popular song from the Vietnam era, this one focuses on the futility of war and the fact that there are no winners. According to one of the most well-known lyrics, the song pointed out how unwilling conscripts found themselves drafted into a war they didn’t want to fight but couldn’t vote against it at home because the voting age was 21 at the time but the draft age was 18.
The threat of nuclear war and the dire consequences that would follow if nuclear weapons were used in a military conflict, referenced in lyrics like “if the button is pushed, there will be no running away.” The song’s lyrics include references to the 1960s, including the space race and the civil rights movement, which point out that conflict is never avoidable.
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15. “Dear Mr. President” – Indigo Girls & P!nk
This song was a little less well known during the Second Iraq War and the War on Terror in the early 2000‘s. It never reached the top charts, but is nevertheless a poignant rendition from recording artists P!nk and the Indigo Girls, directed at then President George W. Bush, pointing out that as the privileged son of an elite former president, he had no idea of the real consequences of sending people off to an unnecessary war. The song is in fact a harsh condemnation of the then-President, painting him as disconnected from the American people with lyrics like “You don’t know nothing about hard work” and blasting him with “what kind of father would hate his own daughter if she were gay?” speaking to the conservative political platform.
The song criticizes the march to war with lyrics such as “How do you dream when a mother has no chance to say goodbye?” which refers to anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, whose son Casey Sheehan was a soldier killed in the second Iraq War, and who became a harsh critic of the war taking so many young lives. Another line, “Let me tell you about hard work: rebuilding your house after the bombs took them away,” further cementing this song as a powerful condemnation of the powerful elite who wage wars while the common people suffer.
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16. “War”- Edwin Tarr
One of the first Motown songs to make a political statement, this popular anti-Vietnam song can’t be left out of any war song list. This song, like many protest songs from the Vietnam era, calls for peace and harmony. It says that wars don’t solve anything and only break up a whole generation of young people, and that there must be a better way to defend freedom than to fight all the time.
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17. “Masters of War” – Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan was no stranger to the concept of criticizing political leaders and pro-war advocates. Dylan directs many of his songs at these leaders. As in other songs, the lyrics of this one harshly criticize politicians of the Vietnam era, mocking them as cowards who send others to fight while they stay at home hiding behind their desks.
18. “Zombie” – The Cranberries
The Irish rock band The Cranberries had several hits before this one, but this was their first anti-war song. It was primarily written to lament the futility of the conflicts in Northern Ireland and the deaths of innocent people caused by violence.
19. “Give Peace a Chance” – John Lennon and Yoko Ono
This song was written by Beatles band member John Lennon (though incorrectly attributed to fellow Beatle Paul McCarthy) and performed by himself, wife Yoko Ono, and several friends in a hotel room with only acoustic equipment and portable recording equipment. Written and performed during Lennon’s anti-war “bed-in” protest, it is the first solo hit released by Lennon while still affiliated with the Beatles. It became the top anti-war anthem of the 1970s as the Vietnam War was finally beginning to wind down. It would then find use at nearly every anti-war demonstration that would follow.
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20. “Bring the Boys Back Home” – Pink Floyd
This song, which appears on the album “The Wall” as the B-side to “When the Tigers Broke Free,” is a simple melody with a straightforward message. A young boy searches for his missing soldier father after the end of an unnamed conflict only to learn that he did not make it home. At less than two minutes long, it delivers an emotional punch about the aftermath of war on families.
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21. “Winds of Change” – Scorpions
This is perhaps one of the few songs you can find about the Cold War, a conflict about Soviet Russia, in which no official shots were fired, but enmity still existed for decades.
22. “People Let’s Stop the War” – Grand Funk Railroad
This song doesn’t speak about any specific war, although it was written in 1972, so it likely refers to the Vietnam War. As many songs do, this song points out to the listener that wars are pointless and only harm the common people. They are merely a means for those in power to remain in power and gain wealth. The song tells the listener not to give in to this temptation and to reject the idea of war by not going to fight.
23. “Unknown Soldier” – The Doors
Following Van Morrison’s visit to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington, DC, the rock band The Doors became well-known for their anti-war activism during the Vietnam era, releasing several songs about the conflict. According to Morrison, he felt concern that children were growing up with images of war on their television sets, desensitized to the violence they were seeing, and that the populace seemed to be ecstatic, even cheering, over the entire thing, as evidenced in the song as it came to an end.
24. G.I. Blues – Elvis Presley
Presley wrote this song for a movie of the same name in which singer Elvis Presley portrays a soldier, but it is a fact that Presley did indeed serve in the military between 1958 and 1960, towards the end of the Korean War. The song is fairly cheery given the subject matter, sung from the point of view of a soldier stationed in Germany and feeling stifled by being unable to date the local women, but instead must be stay in his barracks.
25. “I Don’t Wanna Get Drafted” – Frank Zappa
Although Zappa wrote and released this song in 1980, after the Vietnam conflict had ended, it still resonated with a generation that was weary of the nearly decade-long war that had claimed much of their youth. Zappa’s lyrics express fear at being drafted and forced to fight in a war against his will and express the desire to simply be a carefree youth instead of a soldier.
26. “One” – Metallica
Set in World War I, this song is about a soldier who has lost all of his limbs, his jaw, and his ability to hear, speak, or see. The song’s anti-war message was a novel twist on a genre that isn’t well-known for its anti-war anthems. The video makes use of clips from the 1971 anti-war movie “Johnny Got His Gun” (a reference to the song “Over There”), and criticizes the idea of war being “glorious” as many leaders claim, but instead points out the true aftermath of war, that of disabled veterans.
27. “I Feel Like I’m Fixin to Die Rag” – Country Joe and the Fish
This 1967 anti-Vietnam song, which was also performed at the legendary Woodstock festival, is a satirical song criticizing the United States government and its attitude toward the war in general. The song tries to place the blame for the war on the politicians and military leaders of the United States and the war industry, but not on the soldiers who had to fight the war.
28. “Devils and Dust” – Bruce Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen, who grew up in small-town America, where many Vietnam veterans suffered from alcoholism and PTSD and were often forgotten by the VA, focuses his songs on the aftermath of war and the plight of veterans. This song, though, speaks about the futility of war itself.
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29. “When the Tigers Broke Free” – Pink Floyd
This song is about the death of Roger Waters’ father, Eric Fletcher Waters, in the Second World War battle of Anzio. Aside from describing the battle his father fought in, the song’s lyrics also touch on Waters’ feelings of resentment toward the military and the King, whom he believes took his father’s life by sending him off to war.
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30. “War Pigs” – Black Sabbath
Ozzy Osbourne, Black Sabbath’s lead singer, claims that “War Pigs” is a generic anti-war song, not a song about the Vietnam War. In spite of its lack of commercial success, War Pigs has become a cult favorite. It has been hailed as one of the greatest heavy metal anti-war songs of all time. War and destruction caused by man are the themes of the song.
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31. “Travelin’ Soldier” – Dixie Chicks
“Travelin’ Soldier” is a song written and recorded by American country music artist Bruce Robison in 1996. It gained popularity when it was re-recorded by the Texas-based singing trio, the Dixie Chicks, who were outspoken against fellow Texan President George W. Bush and the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, resulting in fan backlash.
32. “The Wall” – Bruce Springsteen
“The Wall,” Bruce Springsteen’s haunting ballad about the Vietnam War, is an expression of both grief and anger. During a trip to “the black wall,” the Vietnam Memorial, the narrator recalls a Marine friend who had just left for war, laughing and joking, unaware of the dangers he was about to face. The lyrics of the song criticize the wealthy elite and politicians who start wars but have no remorse for their actions, no matter how empty their apologies may be.
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33. “Born in the USA” – Bruce Springsteen
Although this song, also by Springsteen, is often played as an anthem in praise of America at political rallies, in truth, its lyrics spell a very different story. The song speaks of a veteran, likely a Vietnam veteran, who has returned from war and quickly finds how easily his country has forgotten him. The VA cannot help him, there are no jobs, and having been raised poor with little education, the singer sees no real future for himself, despite the promises he was made when he enlisted in the military. Springsteen’s anthem is more of a condemnation of how easily those in power forget the soldiers they send off to war.
34. “God Bless the USA” – Lee Greenwood
Following the September 11th terrorist attacks, this song was played frequently on the radio and also served as a rallying anthem for the military who were en route to the Middle East to fight. Greenwood’s father, a World War II veteran who survived Pearl Harbor, served as an inspiration for his more patriotic songs, although this song is more of a general patriotic song than a war song. As the song’s lyrics make clear, we must defend our country out of patriotism and in honor of those who gave their lives for it.
35. “Gimme Shelter” – The Rolling Stones
This song was written about the violence of the Vietnam War, with the title referring to everyone’s wanting shelter from all of the terrible things going on in the world. The song covers topics like war, murder, and fear, all of which lead to armed conflict. The lyrics warn the listener that any of these things could just be around the corner, and even in times of peace, to be on the lookout for the next war.
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