31 Top Songs About War & Anti-War

Top Songs About War & Anti-War

Seemingly, during every presidency, there is a war.

Sometimes it’s a war on terror. Or a war on drugs. Or a Cold War.

Wars have played out in a variety of ways though the centuries and even millennia.

They have inspired musicians to pick up their instruments and protest. To write about what they were observing in the experience of others. Or to write about tragedies.

In this guide, we’ll look at the top songs about war.

“War” by Edwin Starr

Song year: 1970

On the topic of war, if there’s a song that instantly comes to mind for me, it's this one. No comment on whether it’s ultimately cheesy or resonant – you be the judge.

And the key message in this song is simply that war is good for nothing. Yeah, that’s about it.

It still makes for a great singalong anthem, and there can be little doubt that it was performed with passion and gusto (just listen for yourself).

For all those times you need a catch-all anti-war song, there’s always Edwin Starr’s “War.”

“War Pigs” by Black Sabbath

Song year: 1970

The mid-tempo groove of the intro in “War Pigs” can easily lull you into a false sense of comfort. That is, of course, until the pace picks up in the verse, which alludes to burning bodies.

This is an anti-war song, through and through. Which might seem odd for a band called Black Sabbath, but it’s totally in character.

Bassist Geezer Butler said it was a song about the Vietnam War, which isn’t hard to believe. But singer Ozzy Osbourne countered by saying it's general anti-war song.

We don’t care much when the results seem to speak for themselves.

“Gimme Shelter” by The Rolling Stones

Song year: 1969

To songwriters, war often signifies the end of the world. Which, depending on who you ask, isn’t much of an exaggeration (just think of a nuclear war breaking out across the world). You’ll see this theme repeated throughout the songs mentioned in this post.

“Gimme Shelter” isn’t just a great Rolling Stones tune with some serious attitude. It paints a picture of the ugliness of Vietnam War, which singer Mick Jagger said was unlike any other war. It was messy, people objected to it, and they didn’t like it one bit.

My favorite part of the song, though, is the chord progression.

“Give Peace A Chance” by Plastic Ono Band

Song year: 1969

When you think of anti-war anthems, it’s hard to ignore “Give Peace A Chance” by Plastic Ono Band, which basically came to represent an entire generation.

This, too, like other songs already introduced, was a song about the Vietnam War. Naturally, it has grown into a more general anti-war song.

If you’re looking for a singalong protest song, then you won’t find any better than this, featuring Beatle John Lennon on lead vocals.

“Oliver’s Army” by Elvis Costello And The Attractions

Song year: 1979

Elvis Costello’s “Oliver’s Army” is a typical Costello tune. Which is to say, its arrangement and instrumentation is like many of his hits, which I happen to like.

So, the cheery vibes of “Oliver’s Army” might have you fooled. The song is in fact about Northern Irish troubles, which were epitomized by boys in battle dress (yes, boys – not men).

And one of the themes of the song is that those in power get the young to do their dirty work.

“Zombie” by The Cranberries

Song year: 1993

If you remember the 90s, then there’s no way you don’t remember The Cranberries’ “Zombies,” which has a heavy, serious, somber sound to it.

As with “Oliver’s Army,” this song is about Northern Irish troubles. Singer Dolores O’Riordan was said to have written the song after two children were killed in Warrington by an IRA bomb.

O’Riordan could scarcely comprehend such tragedy, which carried into the lyrical content of the song.

O’Riordan’s unique vocal approach is probably what people remember most about this song, but its message is also poignant.

“1999” by Prince

Song year: 1982

To me, “1999” is more of an end of the world song than a war song, and that’s exactly what Prince told Larry King in 1999.

But it certainly seems to allude to the cold war as well as the threat of a nuclear attack. And when this song was written, there was certainly a great deal of fear concerning these matters. Amazing how things change over time.

I’ll be honest when I say I like “1999” for the funky, groovy, catchy song that it is. I don’t pay attention to the lyrics as much. But the fact that it carries a message makes it even more enjoyable.

“Us And Them” by Pink Floyd

Song year: 1974

How could Pink Floyd not have a song about war? And rest assured, they don’t have just one.

“Us And Them” begins with the sounds of a faint organ slowly fading in until the full band enters with what can only be described as mellow psychedelia.

This song is more about the general state of society due to the influence of consumerism and materialism than anything else. The first verse, however, is about going to war, while the second verse is about civil liberties, racism, and prejudice. The final verse is about ignoring the homeless.

“One” by Metallica

Song year: 1989

War seems like the perfect subject for a heavy band such as Metallica, and in “One,” they let more than a little aggression out.

The song begins with the sound of a somber, lone clean guitar which is soon accompanied by a clean, lead guitar. By the end of the near eight-minute epic, however, the song has built to a feverish pitch, with full out distorted guitars and fast-paced guitar solos.

“One” was said to have been inspired by the novel Johnny Got His Gun, written by Dalton Trumbo. In the book, a soldier gets his limbs blown off on the frontline. Metallica sought to explore the psyche of the soldier in this song.

“Run To The Hills” by Iron Maiden

Song year: 1982

Iron Maiden is another heavy band that isn’t a stranger to the subject of war. And “Run To The Hills,” regardless of subject, is one of their more well-known songs.

Conceptually, it’s a little more interesting because it’s about native American clashes (specifically, their battle against European settlers), and you don’t see too many songs about that.

The music is characteristic Maiden – high-paced, galloping electric guitars and a soaring chorus. They deliver the intensity of what it surely must have felt like to be amid battle.

“Orange Crush” by R.E.M.

Song year: 1988

No, in this case, “Orange Crush” does not refer to the soft drink of the same name. It’s a song about Agent Crush, the chemical used by U.S. to remove leaves from trees in the Vietnamese jungle.

For R.E.M., the song does have a bit of an edge to it, which seems to suggest an angry undertone. It’s clear they weren’t fans of the Vietnam War.

Singer Michael Stipe said the song is told from the fictional first person.

“The Unknown Solider” by The Doors

Song year: 1968

 “The Unknown Solider” begins with Jim Morrison’s vocals, accompanied by a distant, dissonant organ. As the groove picks up, the lyrics instantly transport you to the center of battle.

The song is about the Vietnam War, but it's also a commentary on what was being showed on broadcast TV at the time – namely, images of dead soldiers.

This should certainly be considered an anti-war song, but it’s also a song about desensitization to violence and the normalization of war.

“How Does The Grass Grow?” by David Bowie

Song year: 2013

Just looking at the title, you would assume this to be a song about the most boring topic imaginable. But it’s not. The song’s arrangement, as well as lyrical content, are both compelling.

“How Does The Grass Grow?” by David Bowie is about how soldiers are taught to heartlessly kill other soldiers. Supposedly, “how does the grass grow” is a chant they were taught as they were plunging bayonets into dummies.

“Spanish Bombs” by The Clash

Song year: 1979

At the outset, the cheery “Spanish Bombs” sounds more like a tune you’d listen to on vacation than a song about war. Of course, you’d instantly be betrayed by the lyrical content.

The song is about the Spanish civil war.  Conceptually, co-vocalist Joe Strummer compared the Spanish civil war with the actions of Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), a nationalist group from the Basque Country, who were bombing popular holiday resorts. I guess that explains the holiday feel of the music!

“Stoned Love” by The Supremes

Song year: 1970

The title isn’t a reference to drugs, but rather conflict. The song urges people to set aside differences and find resolution. In that sense, it’s quite general though.

Otherwise, it’s just a catchy song with trademark Motown vibes.

“Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival

Song year: 1969

No matter what era you’re from, you should recognize this classic rock hit.

Songwriter John Fogerty wrote this song after the wedding of David Eisenhower (grandson of former President Eisenhower) and Julie Nixon (daughter of President Nixon), who he’s calling “fortunate,” as they are exempt of having to participate in the Vietnam War.

This is another recurring theme in the songs on this list, that somehow the less fortunate end up being the ones who fight wars in place of the well to do.

“Harry Patch (In Memory Of)” by Radiohead

Song year: 2009

Opening with the sound of slow gentle strings, “Harry Patch (In Memory Of)” begins on a peaceful note. Unlike some Radiohead songs, which always seem to end up brash and dissonant, this one carries the original theme to the end, though it does have its peaks and valleys.

Singer Thom Yorke was inspired by an interview featuring Harry Patch and his vivid descriptions of war. This song was written to remind us all of the sheer horror of war.

“Rooster” by Alice In Chains

Song year: 1993

“Rooster” was written by Alice in Chains guitarist and vocalist Jerry Cantrell for his father. His father served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, and his nickname was Rooster.

Interesting bit of trivia – Cantrell wrote this song while living at Chris Cornell and Susan Silver’s (Alice in Chains’ manager) house in Seattle.

Basically, “Rooster” is Cantrell’s take on all that unfolded on the battlegrounds in Vietnam.

“The Drums Of War” by Jackson Browne

Song year: 2008

“The Drums Of War” seems to be making a complete mockery of war and all the hard-won freedoms that came with it.

Some fans suggest it was written about the Iraq invasion of 2004. Browne himself said it was inspired by Bay Area drummers who were against the war.

As you would expect, Browne opted for a big drum sound on this song.

“Devils & Dust” by Bruce Springsteen

Song year: 2005

Accompanied by a lone acoustic guitar and harmonica, in “Devils & Dust,” The Boss sings about the loneliness and confusion of war. As the song builds, piano, strings, electric guitar, and other instruments join in.

With the lyrics being as straightforward as they are, some fans have speculated that this song is a metaphor for something else (like suicide), which is certainly possible.

“When The Tigers Broke Free” by Pink Floyd

Music about peace

Song year: 1982

“When The Tigers Broke Free” tells the story of singer Roger Waters’ father’s death in the Battle of Anzio during the Italian Campaign of World War II.

The song is primarily made up of horns, percussion, and Water’s trembling voice.

“Masters Of War” by Bob Dylan

Song year: 1963

“Masters Of War” by Bob Dylan was written in winter 1962 – 1963 and the song’s melody was adapted from the traditional song “Nottamun Town.”

This is a protest song for the Cold War arms race, though apparently it wasn’t explicitly anti-war.

Overall, the song is simple in composition and arrangement, featuring little more than Dylan’s vocals and acoustic guitar.

“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by The Band

Song year: 1969

Written by Canadian musician Robbie Robertson and recorded by roots rock group The Band, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is about a poor white Southerner’s experience during the last year of the American Civil War.

“Bombs Away” by The Police

Song year: 1980

“Bombs Away” is a high-paced, aggressive tune for The Police.

The song seems to be about a preoccupation with war – taking care of business overseas when things at home are troublesome.

Theories aside, it’s clearly an anti-war song.

“Bulls On Parade” by Rage Against The Machine

Song year: 1996

Count on political rock-rap band Rage Against The Machine to comment on issues not often highlighted in mainstream news.

Vocalist Zach de la Rocha explained the song is about the wall being built between the U.S. and Mexico border (not the Trump wall). Apparently, 1,500 bodies were found on the border, which is what the song was based on.

Musically, it’s a simplistic, heavy, aggressive song.

“Civil War” by Guns N’ Roses

Song year: 1993

What is war? If you were to ask Guns N’ Roses, they would tell you that all war is civil war, which is the theme of this song. As they protest, war only feeds the rich and makes the poor poorer.

Guitarist Slash wrote the music for this song before the band left for the Japanese leg of its Appetite for Destruction world tour.

The song features the Roses’ softer and heavier side, something on full display in songs like “November Rain.”

“Draft Morning” by The Byrds

Song year: 1968

You probably don’t need to look much further than the title to know what this song is about.

Lyrically, this is a sparse song, but it certainly seems to hold anti-war sentiments, especially when you consider these lyrics: “Leave my bed to kill instead / Why should it happen?”

Musically, the song is typical 60s, with just a touch of psychedelia, and war themed sound effects.

“Hammer To Fall” by Queen

Song year: 1984

The unforgettable “Hammer To Fall” often seems to refer to the Cold War era, in which the band members grew up. The expression “hammer to fall” was thought to be about when the war finally turned from cold to hot. With themes of life and death, it would seem logical.

Guitarist Brian May, however, explained that the song is just about life and death. “Hammer to fall” is just the Grim Reaper doing his job, apparently.

Well, maybe it’s not a song about war directly, but perhaps it could be said that life is a war all its own and that we each have our own battles to fight.

“Fun & Games” by Barenaked Ladies

Song year: 2006

Right off the bat, this catchy song features a bit of an off-balance chord progression, to reflect the Ladies’ aggression as well as unsettled nature of the message.

Satirical in nature, this song refers to war as “fun and games.” Fans have speculated that the song is about the Bush administration and the Iraq War, which is certainly possible.

But it also carries the same theme many other songs on this list have. Mainly that those in power pursue war and profit while things at home are anything but copacetic.

Popular Songs About War & Anti-War – Final Thoughts

As you can imagine, there are altogether too many songs about war for us to cover in this space. But we hope you enjoyed our list, and that you discovered some new music too.

Songs about war and injustices are an absolute must. And musicians should never stop writing about current events. We need their voice in this world. We need people expressing their thoughts and opinions on matters.

Thanks for reading and we’ll see you next time.

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