Three 21st Century Songs About War

Glynn Marshes writes:

That is to say, post 9-11.

These are no Country Joe McDonald call-to-action polemics. On the contrary, here we have reflectiveness; meditations on the reasons for and cost of war; personal narrative.

All come from the indie folk/bluegrass/country side of the musical spectrum.

Steeldrivers, Sticks That Made Thunder (2008)

The Civil War Battle of Nashville from the perspective of a tree — a mournful song that brings to mind Americana land’s “beautiful sadness” that Robbie Robertson captured in The Night They Drove Old Dixie Downalthough Sticks reflects on the tragedy of Union as well as Confederate suffering.

Colors flew high and they danced in the sky
As I watched them come over the hill;
Then to my wonder, sticks that made thunder
Such a great number lay still.

Those that have fallen come when I call them
And answer the best that they can,
But all they can see is what they used to be
And that’s all that they understand.

Decemberists, This Is Why We Fight (2011)

This song is the reason I didn’t use “Anti-War” in the post title. Band leader Colin Meloy has been publicly coy about the song’s meaning, telling Spin, “In some ways, it’s political but I have not attributed it to anything . . . I think of it more as a song for somebody who’s up against great odds, whether political or social.”

Yeah, right. The band’s name references the 1825 Decembrist Revolt against the Russian czar. Meloy is thought to be a hard leftist; he’s publicly called Dennis Mills a “right-wing, bigoted blow-hard.” So I’ll say it, if Meloy won’t: the song is as clear a call for armed rebellion against an oppressive state as anything I’ve ever heard.

Also, FWIW, it charted.

Bride of quiet, bride of all unquiet things,
Bride of quiet, bride of hell;
Come the archers, come the infantry,
Come the archers of hell.

This is why, why we fight, why we lie awake.
This is why, this is why we fight.
And when we die, we will die with our arms unbound.
This is why, this is why we fight, come hell, come hell.

Hayes Carll, KMAG YOYO (2011)

Perhaps my favorite of the group and definitely one of my top Hayes Carll songs, which is saying a lot; he’s one of my all time favorite singer/songwriters.

KMAG YOYO is a military acronym for Kiss My Ass, Guys, You’re On Your Own. According to Carll, the song’s narrator is a young soldier in Afganistan who has a morphine-induced hallucination about being recruited by the CIA for a special operation.

It’s a fantastic song (and also the title cut of a fantastic album), capturing via personal narrative the chaos and on-the-ground moral ambiguity of modern military conflict.

Ended up in Abilene workin’ at a Dairy Queen;
Put me in the Army on the day that I turned 17.

Here I am standing in the desert with a gun,
Thought of goin’ AWOL but I’m too afraid to run.
So I got myself a new plan: stealin’ from the Taliban.
Make a little money turnin’ poppies into heroine.
Sergeant didn’t like it so they put me in a hole.
I said, “It’s easy shootin’ when they don’t know where to go.”
Threw me on a lily pad, sent me home to NORAD.
I knew I’d be in trouble but I didn’t think it’d be this bad.
Stranger wearin’ all black met me on the tarmac.
Told him I was sorry but I ain’t never going back.
He said, “you ain’t in trouble son, learn to fight without a gun.
Got a new assignment, now you’re workin’ for the Pentagon.”

Question: are there any others that we can add to the canon? Any that are  mainstream/pop/left coast music versus country/southern-influenced?

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7 Responses to Three 21st Century Songs About War

  1. Tyler says:

    The great songwriter Slaid Cleaves released a song last year “Still fighting the war” which documents a soldiers return home and inability to cope while everyone else in his life has moved on. Definitely worth a listen.


    • Glynn Marshes says:

      Thank you for commenting, Tyler, and thanks for the recommendation. Listening now — it’s gorgeous.

      And another one out of the folk music side of things . . .

      This might be an oversimplification, but I’m wondering if this doesn’t reflect the fact that mainstream pop songwriters who hail from major urban centers (NYC, LA, etc.) are culturally and socially separated from the military experience . . . they’ve never enlisted and probably don’t know anyone who has . . .


  2. XYZ says:

    Hayes Carll is terrific performer. Definitely worth seeing him live, especially since he tours all the time.


  3. Glynn Marshes says:

    Dang, I *knew* I was forgetting something . . .


  4. AJ says:

    ‘Dad’s Gonna Kill Me’ by Richard Thompson. He’s British and a Muslim convert so an interesting take. If the song seems familiar it’s because it was featured in Sons of Anarchy once.


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