What Are We Fighting For?

A Playlist for the Frustrated Pacifist

What Are We Fighting For?

Following the cessation of both the First and Second World Wars, the general attitude was that this level of conflict should be prevented from happening again. That may have been the mode of thought, and a rather commendable one at that. However, the sad fact is that humankind has pretty much been imploding into deadly conflict almost non-stop for well over a century, and, sadly, it doesn't seem like it's going to end anytime soon. There will always be protest, in various forms, against war—and one of the most powerful types of protest is music itself.

From their debut album, ominously released on Friday the 13th of February 1970, this is a powerful invective about the darkness of war, with allusions to satanic darkness, destruction and the pawn-like nature of soldiers, usually the poor being used as cannon-fodder, by politicians who will never have to see the battlefield. It is very stark listening.

Written and recorded by John Lennon and Yoko Ono during their Bed-In for Peace at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal during their honeymoon in 1969, the song quickly became the anthem of the peace movement during the 1970s. One way of looking at the lyrics is the way they catch all the rhetoric around anti-war debate, rather than just getting to the point—"All we are saying is give peace a chance"—a line John found himself repeating often to journalists asking the same question of why the Bed-In was being held in the first place.

Originally released on Buffy Sainte-Marie's 1964 debut album It's My Way!, and covered a year later by Scottish folkie Donovan, "Universal Soldier" is a brilliant depiction of how no matter the era, the cause fought for and various guises a soldier might take, the essential point of the soldier is to kill. And at the end of the day, the orders that set out the path of a soldier come from us all, which isn't the way to end war. A sobering thought indeed. Originally appearing on the decidedly peace orientated Donovan's 1965 Universal Soldier EP, and subsequently 1967's compilation of the same name. It is a disturbing recounting of the experiences of a soldier sent to fight in Vietnam—ending with the outcome we still fear—the use of nuclear bombs.

The crown prince of 60s folk rock, this anti-war song, written in 1962, pretty much speaks for itself, telling the story of a young solder proudly seen off in his uniform by his mother at the train station, only to come back savaged by war to face the questions of his incredulous mother.

Originally released by The Temptations in 1969, this Motown classic was written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong. Such was the demand for it to be released as a single, it was decided to re-record the song with Edwin Starr, instead of The Temptations, so it didn't upset the rather conservative fanbase of The Temptations. It went on to be a smash, and pacifist anthem, hitting the top of the charts on its release in America. Post 9/11, it found itself on a "no play" list at Clear Channel Communications, now re-named iHeartMedia, the biggest owner of radio stations in the States, which is all the more encouragement to play it loud.

Written by Tom Paxton and released on his 1964 album Ramblin' Boy, this simple rendition by a cosy looking Pete Seeger belies the disturbing theme of the song, that of the indoctrination of children to ensure they follow a given status quo unquestioningly, which includes nationalism and the glorification of war. Themes that are still prevalent today...Nerina Pallot was a singer-songwriter who came to prominence in the UK during the early 2000s, with a highly acclaimed debut album in 2005, Fires, featuring this song. "Everybody's Gone To War" was written in 2003, as a protest against the initial stages of the Iraq War. It almost sounds like a banal, chirrupy, radio-friendly number but lyrically raises some interesting questions to ponder, which perhaps the average listener might not have expected when the song received extended airplay on its release as a single in 2006.

A disarmingly cheerful 1984 UK number one by the German singer-songwriter Nena, about an innocent trip to the toy shop for a large quantity of balloons inadvertently leading to the nuclear holocaust due to wonky bomb-tracking computers. It was originally recorded in German in 1983 as "99 Lufballlons", and a classic of the highly terrifying time of the Cold War, when being nuked seemed to be a mere second away.

A cheerful glam track, which takes a rather phallic look at a nuclear strike. Uni is a band fresh out of New York City, and quickly gaining popularity, featuring Charlotte Kemp Muhl, David Strange, and Nico Fuzz. Their music, as this track shows, has a rather unique take on 21st century living. The best thing to do is listen, and watch the video. Taken from 1986's album "And Justice For All," this song was played heavily by MTV. It tells the story of a World War One Solder badly injured by an artillery shell that blows off his arms and legs, costs him his sight, speech, and ability to move. The soldier is left inert on a bed, wishing God to kill him and winds up shaking his bed to beg hospital staff in Morse Code to let him die. The video uses parts of the 1971 anti-war film Johnny Got His Gun, for which Metallica bought the rights to. The late lamented Chris Cornell attempted to get one song, got the lyrics to another—both with the same title, and figured why not see what it sounded like if he put the lyrics to the aforementioned "One" by Metallica to the music of "One" by U2. It works out brilliantly well, adding a new element to the Metallica lyrics about the horrors of World War One.

The playlist for this article is available on YouTube.

M J Steel Collins
M J Steel Collins
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M J Steel Collins
Writer, guitarist and small press publisher residing in Glasgow.

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