There have been a few blues songs along the way which have addressed the subject of war directly. African-American servicemen served in segregated units in both world wars and despite continually demonstrating bravery and loyalty, faced considerable discrimination.
More than a million African-Americans served in the armed forces during WW2, despite being barred from the air force and the marines, and only being accepted as cooks and waiters in the Navy. Outrageously, black soldiers had sometimes to give up their seats in trains to the Nazi prisoners of war.
Despite this, we have a few blues songs supporting US war efforts. Sonny Boy Williamson, in his Win the War Blues from 1944 says that he
“…wants a machine gun
And I wants to be hid out in the wood
I wants to show old man Hitler
That Sonny Boy don’t mean him no good.”
“I wants to drop a bomb, um
An set the Japanese city on fire
Now because they are so rotten
That I’d just love to see them die.”
In 1966, Allen Orange, in his VC Blues, expressed the patriotism of the soldier to his loved ones back home:
“Remember that I love you and my country
For this I don’t mind dying“
But there are quite a few other songs which protest against war. In 1949, Lightnin’ Hopkins released War News Blues, which highlights the suffering of the innocent in conflict:
“You may turn your radio on soon in the morning, sad news every day
You may turn your radio on soon in the morning, sad news every day
Yes, you know, I got a warning, trouble is on its way
Poor children running, crying, “Whoa, mama, mama, now what shall we do?”
In modern warfare, the people who suffer most from war are civilians, particularly women and children. There are no such things as “precision strikes” which only kill enemy combatants. Wars are not fought these days in “battlegrounds;” they are fought in people’s towns and homes. Aside from the human cost, they leave lasting damage in the form of ruined civic infrastructures and poisoned natural environments.
A few years later in 1962, Lightnin’ Hopkins reflected on the downside of the upcoming Vietnam war in War is Startin’ Again:
Woe, you know this world done get tangled now
Yeah, I believe they gonna start war again
Yeah, there gonna be a’mothers start to worry
Yes, there’s gonna be many a girls will lose a friend
Three years later J.B. Lenoir, in his Alabama Blues would lament that “Uncle Sam gonna send me away from here” and wonder “when will all wars come to an end?”
Nina Simone, focused on the negative impact of war on those at home in Backlash Blues, 1967:
“Mr. Backlash, Mr. Backlash
Just who do you think I am
You raise my taxes, freeze my wages
And send my son to Vietnam…
Do you think that all coloured folks
Are second class fools?”
It is commonly put about that spending on “defense” (a euphemism for war) benefits an economy. In reality, spending those same dollars on peaceful industries, on education, on infrastructure would produce more jobs and in most cases better paying jobs. Military spending diverts public funds into increasingly privatized industries and is a very poorly accountable form of public spending.
But perhaps the hardest hitting song was Champion Jack Dupree’s, Vietnam Blues, in 1972. He understood that those hardest hit by war are always the non-combatants:
“Well, I feel so sorry for the people over in Vietnam
It’s a whole lot of pain, Uncle Sam don’t understand
Why don’t you leave Vietnam? Leave those poor, poor people alone.”
It was time for “Uncle Sam [to] pack up, pull out, and go home.”
Fast forward to 2012 and we have Dan Mangan’s compelling Post-War Blues. He notes the cynical way that some politicians are wedded to the need or the benefits of being at war and are prepared to pay for it with their children’s education – “Let’s start a war for the kids, a purpose for which to unite… find them a foe for the fight.” The official video for the song is potent, showing young people in school exchanging books and musical instruments for weapons. It hits a positive note, however, before the end, showing the young people refusing to be drawn in to the politicians lies about the war and “coming to” from the “deepest sleep of my life.” But the horror of war is highlighted as the song and video ends with footage from nuclear explosions and burning, exploding buildings.
Very roughly, the world spends $2 trillion every year on militarism, about half of this by the United States. This U.S. spend is roughly half of the U.S. government’s discretionary budget each year. It is expensive to wage war, but the costs to the aggressor, enormous as they are, are small in comparison to those of the nation attacked – death counts, obviously, which have grown dramatically in recent times and have shifted heavily onto civilians rather than combatants; but also war can bring disease, traumatisation, homelessness, poverty and a host of other miseries.
The wars we are sold by our politicians lead us to think that we are simply killing evil people who need to be killed to protect us and our freedoms. What happens in reality, however, is the one-sided slaughter of children, women, the elderly, and ordinary citizens. And what of regime change and nation-building? Scholars at both the Carnegie Endowment for Peace and the RAND Corporation have found that wars aimed at nation-building have at best an extremely low success rate in creating stable democracies. Humanitarian or philanthropic aims get lost along the way.
The idea of a “good war” or a “just war” becomes ridiculous when one looks honestly at independent reporting on wars. As Edwin Starr’s song says quite simply: “War – What is it good for? Absolutely nothing, Say it again, war, What is it good for? Absolutely nothin…”
If you want to think more about the futility of war and about the alternatives – check out the World Beyond War website here. And if you want a really radical alternative – check out the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 5. 43-44: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.