War. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!
We may have poached these lyrics from Edwin Starr, but they pretty much sum up how musicians feel about war. It doesn’t matter where you’re from: War and conflict have shaped the world as we know it today, so it’s not surprising that there are a lot of songs out there about war.
Musicians have historically been unafraid to tackle topics that are too big to be ignored, and the battlefield is no exception. Whether it’s protesting the Vietnam War or the War on Iraq, you’ll find plenty of anti-war listening material with these 8 songs.
We’ve linked each song below and provided some context on what makes each entry on our list a powerful song about war. But if you want to listen on the go, here’s our Spotify playlist “Songs About War“:
1. Six Day War by Colonel Bagshot
The standout song released by English rock band Colonel Bagshot, Six Day War is a classic anti-war anthem that describes a situation that progressively worsens over the course of six days. Broken down into six distinct verses, the song starts out with peace talks on Monday, before descending into war and ending with the aftermath of dropping a bomb on Saturday.
Throughout the song, the repetition of the lyrics “Tomorrow never comes until it’s too late” is a haunting reminder that, while we might hope and pray for a better tomorrow, a worse set of circumstances might rear its head at the break of dawn.
Despite being released in 1971, the song still resonates today: American trip-hop artist DJ Shadow sampled the vocals in his song “Six Days”.
2. When The War Came by The Decemberists
When The War Came is the sixth track from The Decemberists’ hit album The Crane Wife, and arguably one of the best songs in the band’s discography. Written by lead singer and guitarist Colin Patrick Meloy, When The War Came highlights one of the deadliest events in military history: the Siege of Leningrad, a 900-day siege that took place during WWII.
Meloy wrote the song after reading Hunger by Elise Blackwell — a tale about a botanical institute that swore to protect their seeds and plants during the siege. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear him referencing Nikolai Vavilov, a Russian botanist, in the lyrics: “We made our oath to Vavilov / We’d not betray the solanum”.
3. Hero of War by Rise Against
Rise Against’s anti-war song, Hero of War, provides a rare glimpse into the perspective of a soldier before, during, and after serving on the front lines. The track starts out as the protagonist is enlisting for war and captures the atrocities he committed on the battlefield — before finishing with the veteran responding with revulsion to those that see him as a hero.
One of the most poignant elements of Hero of War is its opening and closing lyrics. Although they’re the same line — “He said son, have you seen the world? / Well, what would you say if I said that you could” — they have a completely different meaning to the protagonist at the end of the song than at the beginning.
4. Travelin’ Soldier by The Chicks
Contrary to popular belief, Travelin’ Soldier wasn’t written by The Chicks. In fact, the song was originally recorded in 1996 by Bruce Robison, an American country music artist, then again in 1999 by musician Ty England, before finally finding widespread fame as a track on The Chicks’ 2002 album Home.
Taking place in the Vietnam War era, Travelin’ Soldier tells the story of a young American soldier and a high school girl who strike up a relationship just before the man leaves for war. As time passes, they keep writing letters to each other until one day he tells her he won’t be able to write for a while.
The song ends with a football game at the girl’s high school, where she hears his name announced in a list of dead soldiers and finishes with the chilling lyrics: “One name read and nobody really cared but a pretty little girl with a bow in her hair.”
5. Syria by Terminal Cry
Hailing from Singapore, Terminal Cry is fronted by lead vocalist Shahrul who joined the group in 2014. The band describes their sound as a mix of progressive hard rock, heavy metal, and everything in between — and Syria is the perfect embodiment of their eclectic style.
Released in 2016, Syria is about just that: the War in Syria. The band says the inspiration for this song came from the infamous picture of Aylan Kurdi, a young Syrian refugee who drowned trying to escape the warfare. The song is told from two perspectives: the verses are from the outside world observing (and largely remaining silent) on the war, and the chorus from the children who are the victims of the violence.
The track starts and ends with the chilling sound of helicopters, and the soulful, sad melody captures the tragedy of the war-ravaged nation. The lyrics reference how much of the Syrian war has been ignored by the public.
6. Masters of War by Ed Sheeran
One of the greatest musicians of all time meets one of the best pop artists of all time in this cover of Bob Dylan’s classic anti-war song, Masters of War. Written about the Cold War, which led to widespread hunger and famine across Europe, Dylan’s original song was a clear protest on the atrocities committed by the U.S. and Russia.
Performed exclusively for OneProtest, Sheeran strips the song down to its bare bones with his acoustic rendition — bringing the message of peace to a new generation.
7. People Say by Portugal. The Man
The first track from Portugal. The Man’s fourth studio album, The Satanic Satanist, People Say doesn’t beat around the bush: This is a clear critique of war. With lyrics such as “May have lost a million men, but we got a million more” and the constant repetition of “It’ll be alright”, this song is a damning look at how easy it is for those outside the conflict to convince themselves that everything will work out just fine.
8. A Matter of Habit by Moddi
A Matter of Habit is Moddi’s cover of Izhar Ashdot’s controversial anti-war song. While most people outside of Israel don’t know Izhar Ashdot’s name, trust us when we say he’s a rock star in his home country — which is precisely why this song was so controversial when it was first released.
The lyrics of A Matter of Habit were inspired from first-hand accounts of Israeli soldiers talking about how occupation has become the ‘new normal’ and how the role of the oppressor gradually becomes, quite simply, a matter of habit.
Unlike some anti-war songs, which are open to interpretation, A Matter of Habit leaves no room for doubt. The opening lyrics directly reference real places (although Moddi adapts Ashdot’s song for his home country of Norway):
“Learning to kill is a matter of habit,
The more you have done it the better you’re at it.
It starts in the alleys of Sechem at night.
The borderlines blur in the evening light.”