Top 10 Pop Songs About War

War Is Over by John Lennon
Three Lions / Hulton Archive / Getty Images
01
of 10

U2 - "Sunday Bloody Sunday" (1983)

U2 Sunday Bloody Sunday
U2 - "Sunday Bloody Sunday". Courtesy Island

Although it was never declared specifically a war, the "troubles," first as part the Republic of Ireland's battles for independence and then as the violence between factions in Northern Ireland, amounted to long drawn-out civil war. This anthem expressing frustration with the violence helped bring U2 to world attention. It hit the top 10 at rock radio in the US. The song is the lead track from the album War. Time magazine has named "Sunday Bloody Sunday" as one of the top protest songs of all time.

The specific incident that lends the title to the song became known simply as "Bloody Sunday." On January 30, 1972, British soldiers shot 26 unarmed civilians during a peaceful protest march in Derry, Northern Ireland. 14 ultimately died from their wounds. It was the largest number of people killed during a single shooting incident in the entire conflict.

Lyric Excerpt

"And the battle's just begun
There's many lost, but tell me who has won
The trench is dug within our hearts
And mothers, children, brothers, sisters torn apart"

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02
of 10

Time Zone - "World Destruction" (1984)

Time Zone World Destruction
Time Zone - "World Destruction". Courtesy Celluloid Records

In 1984 punk legend John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols) got together with hip hop godfather Afrika Bambaataa to record this cross-genre classic. "World Destruction" is credited as one of the first songs to effectively combine rap and rock music. The video makes extensive use of clips of US President Ronald Reagan speaking about nuclear war.

Afrika Bambaataa was already perceived as a pioneer of hip hop when he put together the band Time Zone in 1983. His 1982 single "Planet Rock," fusing influences from Kraftwerk with rap to create what was known as electro, is considered to be one of the most influential singles of all time.

For "World Destruction," Afrika Bambaataa reportedly asked producer Bill Laswell to come up with somebody "really crazy" for a collaborator on the record. The suggestion was punk pioneer John Lydon formerly of the Sex Pistols.

Lyric Excerpt

"This is the world destruction, your life ain't nothing
The human race is becoming a disgrace
Nationalities are fighting with each other
Why is this? Because the system tells you"

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03
of 10

Edwin Starr - "War" (1970)

Edwin Starr War
Edwin Starr - "War". Courtesy Gordy

Edwin Starr had been recording soul hit singles, including the top 10 pop hit "25 Miles," since 1965, but he was not widely recognized as one of America's top soul singers at the end of the decade. That all changed when the anthemic protest song "War" went to the top of the charts in 1970. It remains one of the most powerful simple statements about the futility of war. It is considered one of the most commercially successful protest songs of all time. Bruce Springsteen took his live version of "War" into the pop top 10 in 1986.

The song "War" was originally recorded by the Temptations for Motown and released on their 1979 album Psychedelic Shack. The label received letters from fans requesting that the song be released as a single, but Motown balked fearing damage to the public image of the group. Edwin Starr, hearing of the demands for a single, volunteered to record "War" for the Motown label Gordy. The result was a much more intense record than the Temptations original. Edwin Starr earned a Grammy Award nomination for Best Male R&B Vocal for "War," and it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.

Lyric Excerpt

"War - What is it good for? - Absolutely nothing!"

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04
of 10

Eminem - "Mosh" (2004)

Eminem Mosh Video
Eminem - "Mosh" Video. Courtesy Interscope

Rapper Eminem released this song with its accompanying video on October 24, 2004 to encourage young people to vote to defeat George W. Bush. While the song is a generalized attack on the Bush presidency, most of the specific complaints are related to the Iraq War. "Mosh" appears on the album Encore which earned a Grammy Award nomination for Best Rap Album.

The accompanying music video for "Mosh" is animated. It uses multiple direct references to the George W. Bush administration. The last scene shows a crowd entering a voter registration site. After the 2004 presidential election, a second version of the video was released in which the crowd enters the U.S. Capitol during George W. Bush's State Of the Union speech. At the end of the clip Vice President Dick Cheney suffers a heart attack.

Lyric Excerpt

"Let us beg to differ
As we set aside our differences
And assemble our own army
To disarm this Weapon of Mass Destruction
That we call our President, for the present
And Mosh for the future of our next generation
To speak and be heard"

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05
of 10

Sgt. Barry Sadler - "The Ballad Of the Green Berets" (1966)

Barry Sadler Ballad of the Green Berets
Barry Sadler - "Ballad of the Green Berets". Courtesy RCA

Barry Sadler served as a Green Beret medic and a US Army staff sergeant during the Vietnam War, but he was forced to return home after being seriously wounded. Robin Moore, author of the bestselling book The Green Berets, encouraged Sadler to record his songs, often strongly patriotic ones, about being a soldier. This song became the biggest pop hit of 1966. It was revered by those in support of the Vietnam War and reviled by those in opposition. "The Ballad of the Green Berets" also topped the easy listening chart and went to #2 on the country chart. The melody of the song is borrowed from the folk song "The Butcher Boy." Barry Sadler's follow up single "The A Team" hit the pop top 30.

The original lyrics for "The Ballad Of the Green Berets" specifically mentioned Green Beret James Gabriel, Jr., who was the first native Hawaiian to die in the Vietnam War. However, the verse mentioning him by name was left off the final recording. Barry Sadler performed "The Ballad Of the Green Berets" live on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Lyric Excerpt

"Put silver wings on my son's chest
Make him one of America's best
He'll be a man they'll test one day
Have him win the Green Beret"

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06
of 10

Paper Lace - "Billy Don't Be a Hero" (1974)

Paper Lace Billy Don't Be a Hero
Paper Lace - "Billy Don't Be a Hero". Courtesy Mercury

By 1974 much of American public opinion had turned against prolonging the Vietnam War. The British band Paper Lace recorded this song, which details the story of a soldier dying heroically, but it ends with his fiancee throwing away the note bringing her the news. Paper Lace had a #1 hit with the song in the UK, but the American band Bo Donaldson & the Heywoods beat them to the American charts with the song. Because of the timing, many assumed the song is about the Vietnam War, but others have pointed out lyrics that could indicate it is more appropriately situated in the American Civil War.

The stardom of Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods was short-lived. They returned to the pop top 20 with the song "Who Do You Think You Are," another song originally a hit in the UK by a British band. In this case, it was the talent-show-winning group Candlewick Green. Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods hit the pop top 40 one more time with the song "The Heartbreak Kid."

Lyric Excerpt

"I heard his fiancee got a letter
That told how Billy died that day
The letter said that he was a hero
She should be proud he died that way
I heard she threw that letter away"

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07
of 10

Paul Hardcastle - "19" (1985)

Paul Hardcastle 19
Paul Hardcastle - "19". Courtesy Chrysalis

It took a British jazz musician/producer to educate much of the American public, particularly young people, about the full horror of the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Much of the film footage in the accompanying music video comes from American news broadcasts in an era in which the government still allowed freedom of reporting from war zones. These clips are in sharp contrast with news coverage of the Iraq War. Versions of "19" were recorded in multiple languages and consequently it hit #1 in countries around the world including the UK. In the US "19" topped the dance chart and reached #15 on the pop chart.

Paul Hardcastle took his inspiration for "19" from the documentary Vietnam Requiem. It was an ABC News documentary about veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Lyric Excerpt

"In 1965 Vietnam seemed like just another foreign war
But it wasn't
It was different in many ways, as so were those that did the fighting
In World War II the average age of the combat soldier was 26
In Vietnam he was 19"

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08
of 10

John Lennon and Plastic Ono Band - "Give Peace a Chance" (1969)

John Lennon and Plastic Ono Band Give Peace a Chance
John Lennon and Plastic Ono Band - "Give Peace a Chance". Courtesy Apple

John Lennon and Yoko Ono spent a week in bed in late May and early June, 1969 in Montreal talking and singing about peace. This followed a similar event they conducted during their honeymoon earlier in the year in Amsterdam. On June 1, 1969 surrounded by news cameras and various celebrities, they sang and recorded this song. Among the celebrities included were Timothy Leary, Tommy Smothers, and Dick Gregory. "Give Peace a Chance" was John Lennon's first single outside of the Beatles. It hit #14 in the US and #2 on the UK pop singles chart. 

According to reports, when John Lennon was asked by a reporter what he hoped to achieve by staying in bed, he answered, "Just give peace a chance." That was the nucleus of the song. "Give Peace a Chance" was quickly adopted as a singalong anthem by the anti Vietnam War movement. Yoko Ono released a dance version of "Give Peace a Chance" in 2008 that h8t #1 on the US dance chart.

Lyric Excerpt

"All we are saying is give peace a chance"

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09
of 10

Barry McGuire - "Eve of Destruction" (1965)

Barry McGuire Eve of Destruction
Barry McGuire - Eve of Destruction. Courtesy RCA

Barry McGuire first gained fame as one of the lead vocalists for the folk-pop conglomeration New Christy Minstrels. "Eve Of Destruction" was his first hit as a solo act, and, although the subject matter ranges more widely, it caught the mood of the debate raging in the US over the Vietnam War and other significant social justice issues. The song was initially offered to the Byrds. They rejected it, and the Turtles recorded a version of "Eve of Destruction" around the same time as Barry McGuire. He never again reached the top 40 on the pop singles chart, but he became a notable Christian singer in the 1970s.

"Eve of Destruction" was assisted in its rise to the top of the pop charts by mainstream media criticism. An answer record "The Dawn of Correction" was released by the trio The Spokesmen. Conservatives also rallied around "The Ballad Of the Green Berets" released a few months later. Some US radio stations refused to play "Eve Of Destruction" claiming it harmed US efforts in the Vietnam War.

Lyric Excerpt

"The eastern world, it is exploding
Violence flarin’, bullets loadin’
You’re old enough to kill, but not for votin’
You don’t believe in war, but what’s that gun you’re totin’"

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10
of 10

Metallica - "One" (1989)

Metallica One
Metallica - "One". Courtesy Elektra

"One" is one of the most chilling statements about what warfare can do to individuals. The heavy metal band Metallica bought the rights to the film Johnny Got His Gun specifically so they could use it to create the video for "One." It details the hell on earth of a wounded soldier who is left nearly immobile as well as deaf, dumb, and blind, but unable to die. The result was Metallica's first top 40 pop hit in the US and an unforgettable music video. "One" earned a Grammy Award for Best Metal Performance. "One" reached #13 on the UK pop music chart. Metallica performed "One" live at the 2014 Grammy Awards with classical pianist Lang Lang.

Lyric Excerpt

"Hold my breath as I wish for death
Oh please God, wake me
Now the world is gone Im just one
Oh God,help me hold my breath as I wish for death"

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Lamb, Bill. "Top 10 Pop Songs About War." ThoughtCo, Nov. 16, 2017, thoughtco.com/top-pop-songs-about-war-4044121. Lamb, Bill. (2017, November 16). Top 10 Pop Songs About War. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/top-pop-songs-about-war-4044121 Lamb, Bill. "Top 10 Pop Songs About War." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/top-pop-songs-about-war-4044121 (accessed December 12, 2017).