Four Anti-War Rock Songs in the Bush Era
After an initial outpouring of support, Americans soured on Bush’s Iraq War. Here are four songs that capture those misgivings.
Most of us know where we were and what we were doing when a US-led armed force invaded the Republic of Iraq on March 19, 2003. Months prior to that, the George W. Bush administration had amassed serious allegations against Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein: that he had gathered weapons of mass destruction and had coddled terrorists like 9-11 mastermind Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Both have proven to be false.
After capturing the capital city of Baghdad in a mere 26 days, President Bush declared, “Mission Accomplished,” as he was theatrically hoisted down across an aircraft carrier wearing a flight suit. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn warning: “You broke it, you bought it” was then a vague concept to the triumphant American people.
Buyers’ remorse soon followed. You know the rest of the story. In case you’ve forgotten, these songs might jog your memory:
1) “Not Ready to Make Nice,” the Dixie Chicks, 2006
Nine days before the imminent invasion of Iraq, the popular, Texas-based, crazy talented country-ish band the Dixie Chicks were playing a gig in London during their Top of the World tour. British Prime Minister Tony Blair had signed on as an invasion coalition partner and Londoners took to the streets in protest. Introducing their hit song, “Travelin’ Soldier,” lead singer Natalie Maines told the audience:
Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We don’t want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.
The audience cheered, but then the world witnessed the baring of fangs of the country music establishment. It regarded Maines’ remarks as traitorous for criticizing a US president on foreign soil. The Dixie Chicks were blacklisted from most country radio stations. DJs were fired for playing Chicks’ songs. Some concerts were canceled but the ones that stood sold well.
Don Ienner, the chairman of the Dixie Chicks’ label Columbia Records, said, “It was literally overnight. I have never seen the venom or the hatred in the United States of America, where we’re supposed to have freedom of speech…What they did to these ladies was just devastating.”
Public opinion shifted, and the Dixie Chicks rebounded with a thoughtfully calibrated response, “Not Ready to Make Nice,” from the 2006 album, Taking the Long Way. The lyrics are clear and self-explanatory, but one passage bears repeating:
And how in the world
Can the words that I said
Send somebody so over the edge
That they’d write me a letter
Saying that I better shut up and sing
Or my life will be over.
Here’s a four-minute video, live at VH1 Storytellers in 2011, published by the Chicks via Vevo and YouTube:
2) “To Washington,” John Mellencamp, 2003
A list of protest songs wouldn’t feel right without the presence of John Mellencamp, a long-time peace activist.
The melody and chord structure of “To Washington” suggest a traditional folk song, with Mellencamp rewriting the lyrics equating Bush’s invasion of Iraq with oil profiteering. The song is from Mellencamp’s 2003 album, Trouble No More, which consisted of blues and folk covers.
Indiana native Mellencamp endured a backlash similar to the Dixie Chicks. Mellencamp: “People were driving past my house, throwing s–t and yelling and giving my wife the finger as she drove down the street…It really freaked the kids out.”
Here is John Mellencamp performing “To Washington” at the 8th Annual Music Masters tribute concert on December 6, 2003, in Cleveland, Ohio, published by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame via YouTube:
3) “Last to Die,” Bruce Springsteen, 2007
We had a clue of Bruce Springsteen’s stance on Iraq when, on March 2, 2003, during the saber-rattling run-up to the invasion, Bruce pulled into Austin, Texas, George W. Bush’s former hometown, and treated fans to a rendition of Edwin Starr’s “War!” with its “What is it good for?” “ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!” Springsteen’s 2007 album Magic contained three songs about characters struggling with the Iraq war: “Devils & Dust,” “Gypsy Biker,” and “Last to Die.”
Regarding “Last to Die,” Bruce wielded a clever device that used the words of a famous American protesting our last war, Vietnam. John F. Kerry, who would go on to run against George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election (Kerry lost), was a decorated Vietnam veteran who was thoroughly disillusioned by the war. On April 22, 1971, Kerry testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and uttered these famous words:
How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?
Springsteen”s “Last to Die” is filled with symbolism (“We don’t measure the blood we’ve drawn anymore/We just stack the bodies outside the door”), but the message is in the title. Here is a video of the band’s live appearance on the Today Show on September 28, 2007, published by Darulezz via YouTube:
4) “Holiday,” Green Day, 2005
Punk legends Green Day were in a bad way in the early aughts: infighting among band members, the theft of a demo tape containing all of their new songs to date, and a sense of alienation caused by external events out of their control. They probably couldn’t have known that they could translate that alienation into a powerhouse concept album that would burnish Green Day’s punk pop legacy: American Idiot.
The songs on American Idiot expressed dismay over contemporary events such as 9-11, the Iraq war, and the presidency of George W. Bush. “The war that’s going on in Iraq,” remarked singer, songwriter, and guitarist Billie Jo Armstrong, “is basically to build a pipeline and put up a f-king Walmart.” The album won a Grammy Award for Best Rock Album and became a successful stage musical in 2009 that won two Tony Awards.
“Holiday” is one of two explicitly political songs on American Idiot, the other being the title song. In live performances, video screens showed footage of helicopters dropping bombs. Here is the official music video of “Holiday,” a powerful anti-war statement by itself, published by Green Day via YouTube:
The invasion and occupation of Iraq lasted eight years, officially ending on December 18, 2011. An estimated 4,400 American soldiers died in the war and 32,000 were wounded.
The financial cost of the Iraq war is assessed at $1.7 trillion though some experts contend it could be double that.
Before the invasion, Iraq’s oil industry was completely nationalized and closed to Western oil companies. A decade of war later, Iraq’s oil is largely privatized and dominated by foreign enterprises.
Maybe those guys were right.