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Top 24 Best Songs About War & Anti-War

War. What is it good for? While this might sound like a rhetorical question, there are a lot of reasonable answers to it. The simple truth is that while war can be good for the winners, it’s always bad for the losers and usually not great for either side.

However, war has been a part of the human experience for as long as we’ve been able to raise armies. And, there’s no clear end to war on the horizon anytime soon.

War has been around forever…

And so have songs about war. While they all share war as a theme, they can have very different perspectives on it. Some can tell about glory and honor, others about horror and destruction.

Still, others simply tell tales, true or exaggerated, of things that happened in wartime. So, let’s look at the best songs about war & anti-war. I’ll bet you know a whole bunch more than you think you do.

Patriotic or Glorified War Songs

There are a bunch of songs about fighting valiantly in war and, of course, even more about winning. Most of them are stirring tunes that pull at the patriot’s heartstrings and tell tales of glory and fame. Even if those tales are often tragic.

Best Songs About War & Anti-War

Top 24 Best Songs About War & Anti-War

The Star-Spangled Banner – America’s National Anthem

Like so many nations out there, America was born from the ashes of war. The national anthem that’s used today was written during a time of war – the War of 1812, to be exact.

America was already an independent country, but it didn’t have this great anthem to pull everyone together. So, when poet Francis Scott Key witnessed British ships bombing Fort McHenry in Baltimore, he was inspired to write a poem, part of which became the lyrics to this stirring anthem.

“And the rocket’s red glare – The bombs bursting in air.” Yes, that’s a song about war, alright.

Before that…

The U-S-of-A used “My Country’ Tis of Thee” as an anthem. But come on, it’s the same tune as “God Save the Queen / King,” the British national anthem. Couldn’t have that. So, the lyrics were put to a popular song by an English composer, John Stafford Smith, called the “Anacreontic Song.”

It wasn’t a hit right away. The US Navy started using this anthem in 1889. But, it wasn’t formally made America’s national anthem until 1932.

Since then, this song has been America’s anthem and a tune known around the world. Although it’s one of the most spine-tingling anthems out there, it’s also very hard to sing well. That’s why at baseball games, they normally call in a professional.

Battle Hymn of the Republic – Julia Ward Howe

Here’s another oldie but a goodie. The words to “Battle Hymn of the Republic” were written in 1861 by Julia Ward Howe, an abolitionist author and poet.

She intentionally wrote her poem lyrics to the tune of an old American marching song, “John Brown’s Body.” This song was popular with the Union armies during the Civil War, and Howe was inspired by the tune.

Her lyrics set the swinging marching tune ablaze with a certain religious-based fervor. The opening verse is one of violent retribution, and the song implies that God would have his wrath against the Confederates.

Marching on…

“Mine eyes have seen the glory – Of the coming of the Lord – He is trampling out the vintage – Where the grapes of wrath are stored – He hath loosed the fateful lightning – Of His terrible swift sword – His truth is marching on” is a pretty stirring stanza by any measure.

These lines also influenced many other figures. John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” gets its name from this song, and Martin Luther King Jr. used a lot of the lyrics in his powerful speeches.

The refrain “Glory, glory, halleluiah” is also one of the most popular chants in English premiership football (aka soccer) ever.

Onward, Christian Soldiers – Sabine Baring-Gould and Arthur Sullivan

While this is a hymn, it’s still a song about war. The words to the hymn were written in 1865 by Sabine Baring-Gould, an English Anglican priest.

Later, the words of his poem were set to music by composer Arthur Sullivan in 1871. When put together, they formed one of the most popular hymns of the 19th century.

If we look at the lyrics…

We can see what this song is all about. “Onward, Christian soldiers – Marching as to war – With the cross of Jesus – going on before!” We can see that this is a battle cry song. Of course, it’s more than partly metaphorical, asking the good Christian to be a soldier for Christ.

However, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and US President Franklin Roosevelt used this song to rouse the troops and build support for their efforts in WWII. Like so many hymns, this one stirs the spirit and inspires action against the enemy.

Over There – George M. Cohan

What’s over there, you ask? Well, if you’re talking about the song “Over There” by George M. Cohan, over there is the theater of war and also a place to make your mother proud.

In this 1917 hit song…

Cohan exhorted young men to take up arms and go over to join the war effort. Of course, this was during WWI, but it was a popular World War II song was popular as well.

With the lines “Johnnie, get your gun – Get your gun, get your gun – Johnnie show the Hun – Who’s a son of a gun,” the song is asking young American men to go over and fight the Germans. So, of course, this worked in both world wars but not so much since.

It also used the lines “Over there, over there – Send the word, send the word over there – That the Yanks are coming” to describe the American offensive. This line became famous, especially after America joined WWII. This song might sound dated, but it’s over 100 years old and still getting plays.

There’s A Star-Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere – Elton Britt

This song was written by Paul Roberts and Shelby Darnell (aka Bob Miller) in 1942 as a patriotic war anthem in support of the USA’s WWII war effort. But, it was recorded by country singer Elton Brit in 1942 on his record Ridin’ With Elton and quickly became a huge hit.

It went to #1 in the Country charts. President Roosevelt even had Britt come and perform the song at the White House. That makes it one of the best songs about war & anti-war.

This song is fiercely patriotic…

It’s based on the story of a disabled young man who yearns to go and fight for his country so that he can earn glory and a special place in heaven as well.

He sings, “Though I realize I’m crippled, that is true sir – Please don’t judge my courage by my twisted leg – Let me show my Uncle Sam what I can do, sir – Let me help to bring the Axis down a peg.”

From these lines, you get the picture of a man keen to become a soldier and do his part for the war effort in WWII. Easily one of the best songs about war &anti-war.

Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American) – Toby Keith

Toby Keith wrote “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” in 2001. His father, who had served in the Army, died in March of that year. But, even more significant for the world, the September 11th attacks that year were another inspiration for this country singer.

The result was an ultra-patriotic, aggressive song…

One warning enemies of the USA what would happen to them. While it can be interpreted as reactionary, this song was super-popular with conservative hawks and Americans who wanted to retaliate for the 9/11 attacks.

Toby Keith performed this song live on TV stations and in front of US troops stationed all over the place. This helped seal its popularity. It reached #1 on the Billboard Hot Country chart in 2002.

Lyrics like “Justice will be served and the battle will rage – This big dog will fight when you rattle his cage – And you’ll be sorry that you messed with – The U.S. of A. – ’Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass – It’s the American way” summed up the feelings of many Americans at that time.

War Story Songs

Some songs about war aren’t necessarily pro- or anti-war. Instead, they tell stories of the event that happened during wars, either factually or fictitiously.

These are some of the most interesting songs about war and can even be educational, helping people remember what happened, where, and when.

Battle of New Orleans – Jimmy Driftwood

One such war story song that has an educational element to it is “Battle of New Orleans” by Jimmy Driftwood. See, Jimmy Driftwood was a school principal in Alabama who had a real passion for history.

He wrote his lyrics and set them to the tune of a popular fiddle song called “The 8th of January” (the date of the battle) to try to interest his student in history. After all, this was one of the definitive battles against the British of the War of 1812.

This was in 1814, but let’s not nitpick…

This song tells the story of the Battle of New Orleans from the perspective of a young American infantryman. According to him and history, the battle was a total rout.

“We fired our guns, but the British kept a-comin’ – There wasn’t as many as there was a while ago – We fired once more and they began to runnin’ – On down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.”

In total, the Americans lost only 71 men while the British had over 2000 casualties, making this one of the proudest moments for the US in that war. Many singers have covered this song, but the 1959 version by Johnny Horton was the best known and became a #1 hit.

G.I. Blues – Elvis Presley

This next song isn’t so much a war story as a complaining song about being stationed abroad. It was written by Sid Tepper and Roy C. Bennett in 1960 and was part of the soundtrack of the comedy movie G.I. Blues.

Of course, this movie starred Elvis Presley and featured him singing this and other songs throughout. Rather than crooning or singing fun love songs, Elvis uses this song to be straight-up funny and reveal another aspect of war – boredom.

He complains about being stationed overseas in Germany with little to do but march around and pine for home. As far as the best songs about war & anti-war go, this one is pretty lighthearted.

In typical Elvis style…

There’s a huge amount of sexual innuendo here if you look for it. Just listen to this. “The frauleins are pretty as flowers, but we can’t make a pass – ’Cause they’re all wearing signs saying: “Keepen sie off the grass” – I’ve got those hup, two, three, four, Occupation G.I. Blues.”

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down – The Band

One of many 1969 songs on this list, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” is a stirring war story song from the band, The Band (sorry, I’ve always wanted to write that).

This song is a strong ballad-style rocker, complete with horns and a big band sound. It was written by Robbie Robertson and is a story of a poor Southerner during the American Civil War. Folk singer Joan Baez also recorded a version of this song that made it to #3 and #1 as a single.

What happens in this story song?

The narrator of the story is a man called Virgil Caine, a poor white Southerner. In the song, he details the struggles in his life and during the war, from his brother’s death to doing hard labor and working on the railway.

These lyrics fit oh so well and paint a picture of conditions at that time. “In the winter of ’65 – We were hungry, just barely alive – By May the 10th, Richmond had fell – It’s a time I remember, oh so well.”

The Ballad of Ira Hayes – Peter La Farge / Johnny Cash

Peter La Farge might not be a household name, but he sure wrote a great song or two. One was “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.” A war story song about the recruitment, achievements, and death of a war hero and American Indian.

Ira Hayes was a real person, one of the six marines who raised the US flag on Mount Suribachi in the WWII battle of Iwo Jima.

As the song recalls…

Hayes was a reluctant recruit, but became a war hero only to return home to find his people’s lands impoverished. Instead of being celebrated as a hero, he became a drunk and died equally impoverished and alone in a ditch.

This sad story shows how war and wartime achievements can sometimes be meaningless when it’s all said and done. Johnny Cash recorded a famous and powerful version of his friend La Farge’s song in 1964, and it has been covered by many others since.

Spanish Bombs – The Clash

The Clash started as a straight-ahead, in-your-face Punk Rock band. But, by 1979, when they released their classic album, London Calling, they were already much more mature and sophisticated songwriters.

You can hear this maturity in the lyrics of “Spanish Bombs,” which was written and sung by Joe Strummer.

This song isn’t a classic straight-forward story…

Nor is it decidedly for or against war. Instead, it uses images to relate the bombings of tourist hotels in Spain by Basque separatists to the Spanish Civil War. It’s a pro-republican song; however, the group was defeated by Franco’s fascists.

You can hear this in the lines, “The hillsides ring with “Free the people” – Or can I hear the echo from the days of ’39? – With trenches full of poets, the ragged army – Fixin’ bayonets to fight the other line.”

Anti-War Songs

Songs have always been a superior vehicle for communicating ideas. And one of the ideas in modern history that has inspired hundreds of songs is that of peace and anti-war. So, anti-war songs are plentiful and generally quite powerful. Even if they’re not always on the side of popular opinion.

Masters of War – Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan is one of the best lyricists living today and has a songwriting history a mile long. It almost seems like he was born a songwriting genius. One track from his 1963 album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan that exemplifies his skill is “Masters of War.”

Like many of his songs from that era, this one has a constant rhythm that repeats and repeats while the focus is strongly on the lyrics. And these lyrics are truly damning. Dylan strikes out at the “masters of war,” those who push for nuclear proliferation and profit from the arms race.

It’s full of scathing verses like “You fasten all the triggers – For the others to fire – Then you sit back and watch – When the death count gets higher – You hide in your mansion – While the young people’s blood – Flows out of their bodies – And is buried in the mud.”

Eve of Destruction – P.F. Sloan / Barry McGuire

Here’s one of the most recognizable war protest songs – 1965’s “Eve of Destruction.” This song was written by P.F. Sloan and recorded by a few different artists, including The Turtles. But it was Barry McGuire’s version, also recorded in 1965, that popularized this song.

The song was used as an example to criticize the youth-based counter-culture. But, this just made the song more popular. There’s something of Bob Dylan in this song, with roughly rhymed lyrics and a folk-rock sound. But, Barry McGuire’s husky voice gave it some edge and more righteous anger.

Lyrics like “The Eastern world, it is explodin’ – 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’?” show the song’s criticism for the Vietnam War and war in general.

For What It’s Worth (Stop, Hey What’s That Sound?) – Buffalo Springfield

“There’s something happening here – But what it is ain’t exactly clear – There’s a man with a gun over there – Telling me I got to beware.”

Recognize these lyrics? These immortal words come from Stephen Stills and Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.” This hit song written by Stills is one of the most recognizable anti-war songs of the 60s.

Did you know that it wasn’t originally about war?

It was written in response to the Sunset Strip Riots in LA in 1966. However, because the song protested the use of state violence and spoke to the confusion felt by young people, it was a perfect encapsulation of the later anti-Vietnam-War protest movement.

The lines “There’s battle lines being drawn – Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong” sound like they’re talking about a war and a resistance to it. And this song has been used in movies about war, from Forest Gump to Lord of War.

The Unknown Soldier – the Doors

Rumor has it that “The Unknown Soldier” was written by Jim Morrison after he visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arlington National Cemetery.

A personal reaction?

It sure seems like a pure, visceral reaction to the Vietnam War, which was going full steam when the Doors put out this song on Waiting for the Sun in 1968.

While the Doors dabbled in complexity, this is one of their most complex recordings ever. It’s a mix of a song, a march, and a huge crescendo, with tolling bells and gunshots included in the mix.

And while this might not be Morrison at his lyrical best, it still has some cutting lines. Here’s a great example, “Breakfast where the news is read – Television children fed – Bullet strikes the helmet’s head.”

I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixing-to-Die – Country Joe and the Fish

This next song is one of those legendary moments in music when all the stars aligned. This band played a blend of folk and psychedelic rock, but it was the protest song “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixing-to-Die” from the album of the same name that got the group some attention. 

Furthermore, although the song was released in 1967, their performance of it at Woodstock in 1969 is the moment when the world heard this song.

A highly sarcastic protest song filled with vitriol…

It’s aimed at the so-called “establishment,” who they accuse of war-mongering and mock people who are following the pro-war narrative. But above all, it’s the fun, clever, and facetious chorus that gets everyone to sing along decades later.

“It’s 1, 2, 3, what’re we fighting for? – Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn – Next stop is Vietnam – And it’s 5, 6, 7, open up the pearly gates – Well there ain’t no time to wonder why – Whoopee! We’re all gonna die.”

War – Edwin Starr

Here’s a song that’s simple, straightforward, and entirely memorable. “War” was written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong for Motown Records back in 1969.

It was originally recorded by The Temptations, a hugely popular singing group at the time. However, the song grew so popular that Motown looked for another singer since the song was a bit controversial at the time. That said, it still became one of the best songs about war & anti-war.

Enter Edwin Starr…

This singer was already popular, but when his version of “War” came out in 1970, it carried him to the top of the charts. This was a time when anti-war sentiment in America was growing rapidly, and the protest movement needed strong songs to use as ammunition.

The song was actually about gang wars in America but can be applied to Vietnam or any other war just as easily. The words still ring true: “War, huh, good God, y’all – What is it good for? – Absolutely nothing, just say it again.”

Fortunate Son – Creedence Clearwater Revival

The year 1969 was big for anti-war songs. This was the peak of the counter-culture movement, and feelings against America’s involvement in the Vietnam War were running high.

So, when Creedence Clearwater Revival put out the song “Fortunate Son” on their album, Willy and the Poor Boys, it was an instant hit. Likewise, it is one of the best songs about war & anti-war ever.

Class warfare…

This song tells the story of a poor boy being drafted to fight in the Vietnam War, while the sons of the rich and powerful were able to defer and stay at home. In this way, the song is against real war and also class war.

You can see in the lyrics, “Yeah-yeah, some folks inherit star-spangled eyes – Hoo, they send you down to war, Lord – And when you ask ’em, “How much should we give?” – Hoo, they only answer, “More, more, more, more.”” 

This is also a powerful and energetic song with great guitar work. And some of John Fogerty’s strongest singing ever.

Give Peace a Chance – John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band

Just a little later, in 1970, the anti-war protest movement was still in full swing. And, it seemed like more and more major artists and musicians were getting involved.

One of them who had a huge influence was the ex-Beatles frontman, John Lennon. He wrote the song “Give Peace a Chance” and recorded it in a hotel room in Montreal, Canada, with a little help from his friends.

It sounds like it…

But, despite the poor production, this became one of the biggest anti-war songs of the time. Credited to the Plastic Ono Band, this song has a strong clap-along beat and is one of the catchiest sing-along choruses ever. No wonder it became so popular.

Each verse includes an almost spoken list of the different buzzwords and political jargon of the time, which is then brushed off by the simple message of the chorus. “All we are saying – Is give peace a chance.” It runs on a bit, but hey, it seems like not everyone has got the message yet.

War Pigs – Black Sabbath

Not every 1970 anti-war song was a light, happy love-in. Metal also got into the act with Black Sabbath, the hardest rocking band the world had ever seen, and their famous track “War Pigs.” This track is Sabbath at their finest.

It starts with a droning intro with fat, detuned guitar chords before breaking into the faster section of the song. Ozzy Osbourne wails, Tony Iommi shreds, and Bill Ward rips up the drum kit, leaving bassist Bill Ward to hold things together.

A response to the Vietnam War…

Even though conscription had ended in the UK, the British band was still worried about it returning and them being forced into the war. Like many of the other songs we’ve seen so far, “War Pigs” aimed its criticism at the rich and powerful.

It slams the people who make wars and send the poor to die in them. This is Heavy Metal, so powerful that violent images are used to get his idea across.

Lines like, “In the fields, the bodies burning – As the war machine keeps turning – Death and hatred to mankind – Poisoning their brainwashed minds” do just that.

Sunday Bloody Sunday – U2

U2 is an Irish band that has been going strong since the 80s. That was also the time of “The Troubles,” the unrest and insurgency within Ireland and Northern Ireland that bordered on civil war.

Based on real events…

U2 chose Bloody Sunday, a day in 1972 when protesters were fired upon by the British Army, as the inspiration for their song. “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is a strong, emotional response to that incident and the conflict in general.

Frontman Bono sings, “And the battle’s just begun – There’s many lost, but tell me who has won? – The trenches dug within our hearts – And mothers, children, brothers, sisters torn apart.”

These lyrics express his feelings that war is a futile effort and a tragic one as well. When this song came out on the album War in 1983, it was hugely popular. And it remains a staple of U2 concerts even today.

Everywhere – Billy Bragg / Greg Trooper

British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg loves to get political in his music. Any fan of his would see it as no surprise that he has written one of the best anti-war songs ever.

However, the surprise is that this song, though recorded by Bragg, was written by Greg Trooper. “Everywhere” is a sort of urban folk/60s protest-style song that’s slow and sweet sounding.

However, the lyrics are pretty tragic…

This song is about racism and discrimination as much as it is about war. The lyrics, “Over here – Over there – It’s the same – Everywhere – A boy cries out for his mama – Before he dies for his home,” speak to the sad reality of war.

It also tips its hat to the old war song “Over There” that I looked at earlier. Billy Bragg released his version of this song in 1991 on his album, Don’t Try This At Home, which was really emotional and sensitively done.

Zombie – The Cranberries

This is one of the most popular anti-war songs ever, even if it’s not precisely about war. “Zombie” by The Cranberries was written as a reaction to IRA bombings in England in 1993 in which several people were wounded and two young children killed.

This was part of the ongoing conflict between the IRA and the British government over the sovereignty of Northern Ireland. Written by singer Delores O’Riordan, the song is a Hard Rock masterpiece from this otherwise light and mellow band.

It has a hard edge…

One that blends perfectly with the sentiment of the song, which is, of course, that people who plant bombs and kill each other for political reasons are like mindless zombies.

O’Riordan’s voice is unforgettable in this song as she belts out the memorable pre-chorus, “In your head, in your head, they are fighting – With their tanks, and their bombs – And their bombs, and their guns – In your head, in your head they are crying.”

B.Y.O.B. – System of a Down

If you listen to this song superficially, you’d probably never realize that it has a solid anti-war message.

That’s because System of a Down’s “B.Y.O.B” is a mash-up of hardcore verses that are hard to understand with a catchy, poppy hook with lyrics “Everybody’s going to the party – Have a real good time.” Doesn’t that sound like a nice little party song?

But things get pretty angry pretty quickly here…

How about the, I don’t know, is it the bridge? They sing, “Why don’t presidents fight the war? – Why do they always send the poor?” in protest to the class differences in recruitment.

This song was recorded in 2005 during the Iraq War and is a pretty timely protest against America’s involvement and the nation sending its sons to die in the desert.

And, what does B.Y.O.B. stand for anyway? Bring your own boys? Bring your own bombs? I guess it’s up to your interpretation.

Looking For Great Music?

Well, then take a look at our detailed articles on the Best Songs about Fighting, the Best Songs About Heroes, the Best Songs About Fire, the Best Songs About Change, and the Best Songs About Bravery for more great song selections.

Of course, you need to hear them. So, check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Headphones for Music, the Best Headphones For Rock & Metal Music, the Best True Wireless Earbuds, the Best Sound Quality Earbuds, and the Best Bass Earbuds you can buy in 2022.

The Very Best Songs About War & Anti-War

War has been a part of most of human history. It’s no surprise that so many songs have been written about war. Whether they’re for, against, or even neutral about it, they always have something interesting to say.

Songs about war come in different flavors…

They can be patriotic and supportive, or they can be against the whole idea of going to war. They can also be songs that tell stories about specific things that happen in war or which describe certain battles. But the best songs about war and anti-war stir up strong emotions.

Until next time, happy listening.

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About Corey Hoffman

Corey is a multi-instrumentalist who has played in numerous bands over the years, some good, some not so good. He has also written countless songs and recorded five albums in professional studios across America. Today he is a hobby musician but still loves the guitar after over 15 years of playing.

He considers his writing as a way to share what he has learned over the decades with younger generations ad always can't wait to get his hands on the latest gear.

He lives just outside New York with his wife Barbara and their two German Shepherds, Ziggy and Iggy.

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