Anti-war songs have been a feature of every war, just as rebellions, mutinies, desertions, and refusals to fight have. But in the U.S., the term “anti-war music” usually invokes Vietnam, and Vietnam alone. And we often hear about the anti-war music of the Vietnam era as being an American-cultural phenomenon. We hear about Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, maybe Phil Ochs or Crosby, Still, Nash, and Young. Mostly, though, we hear about Dylan.
Rarely do we hear what the Vietnamese were singing about, or the radical poetry of The Last Poets addressing the roots of the war, or about the left-wing folk-rock of Thailand’s Pleng Phua Chewitt band Caravan.
Borrowing influences from anti-war American soldiers hanging out in the bars of Bangkok, these students combined Western protest music with the rural, agrarian music of northern Thailand, creating a new genre known as Pleng Phua Chewitt.
Nor do we hear much of the underground of the 1960’s and 70’s, of the music written by those who didn’t sign major record deals or whose songs were recorded. Nor do we hear the words and voices of artists in the global south, offering their voices in support of the Vietnamese resistance or again the presence of the U.S. government in their own affairs.
Here is a short list of songs I assembled today on the 12th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq by the United States. These songs come from the U.S. but also from Ireland, Iraq, Scotland, Syria, England, Chile, Israel, and elsewhere, and they span almost a century of radical art.
Some are by revolutionaries and political artists (Ali Primera, Victor Jara), others by soldiers in the trenches of the First World War (Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire). Others are by the family members of people killed in 9/11 (d_Cyphernauts). The final song, “Soldier’s Heart,” is my my friend Jacob David George, a three-tour Afghan War veteran-turned-anti-war activist, who took his life only a few months ago.
The simple designation “anti-war,” it should be said, does not do these songs justice. These artists and their songs demonstrate an understanding of the social, economic, and political roots of war.
As we remember all the suffering and death brought onto the world through wars of aggression, which benefit the rich at the expense of everyone else, let us also remember the artists and activists who have stood up in the face of violence and repression to stand on the right side of history in times of war.
Ryan Harvey is a musician, writer, and activist from Baltimore, MD. Since co-founding the Riot-Folk Collective in 2004, he has shared his songs and stories of social movements in over twenty countries in North America, Europe, and Africa. His writings have been featured in The Nation, Truth-Out, and other digital publications.