Masters of War

Posted: May 29, 2007 in creativity
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In 1963 Bob Dylan wrote what he later called a pacifist song, but which others, including myself, see as one of the greatest antiwar song ever written: Masters of war. He adapted the tune of an old English folk song (probably with medieval roots) called Nottamun Town and wrote the words to it during another time of tragedy, also inflicted on the world by America: the Vietnam War.

In those forty odd years since Dylan wrote this masterpiece, not much has changed. America is again at war, facing it’s second Vietnam in Iraq, but not before it has killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people and laid the foundation for a civil war that will most likely last till long after its troops have left in defeat.

In terms of war though, America’s history is much older than forty years; in fact, America since its inception, has always been at war. Starting with the killing fields on its own soil against the original inhabitants of those lands, America followed up with expansionist wars against the Philippines and Mexico, its involvement in two World Wars, Wars against Korea and Vietnam, wars in Central America and the Pacific (this list does not include the proxy wars it has been fighting, or the skirmishes and military overthrows of democratically elected governments it organised, like in Chile, Cuba or Nicaragua, in Africa, Asia or the Middle and Far East).

masters-of-warAmerica is one of the worst militaristic nations in history. And its wars, like most wars, are driven by economic interests and the power and greed of the industrial military complex. Bob Dylan’s Masters of War is about these connections, about the brutality of the language of big money, translated into orders by politicians who serve their self-interests that happen to intersect with the interest of those who build the weapons and put them in the hands of the ignorant to kill the innocent. War is about blood and lies and deceit in the name of money, and Masters of War tells this story.

To underline this message, I have included two videos in this post, followed by the lyrics of the song. The first one is Pearl Jam performing Masters of War during the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert in 1992. But Masters of War is not about rock music, at least not alone, which is why I included the third YouTube clip (which is also available as a high resolution version at the Masters of War website). Made by J.J. Barney in 2006 as “an indictment of the Bush administration’s lies, war crimes, profiteering, religious hypocrisy and promotion of a New Fascism within the United States of America”, it is a collage of images to Dylan singing the song on his 1963 The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album. The images are those of war, primarily the current Iraq war I guess, contrasted with the faces of those responsible for ordering it: Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and their fellow war criminals. But what makes the clip so shocking, stirring and highly disturbing are the images of the victims: the burned children, the crying mothers and soldiers, the crippled, dazed and desperate – especially when interspersed with the official faces of the American government and the lies, arrogance and cold indifference that is written all over them in their pretense to be rational, sincere and caring. It is the confrontational back and forth movement between those two worlds, the one of clinical remoteness and cold-hearted abuse of power and the one of suffering, despair, death and loss of hope, which brings the already unsettling Dylan lyrics to live. I found this clip deeply disturbing, but not in a negative way. To the contrary: in its passion against the Bush administration’s Iraq war it fosters a deep conviction against all wars and an inner contemptuous revolt against the brutality and violence inflicted by them on their innocent victims.

Masters of War

Come you masters of war
You that build all the guns
You that build the death planes
You that build the big bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks

You that never done nothin’
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it’s your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly

Like Judas of old
You lie and deceive
A world war can be won
You want me to believe
But I see through your eyes
And I see through your brain
Like I see through the water
That runs down my drain

You fasten the triggers
For the others to fire
Then you set back and watch
When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion
As young people’s blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud

You’ve thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
For threatening my baby
Unborn and unnamed
You ain’t worth the blood
That runs in your veins

How much do I know
To talk out of turn
You might say that I’m young
You might say I’m unlearned
But there’s one thing I know
Though I’m younger than you
Even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do

Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good
Will it buy you forgiveness
Do you think that it could
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul

And I hope that you die
And your death’ll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I’ll stand o’er your grave
‘Til I’m sure that you’re dead


Copyright © 1963; renewed 1991 Special Rider Music

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