“Through the years our business has been killing — it was our first calling in life. Our knowledge of life is limited to death.”
Erich Maria Remarque,
All Quiet on the Western Front
Since the beginning of time, we have been warring among ourselves. It can’t be denied that war is embedded in our primitive nature as human beings. In every one of us, there is an instinct to polarize and engage in conflict.
War never sleeps and never dies. It has always been here, and always will.
Yet, this doesn’t have to mean that there isn’t any hope in making this world a better place.
While we can never truly banish war, we could mitigate it as best we can. The fact that war endures can be our reason to keep reminding ourselves that war is never the solution — to be, as Abraham Lincoln termed, “the better angels of our nature.”
And this is what artists have done for ages.
This could be traced back to the earliest literary texts, especially from Ancient Greece. Homer’s “Iliad”, is particularly well-known for its timeless message on our shared humanity. While everything could seem black and white in war, we tend to forget that the other side is no different from us, in that they too have families that they hope they could return home to.
In the story, King Priam humbly visits his enemy Achilles’s camp. He kisses his feet and begs for his son’s dead body, so that he could be granted an honorable burial. Achilles, who was reminded of his own father, granted Priam’s wish out of empathy.
Throughout the ages, artists have carried out this same tradition. While they have largely been advocating a similar message, they have done so in different ways, mediums or angles that are more suited to their time.
Perhaps that’s the point in advocating against an enduring concern such as war, that it’s not so much about saying something new, as it is about saying it as though it’s never been said before.
“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
That even Jesus would never forgive what you do.”
Masters of War
Let’s take a look at the Vietnam War, a period of time in which musicians were particularly ripe about protesting against war. One of Bob Dylan’s most popular anti-war songs, “Masters of War” takes a direct stab at world leaders for causing the pointless deaths of millions.
Other well-known songs such as the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” and Buffalo Springfield’s “For What it’s Worth” dispassionately depict the gloomy and confusion-laden air of their time.
Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” tackles war from a more definite angle, by criticizing the unfairness of the military draft. As the song’s narrator puts it, he isn’t fortunate enough to be a politician or a millionaire’s son for him to get exempted from the draft.
Some artists have used humor in making their audience realize certain truths. During this period of time, author Kurt Vonnegut published “Slaughterhouse Five”, a unique take on the anti-war novel. The story is only partly about Vonnegut’s past experience in World War II, and the rest is about time travel and alien abduction.
While it may seem nonsensical on the outset, its effect on the audience is in fact deeper than that of a conventional war story. It encapsulates the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that most military veterans suffer from. Slaughterhouse Five is really about Vonnegut’s own failed attempts to break free from his traumas, from the never-ending nightmares that the war had caused him.
“We’re the propagators of all genocide
Burning through the world’s resources
Then we turn and hide.”
System of a Down,
During the Iraq War, the Armenian American band System of a Down used their hallmark sense of humor to pen their albums Mesmerize and Hypnotize. In “B.Y.O.B.” (Bring Your Own Bombs), they liken the war to a party in the desert where mostly the poor are invited.
The invitation romanticizes the revelries of the party, yet the hosts are often nowhere to be seen during the event. With that, the song asks, “Why don’t presidents fight the war? Why do they always send the poor?”
Their song “Cigaro” takes on a bolder metaphor for war and the politicians who wage them. As the song goes, “My cock is much bigger than yours, my cock can walk right through the door / My shit stinks much better than yours, my shit stinks right down to the floor.” — mirroring the petty reasons that wars are often fought for. Each side is eager to show off who has the largest guns or political power.
It’s just the reality of life that no matter how times change, the thirst and greed for war is likely to remain in us. But as an artist, you have the responsibility to speak out against it as best you can.
You have a certain relationship with society, which historian Howard Zinn describes as “transcendent”. As he has written, the artist “transcends the immediate. Transcends the here and now. Transcends the madness of the world. Transcends terrorism and war.”
It is your role to transcend conventional thought, as well as to create work that inspires yourself and others to make a meaningful change.
We human beings are a forgetful kind. We’re bound to forget the lessons that the older generations have learned and taught us.
But that’s why you’re needed here.
To remind, and tirelessly remind.