Monday, March 4, 2019

Dylan's Masters Of War Didn't Just Apply to the Cold War

"War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today." ~ John F. Kennedy, Letter to Navy friend

Photo by Mariusz Prusaczyk on Unsplash
The above quote reveals an interesting observation by former president John F. Kennedy, especially on the heels of President Eisenhower’s parting remarks expressing concern about the growing power of the military-industrial complex. What I find especially interesting regarding the Sixties protestors who took a stand against the "military-industrial complex" is that the phrase itself originated in the mouth of a U.S. president who once was a general.

A conscientious objector is someone who, for matters of conscience, must decline from military service. Usually it is for religious reasons, but some there are who simply refuse to do harm to others of the human family. In the past conscientious objectors have been imprisoned or even killed for their adherence to conscience. It's a stain on our history.

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According to BobDylan.com Dylan first played "Masters of War" in February 1963. He was still performing it in 2016 and has played it live 884 times in all. In 1998, at Bob Dylan's first concert in Duluth, "Masters of War" was presented acoustically, the eighth song in the show. As he sang it I thought about the messages he sings, the prophetic challenges, the put downs, the biting insightful commentary on our culture, and how out of character it would be for him to smile while singing this material. His harsh, pointed words were perfectly released, the tone corresponding with the intent.

The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan was his second album, released three days after his 22nd birthday in May 1963.  Surfin' USA was #1 single that year. Other hits of '63 included Blue Velvet, He's So Fine, Da Doo Ron Ron, Go Away Little Girl, Ring of Fire, Surf City. There were no songs anywhere on the charts like Blowin' in the Wind, Oxford Town, Talkin' World War III Blues or Masters of War.

These kinds of themes, however, were quite familiar in the folk movement. Joan Baez, Pete Seger and others maintained this protest sensibility that had for generations provided sustenance for the common man and downtrodden. The Vietnam War had not yet escalated but massive arms buildup in response to the Red Scare seemed to smother the nation, hence a line like "fear to bring babies into the world."

There's no question song is visceral, a scorched earth response to advocates of scorched earth policies. It's the kind of finger-pointing song that he claimed to later abandon. Yet he continued to sing the song for more than 50 years.

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Here is the speech in which President Eisenhower first made reference to what he called the "military-industrial complex." President Eisenhower gave this speech just days before stepping down,  yielding power to the newly elected JFK.



After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson proceeded to step up the war effort in Southeast Asia, and this song quickly grew in importance, providing fuel for those who were opposed to the direction their government was taking. I've highlighted below the passages that spoke to me at that time. The one line that especially makes me sad is the statement, "fear to bring children into the world." The song has been sung for more than a half century and, sadly, to this day I have occasionally run into young couples who have decided not to bring children into a world this broken. How different things were in 1900 when optimism reigned.

Ironically, it was a false optimism based on false ideas about the great progress humanity had made in every field of endeavor. Instead of a century of sunshine the world was shredded by wars, holocausts and genocides. The fear of bringing children into the world is probably the strongest evidence of the loss of hope.  Hope is one of the three great needs of our time, along with love and courage.

This is a song that it took courage to sing. Years later Dylan would write another song that perhaps echoed some of this sentiment. "I seen the kingdoms of this world and it's making me feel afraid." (Shot of Love)

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 mansions
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

© 1963 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1991 by Special Rider Music


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When the Watergate scandal dethroned Richard Nixon, the journalists Woodward and Bernstein sleuthed out the necessary evidence by means of a simple credo: "Follow the money." Where it came from and where it lead illuminated what had been previously hidden from the public eye.

This past month I finished reading Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, which detailed the tragic history of our country's abuse of power and destruction of Native culture. One of the recurring themes in the many stories told was how corruption, mismanagement and profiteering was a major driver in the motivations of those in power, or their agents. There were very few whose motivation was to do what was in the best interest of the people. This was the great tragedy.

This is what makes Masters of War relevant in such an ongoing way. Was anyone ever really asking "What is in the best interest of the civilians of Viet Nam." The war had been interpreted through the lens of a Cold War power play rather than as an internal effort to be freed from colonialists (which had happened nearly everywhere else in the world post-WWII.)

Much more could be said, but for now I have to turn the page.

4 comments:

Eban said...

See also, "Neighborhood Bully."

Dovid Kerner said...

Great piece. Yet he could include a song like Neighborhood Bully on one of his albums. Lies that life is black and white.

tacoplenty said...

This song's been around for decades. You're just now figuring it out?

Ed Newman said...

Tacoplenty: I thought I was bringing something new to the story. Who would have thought, for example, that this song from '63 would be part of his setlist a half century later, or that we would continue to have young people 55 years later still expressing their fears to bring children into the world.
There are a lot of people who weren't her 55 years ago, so highlighting songs from our youth has some value...