How Music Through The Years Has Charted Our Repetitious Foreign Policy Mistakes

The House of Commons is an institution unique in its ability to be at once perplexing, and resolutely predictable. What’s unique about this fresh war is the manner in which, for everyone of an age old enough to read this article, this has already happened more than once in our lifetimes, in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya: and resolutely failed every time. The Iraq War of twelve years past enabled the revolutionary state we face today, as a considered approach simply wouldn’t have. The evidence against furthering air strikes into Syria ranged from practical, to economic, to ethical, to basic common sense. And yet here we are again: supporting another spate of faceless strikes in spite of all advice and reason, because everybody who voted for it knows they won’t have to face the consequences. There is no all-out war in Syria, yet, but world history is cyclical in a way that provides but a slight few opportunities to hop off the carousel. Last night was one of them, and our government absolutely botched it. 

As small a part as music plays in world events, it is pivotal to the way in which it’s documented – factually, yes, but crucially in its ability to capture the full bloodied sentiment of the moment. And there’s nothing more disheartening, and nothing more saddening, than the moments where you iPod Shuffle lands on a track which sounds like it could have been recorded yesterday, from 35 years ago.

That carousel was something that sprung to mind at the time of the (still ongoing) racial tensions in the United States late in the summer of last year upon listening to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin On?  A 1971 concept album told from the perspective of a vet returning from Vietnam, who came back to the US to see a crisis of drugs and racial hatred: its songs about war and the ecology are troublingly prophetic, but nothing at the time hit harder than ‘Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)’ on which he decried “crime is increasing/trigger happy policing/panic is spreading/god knows where we’re heading.” That’s the sort of material you’d hear on the new Vince Staples album, but there it was 43 years previous – and its worrying how little we’ve progressed on that matter since then.

“World history is cyclical in a way that provides only a few opportunities to hop off the carousel. Last night was one of them, and our government absolutely botched it.”

Today, on the eve of war, it is an entirely different set of songs, just as old and often older, that spring to mind. Bob Dylan wrote several off them. He does commercials for IBN now but in his youth he wrote many songs in contempt of war – he knew that not all wars are pointless but many, like the one for which our gears are turning now, certainly are. On ‘With God On Our Side’ he sung that “oh the first world war boys/it closed out its fate/the reason for fighting/I never got straight/but I learned to accept it/accept it with pride/for you don’t count the dead/when god’s on your side.” It’s the sort of jingoistic rhetoric that reverberated through Commons yesterday, but nothing hits closer to home than tunes about the Vietnam War.

When it comes to pointless and costly battles, Britain has many  – but the piéce de résistance will forever and always be the Vietnam War. It is to military fuck ups what Nixon is to political scandal, what Michael Gove is to education: and try as Cameron might, it’ll still take some topping in terms of being a giant, expensive and tragic waste of time. Bruce Springsteen’s protest song in its name, ‘Born In The USA’, was infamously played by Reagan as his campaign’s feel good anthem, but it’s eerily resonant of our foreign policy today. What line better encapsulated David Cameron and Hilary Benn’s policy of tossing bombs into a powder keg because the enemy is surrounded by civilians who just don’t look or sound like most of Britain than Springsteen’s “Got in a little hometown jam/So they put a rifle in my hand/Sent me off to a foreign land/To go and kill the yellow man.” Again: how far we haven’t come.

Springsteen’s music is a little more disparaging now. Since his early 80’s war songs still ring true today, he’s pressed in a different direction on his latest LP; still resilient, but in the face of a repeated stream of more of the same over anything else. On the title track to that 2012 release he sings “Now when all this steel and these stories, they drift away to rust/And all our youth and beauty, has been given to the dust/When the game has been decided, and we’re burning down the clock/And all our little victories and glories, have turned into parking lots/When your best hopes and desires, are scattered to the wind/And hard times come, and hard times go/And hard times come, and hard times go/And hard times come, hard times go/Yeah just to come again: bring on your wrecking ball.”

The tone of modern political music is tired and despairing, and so is the mood of today. The first strikes this morning were on oil fields; targets whose viability few would refute – but our very presence in the Middle East will only perpetuate horrors there and at home, and action is being taken with no long term plan in sight. The sad thing about having seen it before is that we already know the results. Heightened repercussive acts on home soil: possible. Escalation to international tensions: likely. Civilian deaths: certain. A lack of guaranteed solution to any crisis of terror: absolute.

“The tone of today’s political music is tired and despairing, and so is the mood of today.”

For an artist who used sing about being born to run to now be making songs of resilience in the face of perpetual battery, to have a 28 year Kendrick Lamar whose feel good anthem can only pray that we’ll be ‘Alright’… like Springsteen’s infamously deceptive classic, the melodies might remain uptight: but the outlook is bleak. The epoch though came from Leonard Cohen, a man whose love songs even sound like dirges, qualified above all other to pen what perhaps might be the most existentially bleak tune ever recorded: all about the true source of such circularity. From his stellar 1988 LP I’m Your Man came ‘Everybody Knows’, one whose outlook explains the repetition seen in songs by Dylan, and Gaye, and Springsteen, and a foreign policy that seems desperate to repeat the same mistakes on a loop. “Everybody knows that the dice are loaded/Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed/Everybody knows that the war is over/Everybody knows the good guys lost/Everybody knows the fight was fixed/The poor stay poor, the rich get rich/That’s how it goes/Everybody knows.”

We know another war in a new country won’t solve anything, we know who’ll be dying and who won’t. Everybody already knows.

Liam Inscoe – Jones

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MusicMusic Features

Co-Editor of the Music Section at University of Nottingham's IMPACT Magazine.

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