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Jun 28 2011

Carl’s Rock Songbook #8: Bob Dylan, “Masters of War” » Postmodern Conservative, Bob Dylan music

Reblogged from firstthings.com

“Masters of War” certainly is a breath-taking display of anger, and even of cold hatred. Freewheelin’ gives us three better anti-war moments: there is the delightful (Bradbury-influenced) comedy of “Talking World War III Blues,” the mysterious poetry/prophecy of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” and the wistful idealism of “Blowin’ in the Wind.” But just one pretty song after “Blowin’,” we find ourselves in the midst of grimly-sung lines like these: …you that never done nuthin’ but build to destroy… You put a gun in my hand, and you hide from my eyes… …you ain’t worth the blood that runs in your veins… …I think you will find, When your death takes its toll, all the money you’ve made, Will never buy back your soul… What justification can there be for this? Well, we could talk in general terms about whether “catharsis” or “shock-tactics” might provide one, but the bottom-line is that there can be no justification for “Masters of War” unless the historicist or Leninist theories about war are true. And they are not true. More specific to the song’s charges, there is no elite with war-loving tendencies who are the ones who really decide when modern democracies go to war. Nor was U.S. policy determined by such an elite in the 50s and 60s.


The next six paragraphs are for those who want or need this spelled out. IF liberal scholars can blame the near-miss aspect of the Cuban Missile Crisis on the U.S. military brass being too aggressive (the case factually made by the 13 Days book and film), what does the blame amount to? It amounts to saying that an otherwise as-healthy-as-liberal-democracies-tend-to-get liberal democracy had some poor leaders at a particular time. At worst, it supports a larger case that certain military-industrial establishment dynamics, amplified through group-think, had tended to make our military leaders too aggressive. 1) Now, even in this worst case, were those leaders in some plausible (or justly metaphorical) way “masters?” 2) Did they really love war in a sit back and watch, while the death count gets higher sort of way? Or were not a few of them like the General Patton we are shown in the famous (and quite factual) film, relishing the trial and potential glory of combat, loving the strategic game, certainly not wanting to “sit back and watch,” but still ultimately knowing that this “love of war” in them was not an entirely good trait? Do we really think the top military men and advisors around Eisenhower and JFK were totally unlike this, and thus were simply “chicken-hawk” chess-players? How many of them were in combat in WWII or Korea? Dylan takes the unavoidable discomfort felt by those assigned a behind-the-lines or a decision-making role and makes it into a case, and a generational divide: you hide in your mention, of the young people’s blood. Well, I imagine no officer or leader likes facing the fact that young men are killed by his orders, Patton-and-Lee types included. And so? Their lowering of their eyes is evidence of guilt? Evidence they are like the tactically meat-grinding and military law abusing French WWI generals featured in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory film? 3) Did those who built the weapons for the others to fire become secret promoters of war, for the sake of their own profits? Well, we should remain open to the idea that the profit-motive at work within the military-industrial establishment to some degree caused a) too many weapons to be built, and b) exaggeration of the communist threat, so that a) and b) together contributed to a greater aggressiveness of our military leaders. But there is another step. Causal analysis of key instances of (arguably) too-aggressive strategic decision-making, let us say, regarding H-bomb development, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Vietnam would likely place the factor of “military-industrial establishment self-interest dynamic,” fairly low on each listing of the various causes for each case. And so how many American Cold War weapon-makers said to themselves, “I try to cause war for the sake of more money”? And how many wars did the efforts of such types cause? The first number is going to have to be a Joe McCarthy-like guess (that unfairly counts mixed-motive cases and “subconscious-motive” cases in its column), and the second number is zero, or some fraction of causal responsibility very near zero. So, the song’s charges are: 1) false, 2) false, and 3) not true to any significant degree. Nearly as shameful, there is nothing in “Masters of War” that suggests that the Korean War or even World War II might be exceptions to the general case being made—that is, the attitude seems to be that even if they were necessary wars, they were necessarily conducted by bad men.


Once you let one of those “imperialism” or “gold/oil-is-the-reason” or “power-elite” narratives get going in your head, and once in a historicist and yet history-ignorant way you begin meditating on the “insanity” of modern war, you become allergic to careful thought, which in part, is thought that takes care to be just to others. In this song Dylan is not just, nor any sort of “peacemaker.” He paints virtually all of our career military men, all of our strategy-makers, and even all of our defense-workers –you that build the death planes–, as villains. I grant that the Cuban Missile Crisis made the temptation of this sort of despairing anger more difficult to resist. Citizens were being asked to trust an elite group of strategy-makers to play whatever nuclear game of chicken was necessary to play with the Soviets. This placing of their very lives in the hands of a strategic elite was like the trust that always had to be granted by democracies to their military leaders, such as in ancient Athens or pre-1950s America; it was unlike it in the sheer immediacy of the new sort of death-threat and the practical impossibility of evading it. In any case, the liner notes of Freewheelin’ show us that Dylan, or somebody at Columbia Records, was actually somewhat nervous about what he had done: “‘Masters of War’ startles Dylan himself. ‘I’ve never really written anything like that before,’ he recalls. ‘I don’t sing songs which hope people will die, but I couldn’t help it with this one. The song is a sort of striking out, a reaction to the last straw, a feeling of what can you do?’ The rage (which is as much anguish as it is anger) is a way of catharsis, a way of getting temporary relief from the heavy feeling of impotence that affects many…” Some other time the Songbook will consider the catharsis excuse; what I want to focus upon now is that Dylan thought he might need an excuse. That hesitancy was a very 1963 phenomenon, a sort of swaying atop the fence dividing the Old era from the New. The 70s punks, the late 80s rappers, and even most of the late 60s hippies felt little need to justify whatever anger and damning they put in their songs. That applies to really just about every pop artist from the early-80s on. Those who had indulged their anger might need to occasionally defend the more egregious murder-fantasies or shock-tactics in an interview, but that was it. Preemptive explanations were beneath them, and the very idea that anger-expression in song might be wrong ceased to occur to them. Dylan really believed that there was a military-industrial power elite linked to modern capitalism in the way his leftist mentors (Guthrie esp.) had taught him. There was more excuse for that belief in those days, then after the publication of Gulag Archipelago in 1974 or the fall of the wall in 1989. Moreover, he had a reasonable worry that a nuclear war might wipe out civilization and him with it. Dylan said that “Hard Rain” was written during the height of the Crisis as a way to encapsulate many of the songs he feared he might not ever get to write. One can understand how after such an experience, more extreme expressions, more deliberate efforts to shock, might be sought. But one must also note that the fear, especially when amplified into the conviction that “we’re all going to be dead in a few years,” was often used as permission to indulge in extremes artistic, political, sexual, etc. The Counter-Culture needed the Bomb more than it can admit. Ever since 1991, of course, we haven’t felt the nuclear war fear in the way we had from the mid-1950s up through Gorbachev. Nor do many of us place serious hope in any form of socialism, or in any historical destiny to move beyond war. But many of the once-extreme behaviors and all of the unrestrained manners have remained with us. Indeed, the rock artist feels almost obliged to cultivate them. And many of us still take it for granted that “Masters of War” is iconic in a good way, an example of the sort of passion the socially-conscious artist ought to open herself to channeling. Of course, if you’re taught over and over by the rock mythology, or even by PBS or the NYT, that the Righteous Artist ought to say the equivalent of “F#$@ You” to the likes of the “military-industrial establishment,” the “system,” or the “Power,” you might assume that you ought to say the words themselves to something a bit more obviously impacting your life, such as your ex-girlfriend. Especially if that’s just the way people talk these days. Well, that seems to be the Dada-Wobbly-“Howl”-“Masters”-Berkely-LennyBruce-MC5-Yippie-Iggy-SexPistols-Soho-SNL-Industrial-DK-Slayer-SpikeLee-NWA-NIN-RiotGrrls-DiFranco-DailyKoz-lizardoid-BushHitler-bullycrisis-CeeLo cultural pathway we’ve been on. It’s a pathway that’s been a dismal cul-de-sac since around 1990, which is why the frontal lyrical offense of Cee Lo Green’s big hit last year (its music is pretty darn good) scarcely raised our eyebrows. Indeed, anger-wise, things are probably a bit better at the moment than they have been for a while, but ours is certainly not the offense-avoiding society briefly glimpsed via Freewheelin’s liner notes, just as it was stepping aside. Debates about cultural declines and who could have resisted them or not are hard. But regardless, I say that Dylan, for the sake of civilized and civic-minded decency, and yes, also on the grounds of hesitancy about so categorically pitting his young man’s gut instinct against the experienced judgment of men like Kennan and Aron, should have aborted “Masters of War” before it ever emerged from his lips. Or must you sing every powerful song that comes to you?

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