When Bruce Springsteen updated his set list at the end of his extended 1985 tour, he added what he would later refer to as “one of the greatest anti-war songs ever written.” At a moment when millions of Americans were afraid that the Reagan administration’s deadly interventions in Central America could eventually see US troops sent to the region, Springsteen would pause toward the close of his marathon concerts and declare, as he did at the Los Angeles Coliseum on September 30 of that year:
“If you grew up in the ’60s, you grew up with war on TV every night, a war that your friends were involved in.… And I wanna do this song tonight for all the young people out there, if you’re in your teens, ’cause I remember a lot of my friends when we were 17 or 18, we didn’t have much of a chance to think about how we felt about a lot of things. And the next time they’re gonna be looking at you and you’re gonna need a lot of information to know what you’re gonna wanna do. Because in 1985, blind faith in your leaders or in anything will get you killed. ‘Cause what I’m talking about here is… WAR!”
With that, the E Street Band unleashed a raging version of Edwin Starr’s 1970 hit by that name. “War” was written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, two of Motown’s greatest songwriters. Whitfield, the great psychedelic soul innovator, died in 2008. But Strong, whose songwriting credits with Whitfield included Motown hits such as “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today),” died last weekend at age 81.
The obituaries for Strong are filled with references to so many songs that the Mississippi native cowrote as one of Motown’s greatest lyricists—from the much-covered “Money (That’s What I Want),” which he also sang, to “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” and “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)”—that some barely mentioned “War.” But it is worth noting that, long before Springsteen and other artists started singing Strong’s words, this was one of the most successful protest songs of all time, thanks to its immortal, urgent appeal that asked “War, what is it good for?” and answered “Absolutely nothing!”
Penned at the height of the United States military involvement in Vietnam, “War” was originally recorded in milder form by The Temptations. Motown refused to release the song as a single, fearing it would spark controversy and harm the reputation of one of its most popular acts. With encouragement from Whitfield and Strong, Starr cut a fierce new version that began with a brief flourish of militaristic drumming and then exploded as the 28-year-old soul singer roared through lyrics that declared, “War is something I despise,” and warned:
War, it’s nothing but a heartbreaker
War, friend only to the undertaker
War is the enemy of all mankind
The thought of war blows my mind
Handed down from generation to generation
Induction, destruction, who wants to die?
Motown—presumably less concerned about Starr being so publicly associated with an anti-war message than they were with the Temptations—agreed to issue Starr’s version as a single, and it was an instant hit. Released in June of 1970, just weeks after the massacres of student protesters at Kent State in Ohio and Jackson State College in Mississippi, it soared to No. 1 on the Billboard Pop Singles chart, and remained there for weeks in a summer that also saw another anti-war anthem, the version of Neil Young’s “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, chart in the US. “War” would finish the year as Billboard’s No. 5 best-selling song of 1970.
Starr’s song wasn’t just a success in the United States. It went global, topping the charts in Canada and the United Kingdom and selling well in Australia and New Zealand, two countries that had been drawn into the Vietnam conflict as US allies.
And the song kept spinning—dusted off by young artists each time the war fever rose during the ensuing years. It has been repeatedly revived in the United Kingdom, where Starr recorded with the British band Utah Saints. He was still singing “War” in 2003, around the time of the invasion of Iraq. Tragically, in April of 2003, just as the song was taking off again, Starr died of a heart attack at age 61.
Springsteen was playing “War” on tour that spring as well. By then, he had been singing the song for decades, perhaps most notably on the Human Rights Now! tour that he did—with Sting, Peter Gabriel, Youssou N’Dour, Tracy Chapman, and others—to raise support for Amnesty International and increase awareness of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
That declaration was written by diplomats in the aftermath of World War II, in hopes that they could lay “the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.”
As the wars continued, Barrett Strong recognized the need for more urgent language. And, with Norman Whitfield, he gave it to us in a song that asked and answered the eternal question:
Peace, love, and understanding, tell me
Is there no place for them today?
They say we must fight to keep our freedom
But Lord knows there’s got to be a better way