by Michael Johnson
When ‘With God on our Side’ appeared in 1962, no one was in any doubt that this was an anti-war song aimed at the meaninglessness of war. Its refrain mocks the way nations call upon God when it comes to slaughtering others. No nation goes to war without having God on its side. The irony of it all, calling on God to kill, was implicit in every line.
Here are the lyrics in full, with the exception of a verse on the Vietnam War Dylan later added.
Oh my name it ain't nothin' My age it means less The country I come from Is called the Midwest I was taught and brought up there The laws to abide And that land that I live in Has God on its side Oh, the history books tell it They tell it so well The cavalries charged The Indians fell The cavalries charged The Indians died Oh, the country was young With God on its side The Spanish-American War had its day And the Civil War, too Was soon laid away And the names of the heroes I was made to memorize With guns in their hands And God on their side The First World War, boys It came and it went The reason for fighting I never did get But I learned to accept it Accept it with pride For you don't count the dead When God's on your side The Second World War Came to an end We forgave the Germans And then we were friends Though they murdered six million In the ovens they fried The Germans now, too Have God on their side I've learned to hate the Russians All through my whole life If another war comes It's them we must fight To hate them and fear them To run and to hide And accept it all bravely With God on my side But now we got weapons Of chemical dust If fire them, we're forced to Then fire them we must One push of the button And a shot the world wide And you never ask questions When God's on your side Through many a dark hour I've been thinkin' about this That Jesus Christ was Betrayed by a kiss But I can't think for you You'll have to decide Whether Judas Iscariot Had God on his side. So now as I'm leavin' I'm weary as Hell The confusion I'm feelin' Ain't no tongue can tell The words fill my head And fall to the floor That if God's on our side He'll stop the next war
So far so good. Here is Dylan performing the song in 1988, at the beginning of the Never Ending Tour, when he seemed keen to reclaim his radical credentials. He performs the song with gusto in a vocal performance dripping with irony and anti-war sentiment. Here is the additional verse as far as I can make it out.
In the nineteen sixties came the Vietnam war
Can somebody tell me, what we were fighting for? Too many young men died Too many mothers cried So I ask the question Was God on our side?
This verse condemns war more directly than the other verses. So again we get the message. War is senseless slaughter. War is grief.
Now we have to fast forward nearly sixty years to Rough and Rowdy Ways and the song, ‘Mother of Muses’, where we find these lines, sung in reverential tones:
Mother of Muses, sing for my heart Sing of a love too soon to depart Sing of the heroes who stood alone Whose names are engraved on tablets of stone Who struggled with pain, so the world could go free Mother of Muses, sing for me Sing of Sherman, Montgomery and Scott And of Zhukov, and Patton, and the battles they fought Who cleared the path for Presley to sing Who carved the path for Martin Luther King Who did what they did and they went on their way Man, I could tell their stories all day
This is a totally different outlook on history to ‘With God on Our Side’. Four of these men named, Sherman, Montgomery, Zhukov and Patton were generals; if not masters of war, exactly, they were certainly their agents. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about these heroes.
William Tecumseh Sherman (February 8, 1820 – February 14, 1891) was an American soldier, businessman, educator, and author. He served as a general in the Union Army during the American Civil War (1861–65), receiving recognition for his command of military strategy as well as criticism for the harshness of the scorched earth policies he implemented in conducting total war against the Confederate States. British military theorist and historian B. H. Liddell Hart declared that Sherman was “the first modern general.”
Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, KG, GCB, DSO, PC, DL 17 November 1887 – 24 March 1976), nicknamed “Monty” and “The Spartan General“, was a senior British Army officer who served in both the First World War and the Second World War.
Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov (Russian: Гео́ргий Константи́нович Жу́ков; 1 December 1896 – 18 June 1974) was a Soviet general and Marshal of the Soviet Union. He also served as Chief of the General Staff, Minister of Defence, and was a member of the Presidium of the Communist Party (later Politburo). During the Second World War, Zhukov oversaw some of the Red Army‘s most decisive victories.
George Smith Patton Jr. (November 11, 1885 – December 21, 1945) was a general of the United States Army who commanded the U.S. Seventh Army in the Mediterranean theater of World War II, and the U.S. Third Army in France and Germany after the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944…. Was censured for slapping two soldiers who had shell shock.
If we exclude Sherman, who defeated the Confederacy, what do the other three generals have in common? They were the three major allies, Britain, Russia and the U.S who defeated Hitler and the Nazis in World War 2. Here was a war that was not meaningless. The path was cleared for the post war flowering of western culture. This sent me scurrying back to ‘With God on our Side’ to check the WW2 verse.
The Second World War Came to an end We forgave the Germans And then we were friends Though they murdered six million In the ovens they fried The Germans now, too Have God on their side
As the history of America’s wars unfolds in the song, WW2 is the odd man out, for what is being condemned is not the senseless slaughter of war but our forgiveness of the Germans. (Dylan conflates the German people with the Nazis, as was commonly done at the time.) WW2, it seems, was a war worth fighting, because of the Holocaust – the six million ‘fried’. We are reminded of Dylan’s Jewish heritage, and why he might have had a particular perspective on that war.
Returning to ‘Mother of Muses’, those generals are to be revered for ‘the battles they fought’.
‘Man,’ sings the Bard, ‘I could tell their stories all day’.
This kind of language is Homeric in its intent. These generals that he celebrates have become, in Dylan’s Classics soaked mind, the modern day equivalents of Odysseus, Ajax and Hector. Men who ‘struggled with pain so the world could go free’. Because they cleared the world of the evils of fascism, the great world of American culture, symbolized by Elvis Presley in this song (but celebrated at length in Murder Most Foul) could flourish, out of which the civil rights movement would grow, symbolized here by Martin Luther King. And out of that movement, of course, the young Bob Dylan would grow.
All this Homeric valorizing leads Dylan, usually ever aware of our mortality, to boast that the names of these heroes ‘are engraved on tablets of stone’. I can’t help but wonder if the Bard has forgotten the lesson of Shelley’s Ozymandias: words engraved on stone come back to mock us.
Are these the same kind of ‘heroes’ the Bard was ‘made to memorise’ in the earlier song? This question made me return to ‘With God on Our Side’ with new eyes. Is the song really what we always thought it was?
Some of Dylan’s protest songs have been unmasked as something quite different. Tony Atwood has characterized ‘The Times they are a-changing’ as a protest song that doesn’t protest anything. That’s because the song is a meditation on time and eternal recurrence. If sung in a young, strident voice, it may sound like a protest song. If sung in an old, experienced voice, it sounds more like grandfatherly advice on how to deal with the young. ‘Blowing in the Wind’ is a series of unanswerable metaphysical questions. What marks them both is a certain fatalism. Times will go on changing. Our questions will go on ‘blowing in the wind’.
Coming back to ‘With God on our Side’ I find a similar fatalism. Could it be that the radicalism of the song is partly at least contextual, the social/political context in which it was written and received? I looked at some of the verses again.
The cavalries charged The Indians fell The cavalries charged The Indians died Oh, the country was young With God on its side
Strip the verse of its irony, and we find that genocide is not being condemned exactly – we just get the fact, baldly presented. Evident is a kind of bleak fatalism: this happened and that happened. On WW 1, we hear:
But I learned to accept it Accept it with pride
Do we have any reason not to take this as the literal truth?
With regard to the Russians, we find this:
I've learned to hate the Russians All through my whole life If another war comes It's them we must fight
Must fight? Is there no alternative? Can’t we decide not to fight another war? Apparently not, as we are caught up in the imperatives of history. That imperative is carried through into the next verse about the next war:
But now we got weapons Of chemical dust If fire them, we're forced to Then fire them we must
There seems no way out. The logic of war has us in thrall and there is no escaping it. Might as well try to escape fate.
The verse on Judas is linked to the other verses by this same theme – we cannot escape our destinies. The argument here flows from one of the paradoxes of Christianity. If it weren’t for Judas and that kiss of betrayal, Jesus would never have been arrested and martyred. Jesus would not have been able to fulfill his destiny. So, Judas must have been a part of God’s perfect finished plan. All kinds of heresies flow from this problem.
Now the last verse comes into perspective.
So now as I'm leavin' I'm weary as Hell The confusion I'm feelin' Ain't no tongue can tell
The confusion he’s feeling is about the nature of God’s will. It seems that all this war and death are pre-ordained – could God enter history and put an end to the wretched cycle of slaughter? Doesn’t seem likely. So the very last two lines are the most pessimistic of all. Our fates are sealed.
So is this still mainly an anti-war song? I’m not so sure anymore. The song records and laments God’s will and our fates – hardly a rallying cry.
Dylan’s performance of the song in 1994 at the Unplugged concert may bear out my new sense of the song to some extent. Unlike the vital 1988 performance, the 1994 version is much more of a dirge. The music drones. Dylan leaves out the more explicit anti-war Vietnam verse. Yet the performance, oddly dispassionate, is as powerful as any he’s given. We have moved from the anger and outrage of the earlier version to weary acceptance.
Of course we should feel no obligation to reconcile the early Dylan with the older Dylan. After all, the man ‘contains multitudes’, but that doesn’t stop us from looking at his earlier work through the lens of the later songs.
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