War is Hell, and That’s Why We Love It: When Anti-War Messages Backfire

Sabaton is a Swedish heavy metal band famous for writing songs about military history. Due to their unusual choice of topic, they have assembled a large and eclectic group of fans, ranging from metalheads to history buffs to everything in between (including myself). 

The members of Sabaton, courtesy of their website. I’ve always kind of liked Joakim Brodén’s (center) armored chest thing. Much like the band itself, it gestures vaguely to the idea of military stuff without getting bogged down in realism.

One of the most interesting questions surrounding Sabaton is whether Sabaton songs are pro-war. Fans will loudly denounce such assertions, and point to a number of songs Sabaton has written that might be called anti-war. Some of Sabaton’s songs proclaim the pointlessness of certain battles and empathize with young men placed in hopeless situations. 

Sabaton’s “anti-war” songs however, are an excellent example of a recurring problem in anti-war media – sometimes songs or movies intended to be anti-war actually have the opposite effect. Because of the limitations of certain types of media, often an anti-war message gets unintentionally subverted. Today, I’m going to use Sabaton to explain why anti-war messages can so often get lost in translation. 

Let’s take one of Sabaton’s ‘anti-war’ songs, Cliffs of Gallipoli. Here’s a sample of the lyrics:

At the shoreline

Blood of heroes stains the land, light a candle

One for each of them who fought and died in vain

There is no enemy

There is no victory

Only boys who lost their lives in the sand

Young men were sacrificed

Their names are carved in stone and kept alive

And forever we will honour the memory of them

On the face of it, these lyrics seem as anti-war as you can get. Denying the existence of an enemy or victory (presumably for either side) is a classic anti-war position. However, reading into the text can give a more ambiguous meaning. The term “sacrifice” is a particularly loaded one. “Sacrifice” comes from the Latin phrase “to make sacred,” implying something divine and purposeful about the deaths of young men at Gallipoli. When you combine that term with the eternal commemoration of the dead, expressed in the last line, the message of the song seems to be that the suffering and horror experienced by soldiers gave value to their lives, and turned them into “heroes.” The construct of the hero, in turn, is perhaps the most important pro-war concept, since it suggests that warfare elevates and forges great men. In the end, Cliffs of Gallipoli may not be a pro-war song, but it isn’t exactly an anti-war song either.

The glamorization (could we say fetishization?) of horror and suffering is a fascinating and worrying trend in ostensibly anti-war media. It stems quite naturally from anti-war media’s desire to depict how nasty and unpleasant warfare is. The problem is that when taken to the extreme, depicting the suffering of combatants makes warfare seem paradoxically more appealing. A common recruiting tactic used by real militaries is to emphasize to young men how difficult and challenging warfare can be, which in turn makes young men want to prove their courage and masculinity by exposing themselves to war. In the contemporary world, most people know that warfare is difficult and often painful for the combatants, so emphasizing that misery says nothing new for the audience. If anything, it sidelines the misery of those who aren’t willingly participating in the fighting, the civilians. 

People often imagine pro-war films as simplistic narratives where the good guys defeat the bad guys easily, without even getting their hair touseled. And while that may have been the case for pro-war media in the 19th century, the graphic horror of 20th century warfare has forced promoters of warfare to change their message. Even films that are rather pro-war in nature tend to revel in the suffering of combatants. In a brilliant essay, Agnieska Monnet describes how one typical war film, Sands of Iwo Jima, “does not portray war as easy and heroic; there are moments of terrible moral doubt as well as painful losses of comrades, but the film ultimately suggests that… death is not in vain even if it seems tragically unnecessary.” The same could be said for many other popular war movies or shows like Saving Private Ryan and Generation Kill (both of which have been credited for spurring enlistments in the US Army). 

Omaha Beach in Saving Private Ryan. A grisly, unpleasant scene, but not an anti-war one.

The glamorization of suffering is especially a problem for film. When American filmmakers began focusing on anti-war films in the 1970s and 1980s, they ran into a problem – no one seemed to realize that their films were anti-war. Take Apocalypse Now (1979) directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola described the film as anti-war, but audiences seemed to disagree. The “Ride of the Valkyries” scene in particular is popular among soldiers. Numerous accounts tell of soldiers in the First Gulf War watching that scene to build up anticipation for combat. Coppola intended the scene to be a depiction of the brutality of American forces in Vietnam, but audiences have found the scene awe-inspiring and exciting. 

The only scene from Apocalypse Now that anyone seems to remember.

Part of the problem lies in the inherent ambiguities of movie action scenes. As academic Claudia Springer has written, combat sequences are unable to fully capture an anti-war message, because their visual excess encourages “the pleasure of looking.” Combat scenes are inherently dramatic and exciting, drawing the viewer into the experience as an eager spectator. The deeds shown in Apocalypse Now’s helicopter scene are objectively monstrous, but by turning them into a big-budget action set piece, Coppola turned an anti-war critique into an orgy of reveling in the awesome brutality of war. 

Typically, anti-war movies invite the viewer to indulge in the extreme negative emotions associated with warfare, from hopelessness to anger to sorrow. The problem is that, in the eyes of a movie watcher, these emotions are part of the attraction of watching movies. People love movies in part because they allow us to experience deeper emotions than we would in our everyday lives. The net result is that while a viewer may intellectually get the message that war is bad, on a deeper level they feel an attraction to the humanistic emotion that the movie inspired. 

Other things work against a film’s ability to convey an anti-war message. Most films are supposed to be at least somewhat entertaining, which encourages the filmmaker to add excitement and emotional growth to war movies. Furthermore, there is an undeniable financial incentive for films to steer away from explicit condemnation of all war. 

The French filmmaker François Truffaut famously said that “there’s no such thing as an anti-war film.” What Truffaut may have meant was that the medium of film doesn’t allow for an effective criticism of war. Personally, I cannot entirely agree. I think it’s possible for movies to show truly anti-war messages, but only if they stray away from focusing on the lives of combatants. Like it or not, the idea that combatants suffer and die is part of the social contract of warfare. Usually, soldiers in war movies are in danger because they chose to be there, so the audience accepts the suffering as part of the job. Suffering can even elevate soldiers into heroes, if soldiers can put the suffering aside to accomplish their mission. 

However, when the media strays away from the lives of combatants, it can produce heartbreakingly genuine anti-war messages. Take Grave of the Fireflies, a Japanese movie about a young boy and his sister struggling to survive in war-ravaged Japan during the last months of World War Two. The two face firebombing, starvation, and exposure. There is nothing consensual or inspiring about two children trying to feed themselves. Rather, the movie shifts the focus to the true cost of warfare in a deeply moving way. 

A still from Grave of the Fireflies, probably the saddest movie I’ve ever seen and a brutally intimate (and realistic) portrayal of the worst aspects of war.

Just as film has limitations that often subvert its anti-war messages, so too does heavy metal. Regardless of their political message, a band like Sabaton expects their songs to be dramatic, entertaining, and invoke some kind of emotion. That means focusing on the drama of combat, and looking for meaning even in the most meaningless deaths. Given the limitations of the genre, I think it is fair to misquote Truffaut and say that perhaps “there is no such thing as an anti-war heavy metal song.” 

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