They don’t come much more finger-pointing-y than “Masters of War.” Just a little over a year after The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan was released, Bob Dylan would tell The New Yorker’s Nat Hentoff that his next album (Another Side of Bob Dylan) wouldn’t have any “finger-pointing songs”:
“Those records I’ve already made, I’ll stand behind them, but some of that was jumping into the scene to be heard and a lot of it was because I didn’t see that anybody else was doing that kind of thing. Now a lot of people are doing finger-pointing songs. You know—pointing to all the things that are wrong. Me, I don’t want to write for people anymore. You know, be a spokesman…. From now on, I want to write from inside me.”
And yet what makes “Masters of War” so effective as a protest song is that it is so intensely personal. If you look at protest songs of the last few years (and George W. Bush spawned practically a whole genre of them), they are full of vitriolic plays on words (“Texas führer,” “this Weapon of Mass Destruction that we call our President,” “you and Saddam should kick it like back in the day,” etc.) and clichés (“Fuck Bush,” “No blood for oil,” “Does he ever smell his own bullshit?”). Basically, they pick an easy target and toss schoolyard insults at it. In other words, they suck.
“Masters of War” isn’t about clever wordplay, and it’s certainly not aimed at convincing those on the fence. Unlike most standard protest songs, there is no sense that Dylan is speaking on behalf of anyone else. In fact, there are only two people mentioned in the song: the “I” voice of the song itself, and an unspecific “you” against whom Dylan has a litany of complaints. This is a personal fight, and Dylan is not shying away from it.
He starts by identifying his target: “Come you masters of war, you that build all the guns / You that build the death planes, you that build the big bombs.” Although “Masters of War” would come to be associated with the Vietnam War thanks to Dylan’s (unintentional) affiliation with the counterculture of the 1960s, it’s important to realize that the target of the song is not any particular war (the release of the song predates when Vietnam became part of the nation’s consciousness), or even any particular individual—it’s the entire military industrial complex. Indeed, the target of the song is capitalism as much as it is war itself: “Is your money that good? Will it buy you forgiveness? Do you think that it could? / I think you will find, when your death takes its toll / All that money you made will never buy back your soul.”
Despite aiming at such an amorphous and complex enemy, the song contains almost no abstractions. Dylan puts a face on an inherently faceless concept: “I just want you to know I can see through your masks.” This of course leaves the song open to criticisms of naïveté. Tim Riley called the song “acerbic to the point of absurdity,” and he’s right that the song is reductive, but that’s the point.
Even Dylan admits as much in the sixth stanza: “You might say that I’m young, you might say I’m unlearned / But there’s one thing I know, though I’m younger than you / Even Jesus would never forgive what you do.” The simplicity of the song, both in its lyrics and its melody, is its strength. Dylan is not concerned with winning the argument. In the singer’s mind, there is no argument left to be had, so there is no sense wasting time with the nuances of the debate. This song is about the visceral hatred the Good has for Evil.
And the fact that the song doesn’t shy away from that hatred is what makes it so effective. Like Henry David Thoreau writing about John Brown, Dylan is so convinced of his own righteousness that he relishes the death of his enemy: “I hope that you die, and your death’ll come soon / I will follow your casket, in the pale afternoon / And I’ll watch while you’re lowered, down to your deathbed / And I’ll stand over your grave, til I’m sure that you’re dead.” This final stanza is one of the most haunting Dylan would write. Though it stops short of explicitly advocating murder, the song has become dark and macabre in a way that suggests nobody remains unsullied by the masters of war—even the good are driven standing over headstones.
“Masters of War,” then, symbolizes a lot of what Dylan would come to reject in his own songwriting, namely oversimplification and accusatory self-righteousness. And yet it retains its forcefulness—and continues to get covered every time the American war machine revs up again—largely because of this childlike emotion, the basic sense of right and wrong that it appeals to. For someone as esoteric as Dylan, it’s important for morality to maintain its absolutes.