The Dark Meaning Behind “Masters of War” by Bob Dylan

Though Bob Dylan‘s songwriting has covered a vast range of topics, he has long been heralded for his anti-war sentiments. From protests during the Vietnam era to generalized messages of peace, Dylan has long made his stance in that department known.

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One of his most poignant, and straightforward, songs in that vein is “Masters of War.” Unfortunately, war is more or less omnipresent, making this song a universal and timeless truth.

[RELATED: 10 Songwriting Tips from Bob Dylan]

Behind the Meaning

Come you masters of war
You that build the big guns
You that build the death planes
You that build all the bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks

Dylan released this song right as the U.S. was about to join the Vietnam War. He, like many anti-war protestors around this time, thought the conflict wasn’t necessary. He takes aim at men of power in this track, who he deems “hide behind desks” while others fight the war for them. You play with my world / Like it’s your little toy / You put a gun in my hand / And you hide from my eyes, he sings.

He pulls no punches while calling out generals, presidents, and others he feels orchestrated this conflict. In the last verse, he perhaps steps over a line calling for the death of these people. It’s a bold statement that only a truly bold artist could make.

“I’ve never really written anything like that before,” Dylan once explained (per Songfacts). “I don’t sing songs which hope people will die, but I couldn’t help it with this one. The song is a soft of striking out, a reaction to the last straw, a feeling of what can you do?”

When he performed this song at the United States Military Academy in 1990, he didn’t sing the last verse. He might have had second thoughts about adding it in, but given the frustration of many during the Vietnam era, it’s understandable how his rage boiled over into this seething track.

And I hope you die, and your death will come soon
I’ll follow your casket in the pale afternoon
And I will watch as you lay in your deathbed
And I’ll stay over your tomb till I’m sure that you’re dead

(Photo by Michael Kovac/WireImage)

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