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Executioner's Song -- When On V Disagrees -- Song Battle Pt. 1

Though by no means music experts, Eric and I frequently engage in musical debates of epic proportion. Recently, with war on the mind, a new debate arose: which song speaks more powerfully about the emotions associated with war, "The General" by college rock band Dispatch or Elton John/Bernie Taupin’s "Daniel"? As nerds, we’ve formalized the proceedings to share with our On Violence audience: each side gets four hundred words to make their case, then a two hundred word rebuttal.

In Support of “The General” by Michael
Great songs tell their stories with scant time and utmost brevity. Every word must count absolutely. “The General” captures the emotions of warfare in only three minutes with only a few hundreds words. This fantastic song (in both topic and quality) captures the hope of every soldier, that during war both sides could agree to quit.
The song begins with a description of the grunts on the line, they stand in a line believing in their invincibility “fire in their stare” no man wants to look weak in front of his comrades in arms. When facing war alone most men will give it up; death on the battlefield is not preferable to death in one’s bed. The only motivation for these men are their comrades to their left and right.

The General symbolizes the difficulty of leadership. He represents the ideal to which every soldier aspires. Yet, he also knows that many of his men will die, and at his level he will most likely survive. He sleeps poorly at night and probably not for the first time. In the end, in his final battle, he makes the ultimate sacrifice, himself for all of his men.

The tragedy of the General echoes the tragedy of warfare at large. “The General” describes a truth I wish every real General, every war hawk and every person on earth could understand. The General sees the “others” and understands they must no longer fight. He understands his enemy, and sees they are him. Not just a common humanity, but the oneness of all mankind. He has “seen their mothers” and sees that motherhood is the same. No mother should cry because of war. He does not want to sacrifice “young men” simply to fight the other when they have long lives ahead.

Unfortunately, common humanity doesn’t end war, only sacrifice. The General makes this sacrifice at the end of the song.

Very rarely, war will stop a barbarian like Genghis Khan or Adolf Hitler from perpetrating genocide or mass violence on the battlefield. In these cases, war on the battlefield saves civilization. These instances are rare. More often, we must hope that the war fighters and war hawks realize Violence will not solve our problems, as the General himself realized.

In Support of “Daniel” by the Eric C
First, a caveat. This competition partially strikes me as absurd. The further apart two works of art are from each other, the more absurd it is to compare them, especially in the grudge-match-winner-take-all style competition we have designed. And though both are low tempo, 4 minute rock songs about war, they really couldn’t be farther apart in subject and style.

All of this being said, Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s “Daniel” is clearly superior to Dispatch’s “The General.”

I recently re-read Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. Perhaps the central message of the book is that war stories have no moral. “A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct nor encourage virtue ...If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted ... then you have been the victim of an old and terrible lie.” This difference between the “moral” war story and the “true” war story is the difference between the moral “The General” and the true “Daniel.”

“Daniel” is not about war. It is about Daniel, and the damage he suffered. It is about a young man blinded in war and the country and life he is now alienated from. The beautiful melody and singing betray the sadness and irony of the lyrics. “They say Spain is pretty but I’ve never been- Well Daniel says it’s the best place that he’s ever seen” The irony being Daniel will never see Spain again for his “eyes have died.”
You could argue the song is an anti-war song because it is about the wounds of war. In a way it is, but I would argue it is honest: war is ugly and brutal. Dispatch, even though their song is anti-war, fails to mention the costs of war, the ugliness and the brutality of it. They fail to mention that soldiers and Generals rarely leave the battlefield out of nobility.
Dispatch wrote a song about the way they wish the world could be; John and Taupin wrote a song about the way it is.

Addendum -- I’m aware of the major weakness of “Daniel” is its insane vagueness. I initially thought it was about one lover leaving another.

five comments

Sorry Eric, gotta go with Dispatch on this one. For the record though, I love Elton, good second pick!

Belleau Wood – Garth Brooks

It’s not a soft rock song, but it’s an excellent war ballad dipicting the common humanity of opposing side and the loss of the most precious of ideals when a piece of land becomes a battlefield. Plus, supposedly based on true events.

@ Jenime – Yeah, it doesn’t come through in the article, but “The General” really touched me in 2003. It is a very good song and one of the few really good anti-war songs written since the sixties.

@ Padge
I have a list of works of art I plan on covering, and I’ll add “Belleau Wood” to it.

Definitely Eric, I totally remember thinking it was killer when my little sis made me listen to it. Hmm, your comment made me realize how sad it is that its kind of one of the only choices we have. That really is kind of depressing, huh? Why did Rage Against The Machine break up once shit finally started going down?

Padge, I don’t know a lot of country, but I’m sold on that GB one. Thanks for the tip!

I’m really psyched to see the list you come up with, so definitely do that please. __

Agreed. And I’m not really a country fan either.