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3000 Years of Peace: The Best Anti-War Poetry, Art, and More

Updated on January 31, 2012
The Dying Gaul. Photo by antmoose.
The Dying Gaul. Photo by antmoose.

For 3000 years, writers, artists, musicians, and, most recently, filmmakers have been among the most powerful voices against war. This is a collection of my favorite art, literature, music, and film that forces us to think critically about war, and understand its costs.

War and the Ancients

Even Homer, who lived and wrote about in a society so steeped in war and bloodshed that its economy revolved, in part, around the spoils of battle, understood the price of war.

Of possession/cattle and fat sheep are to be had for the lifting,/and tripods can be won, and the tawny high heads of horses,/but a man's life cannot come back again, it cannot be lifted/nor captured again by force, once it has crossed the teeth's barrier. (Iliad, Book 9:405-409, translated by Richard Lattimore)

By the time of the Peleponnessian War, even the war-loving Greeks had begun to grow weary of the constant fighting. The comedian Aristophanes wrote a scathing satire of the Athenian military-industrial complex in his Lysistrata.

The War Prayer

One of the most powerful modern indictments of war was written by none other than the American humorist and satirist Mark Twain, whose short story "The War Prayer" puts into words the unspoken implications of praying for victory.

"O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle -- be Thou near them! With them -- in spirit -- we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it -- for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet!"

Wilfred Owen
Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen

World War I was the world's first real experience of the horrors of modern warfare, and it resulted in an outpouring of powerful anti-war statements. The most famous of these come from a group of young soldiers known now as the "War Poets." They included Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, and many others.

Wilfred Owen was arguably the best and most famous of these young War Poets. His brilliant poem "Dulce et Decorum Est" is one of the most vivid depictions of the horror of war.

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood/Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,/Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud/Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,/My friend, you would not tell with such high zest/To children ardent for some desperate glory,/The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est/Pro patria mori.

Sweet and honorable it is, the ancient Romans wrote, to die for your country. Owen did die, killed in action one week before Armistice.

Guernica, by Pablo Picasso
Guernica, by Pablo Picasso

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner

When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose

A five line poem of extraordinary power, Randall Jarrell's "The Death of a Ball Turret Gunner" is considered one of the finest poems of World War II.

More Great Poems of the World Wars

Thomas Hardy was too old to fight in World War I, but not too old to care.

His "Channel Firing" is a bitter and powerful indictment of the bloodthirsty nature of mankind.

Again the guns disturbed the hour,/Roaring their readiness to avenge,/As far inland as Stourton Tower,/And Camelot, and starlit Stonehenge.

Henry Reed also wrote of the ridiculous side of war with his clever "Naming of Parts."

This is the lower sling swivel. And this/Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see/When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,/Which in your case you have not got. The branches/Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,/Which in our case we have not got.

The Dead of Spotsylvania Battle, by Mathew Brady
The Dead of Spotsylvania Battle, by Mathew Brady

War Photography

Almost as soon as the technology of photography was invented, it began to be used to document the horrorific aftermath of war. One of the first of the great war photographers was Mathew Brady, who used the infant technology to document the U.S. Civil War.

Singing For Peace

Music has long been a powerful force against war. The use of music to convey an anti-war message became particularly prevalent with the rise of the Anti-Vietnam War movement in the 1960s. Here are some of the greatest anti-war songs ever recorded, both traditional and modern:

Anti-War Films

Movies, which combine the storytelling power of words, with the visual immediacy of images, can also convey a powerful anti-war message.


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    • acmalkutakh profile image

      Anna Cornelia 3 years ago from US

      I did not know Mark Twain wrote "The War Prayer". He must have been somewhat of an anomly in those days? What contemporary musicians sing anti-war songs? Thanks.

    • profile image

      Rick Rozoff 6 years ago

      Have compiled works by over 150 writers with anti-war/peace themes. Hope they can be of some use.

      Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts:

    • Peace Artist profile image

      Peace Artist 6 years ago from Whidbey Island, WA

      ANYTHING Peace related makes me smile great big! Grin!

      (I do Peace Art, too)

    • justom profile image

      justom 7 years ago from 41042

      I like the poems of Robert Service and as far as a music anti-war song there is not one better than Dylan's "Masters of War"! Nice hub, Peace!! Tom

    • profile image

      VivekSri 7 years ago

      all kudos goes to you. that makes a fantastic collection. well done friend, loved, and shared your hub.

    • The Lost Dutchman profile image

      Patrick Bernauw 8 years ago from Flanders (Belgium)

      Great hub! Wilfred Owen is one of my favorite poets!

    • profile image

      Ray Eston SmithJr 9 years ago

      Tom Paxton wrote a great anti-war song: "When Princes Meet."

    • profile image

      travian crop finder 9 years ago

      Fortunately depression can now be cured

    • Ralph Deeds profile image

      Ralph Deeds 9 years ago from Birmingham, Michigan

      Great Hub! You can add Pete Seeger to the list.

      I wonder if a similar list of war songs could be compiled. I can remember a few from WWII, e.g. "Comin' in on a Wing and a Prayer." I guess "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" would qualify. And of course "Onward Christian Soldiers."

    • barranca profile image

      barranca 9 years ago

      Stephen crane rather not Bierce.

    • barranca profile image

      barranca 9 years ago

      good hub. Wilfred Owen is great. Ambrose Bierce has a great anti-war poem "War is Kind".