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With God on our Side -- Bob Dylan

Guest poem sent in by Aseem
(Poem #1801) With God on our Side
 Oh my name it is nothin'
 My age it means less
 The country I come from
 Is called the Midwest
 I's taught and brought up there
 The laws to abide
 And that land that I live in
 Has God on its side.

 Oh the history books tell it
 They tell it so well
 The cavalries charged
 The Indians fell
 The cavalries charged
 The Indians died
 Oh the country was young
 With God on its side.

 Oh the Spanish-American
 War had its day
 And the Civil War too
 Was soon laid away
 And the names of the heroes
 I's made to memorize
 With guns in their hands
 And God on their side.

 Oh the First World War, boys
 It closed out its fate
 The reason for fighting
 I never got straight
 But I learned to accept it
 Accept it with pride
 For you don't count the dead
 When God's on your side.

 When the Second World War
 Came to an end
 We forgave the Germans
 And we were friends
 Though they murdered six million
 In the ovens they fried
 The Germans now too
 Have God on their side.

 I've learned to hate Russians
 All through my whole life
 If another war starts
 It's them we must fight
 To hate them and fear them
 To run and to hide
 And accept it all bravely
 With God on my side.

 But now we got weapons
 Of the chemical dust
 If fire them we're forced to
 Then fire them we must
 One push of the button
 And a shot the world wide
 And you never ask questions
 When God's on your side.

 In a many dark hour
 I've been thinkin' about this
 That Jesus Christ
 Was betrayed by a kiss
 But I can't think for you
 You'll have to decide
 Whether Judas Iscariot
 Had God on his side.

 So now as I'm leavin'
 I'm weary as Hell
 The confusion I'm feelin'
 Ain't no tongue can tell
 The words fill my head
 And fall to the floor
 If God's on our side
 He'll stop the next war.
-- Bob Dylan
     (from the album The Times they are a-changin')

Reading the Star Spangled Banner [Poem #1730] on Minstrels made me think of
another song - one that does more justice, IMHO, to the 'glorious' history
of the United States. It's a song that's probably more chillingly apt today
than it was in 1963, when it was first written, if only because of the
increasing frequency with which religion is being invoked to justify acts of
mindless violence against other human beings. I, personally have no use for
religion, but I see how it can be a powerful force to unite and motivate
great masses of people - that it should be used for this purpose by evil,
power hungry men is at once one of the greatest ironies and one of the
greatest tragedies of our time.

'With God on our Side' is a wonderful illustration of the way that a
lifetime of indoctrination can make otherwise decent, clear-thinking people
support the most henious crimes against humanity in the name of some
imagined God. Dylan attacks the propaganda of God with conscious irony,
exposing again and again the hypocrisy that lies at the heart of much of the
history that a nation prides itself on. Going sequentially through war after
war in US History [1], Dylan, shows us the terrible pointlessness and waste
of war, forcing you to ask the question: Was it worth it? There are some
truly memorable lines here, and the conscious caricatures of the
justifications given for war would be hilarious if they were not both
incredibly tragic and frighteningly close to the truth (if there's one point
that both sides of the Iraq conflict would agree on, it's that "You don't
count the dead / When God's on your side").

I admit this isn't by any means one of Dylan's greatest poems - without his
flat, matter of fact delivery of the lines it may barely be a poem at all -
but as we struggle to come to terms with the bombings in London and the
continuing carnage in Iraq, I feel these are lines that are useful to
remember. There may be many things that you can believe in to justify the
West's intercession in Iraq (though I'm not sure I know what these might
be), but God cannot and should not be one of them. As the democracies of the
West prepare to face a determined assault from an enemy whose key weapon is
a religious fanaticism, it would be tempting to follow the path of their
opponents and sacrifice human life in the name of God, but that temptation
is precisely what they must guard against. God, in the final analysis, is
the one thing we should not trust in, because it is the one weapon and the
one justification that both sides will always have equal access to.
Besides, as Dylan so eloquently puts it "If God's on our side / he'll stop
the next war".


[1] The one glaring ommission is of course, the war in Vietnam, which took
place largely after this song was written. Incidentally, the Star Spangled
banner makes interesting reading in the light of that war, with some of the
lines serving as a wonderful paean ("And where is that band who so
vauntingly swore / That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion / A home
and a country should leave us no more?" "Thus be it ever, when freemen shall
stand / Between their loved homes and the war's desolation / Blest with
victory and peace") to the eventual victory of the VietCong. Another apt
reminder of why it's dangerous to believe your own propaganda.

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