I Can See Through Your Masks

Explaining Bob Dylan Masters of War

‘Masters of War’, included in the 1963 album ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’, is not the usual antiwar and pacifist song, it is a strong condemnation of the people responsible for the atrocities of war and for the deaths and the blood that it brings, with particular reference to the Vietnam War.

Unlike other Bob Dylan’s odes to peace, this emblematic song misses that sense of forgiveness, in fact the author appoints these masters of war with anything but respect saying: “And I hope that you die/ And your death’ll come soon”. There is no pity and zero tolerance towards them, so much that he states that not even Jesus would ever forgive them, But there’s one thing I know/ Though I’m younger than you/ That even Jesus would never/ Forgive what you do.”

The protest and frustration against the arm makers and traders is very vivid; being them the cause of a war that cannot be won, that can only bring hate and sorrow. Dylan himself was surprised by the anger expressed through the lyrics:

“I’ve never written anything like that before. I don’t sing songs which hope people will die, but I couldn’t help it with this one. The song is a sort of striking out… a feeling of what can you do?”

He considered the hatred he felt a sort of catharsis, a way to find some relief when you feel powerless.

While the lyrics have been written ex-novo by Dylan, the arrangement for ‘Masters of War’ comes from a traditional English folk song ‘Nottamun Town’  recorded by folksinger Jean Ritchie, who wanted to be paid for the music rights, and obtained the amount of 5.000 $ from Dylan’s lawyers.

The lyrics are powerful, unforgiving and feel more intense because they are accompanied by this steady, calmer, background folk music.  As we often say, although written during the Vietnam war, the lyrics can be valid today for all the conflicts where civilians are victims and authorities the perpetrators, masking themselves as defenders of their people.

We can still see through your masks.

Come you masters of war
You that build all the 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.

You that never done nothin’
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it’s your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly.

Like Judas of old
You lie and deceive
A world war can be won
You want me to believe
But I see through your eyes
And I see through your brain
Like I see through the water
That runs down my drain.

You fasten all the triggers
For the others to fire
Then you set back and watch
When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion’
As young people’s blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud.

You’ve thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
For threatening my baby
Unborn and unnamed
You ain’t worth the blood
That runs in your veins.

How much do I know
To talk out of turn
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
That even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do.

Let me ask you one question
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 the money you made
Will never buy back your soul.

And 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.

Sounds from the Bucket
WiB Team

Words in the Bucket provides a platform for local perspectives and informed views, giving a voice to students, researchers, concerned citizens, human rights activists and experts.
5 Comments on this post.
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    22 March 2017 at 7:31 am
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    6 November 2017 at 11:30 am
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    13 January 2018 at 8:51 pm
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    This song is not about the Vietnam war. It’s not even an anti-war song. It’s about the Military Industrial Complex that Dwight D. Eisenhower announced to the country before he left office. According to Rolling Stone, Bob Dylon himself says, “Masters of War . . . I’ve said before that song’s got nothing to do with being anti-war. It has more to do with the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower was talking about.”.


    Gilmore, M. (2001, November 22). Bob Dylan, at 60, Unearths New Revelations. Retrieved January 13, 2018, from https://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/bob-dylan-at-60-unearths-new-revelations-20011122

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