Bob Dylan Countdown #115: “With God On Our Side”

Speculation about why Dylan left so-called protest songs behind has been running rampant for about 50 years now, but I think there’s a simple explanation:  On The Times They Are A-Changin’, he mastered the art form. There wasn’t any further he could take it at that point; even with Bob’s ridiculous talent and infinite mind, he likely would have ended up rehashing old glories for new current events.

“With God On Our Side” is just one example of this mastery. The contradiction evident in killing in the name of God seems pretty clear, so Dylan isn’t illuminating anything new here. What he does instead is stack his case up in such methodical and flawless fashion that it feels like any contrary opinions would be impossible to defend.

“Oh my name it is nothin’,” Dylan begins. It is a clever way of saying that, fool-proof though his argument may be, it will come to no avail. Bob doesn’t yet have all of the fantastic imagery and poetic brilliance in his arsenal at this point, but he gets the job done with sheer common sense. Armed with nothing more than cold logic, he points out how absurd it is to think that God only favors one side in matters of war.

While I know the song lists the wars involving the U.S. in its long catalog, I’ve always heard this as more anti-war than anti-America. Dylan was writing as an American to an audience of primarily Americans, and so he has to enter into it from that perspective. Yet I think the song speaks true for any country who uses religious righteousness to explain away the horrors of war.

After all, the nuclear bomb that worries that narrator at the end of the song is a game-changer for the whole world. Dylan sings, “And you never ask questions/When God’s on your side.” It’s an ironic line, of course, because this song is meant as a wake-up call to anybody who listens that they should be asking lots of questions the next time a higher power is invoked in the taking of human lives.

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