O Say, Can You Hear the Violence?
We hear them everywhere: at sporting events like the World Cup, during visits by foreign dignitaries, at national day celebrations around the globe. But anybody listening closely will notice national anthems are rarely odes to peace and harmony.
In fact, war or even outright savagery are often the common thread.
The World Cup soccer was marked by a notorious head-butting, and started with the martial strains of France’s “La Marseillaise” and Italy’s “Song of the Italians.”
“Form your battalions! Let’s march, let’s march. Let an impure blood water our furrows!” the French players sang.
“Let us band together, ready to die! Italy has called!” chanted the Italians.
Americans sing about their flag flying high in a battle, and other countries have their own belligerent lyrics. Citizens used to singing only the first or second verse about patriotism and their country’s beauty may not be fully aware of sometimes darker messages in later verses.
Danes sing of splitting the heads of Swedes, Argentines of dying gloriously for the nation, Vietnamese of stepping over the bodies of their enemies.
Sverre Lodgaard, director of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, said many anthems were born of a decisive moment in a nation’s history. All too often, those include bloodshed.
“National awareness grows most strong at critical moments,” he said. “I think many, even most, of the nations we see today were born out of war.”
Even though now-friendly neighbors Sweden and Denmark haven’t fought so much as a skirmish in almost two centuries, Danes still gloat in song over slicing the skulls of Swedes in 1644.
“King Christian stood by the lofty mast, in mist and smoke; his sword was hammering so fast, through Gothic [Swedish] helm and brain it passed,” says one of Denmark’s two official anthems.
Danes are not alone in their ancient grudge against the now militarily neutral and devoutly peaceful Sweden, which was once a major European power but hasn’t fought a war since 1814. A rarely sung verse in the Polish anthem proclaims: “After the Swedish annexation, to save the fatherland, we shall return by sea.”
Norway, the home of the Nobel Peace Prize and a global peace mediator, has an anthem that mainly hypes the Nordic nation’s rugged beauty. But a seldom sung verse also mentions the Swedish enemy, with “farmers sharpening their axes” to meet them in battle.
It’s not just in Europe that nations sing of war.
“The Star Spangled Banner,” adopted by Congress as the national anthem in 1931, describes the 1814 battle by Americans to hold Ft. McHenry against the attacking British fleet.
It describes “rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,” and, in a later verse, “the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion.”
In Mexico, the national anthem gives the impression that citizens remain ready to grab a rifle and leap into saddle at the slightest threat: “Mexicans, at the cry of war, prepare the steel and the steed, and may the Earth shake at its core to the resounding roar of the cannon.”
Britain’s anthem urges citizens to “scatter our enemies and make them fall!”
The Irish, with equal determination, sing: “We’re children of a fighting race, that never yet has known disgrace.”
The Argentines take a similar view, singing: “Let us live crowned with glory, or swear to die gloriously.”
The world’s most populous nation, China, seems to want to make clear it has enough people to scare off any enemy: “Arise! Arise! Arise! We are millions strong with hearts that beat as one! Brave the enemy’s gunfire, march on.”
Some countries do pick anthems along more peaceful lines. The anthem that neutral Switzerland made official in 1981 describes the moment “when the Alps glow bright with splendor.”
“That’s not surprising,” said Lodgaard. “The Swiss haven’t fought a war in something like 500 years, which is remarkable.”
Bolivians acknowledge the wars of the past, but they may sum up best what most people hope for:
“The martial turmoil of yesterday, and the horrible clamor of war, are followed today, in harmonious contrast, by sweet hymns of peace and unity.”