Song Review: The War Was In Color by Carbon Leaf

I’m honestly not even sure if song reviews are a thing, but I’ve been in love with this song for months and really want to talk about it, so I’m doing it anyway.

So, I first discovered The War Was In Color through this fan video that someone made based on the first Captain America and Avengers movies, which is honestly kind of perfect, so I would definitely recommend watching that. But the song is also really gorgeous just by itself, so that’s what I’m going to focus on here: it is a tribute to those who fought during World War II, from a U.S. perspective.

I happen to be involved in a big WWII project at work right now, so I’m already feeling a bit invested in the time period and also pretty emotional about it. That makes the lyrics for this song hit me a little harder even than they did when I first discovered it.

I see you’ve found a box of my things –
Infantries, tanks and smoldering airplane wings.
These old pictures are cool. Tell me some stories
Was it like the old war movies?
Sit down son. Let me fill you in

I love the imagery here – it’s just a box of old photographs, but to the WWII veteran, it’s a lot more than that: “infantries, tanks and smoldering airplane wings.” These are the pieces of the war that he remembers, not the two-dimensional pictures. I like also the imagery of a younger family member actually asking a veteran about his time in the war, and the veteran being willing to answer and speak about it.

Where to begin? Let’s start with the end
This black and white photo don’t capture the skin
From the flash of a gun to a soldier who’s done
Trust me grandson
The war was in color

There is something about the last line of this verse/the title of this song that really hits me. Even as an historian who knows better, it is still sometimes easy to get caught up in the immediate depictions of the war that are readily available to me…the black and white photographs, newspapers, and movies of the time. There are other artifacts as well, of course, that are not black and white (colorful propaganda posters, flags, etc.). But so many of the direct photographs of that era are black and white, that it can be easy to forget: like life for all people, in all places and all times, this war too was in color. It was immediate and real…the present for many millions of people, even if it is the past for us now.

From shipyard to sea, From factory to sky
From rivet to rifle, from boot camp to battle cry

There is so much alluded to in just two lines here, a whole nation of people who came together and built things in order for America and the Allies to win. Reading up about the defense industry in my local area has been part of what I’m doing at work, and the sheer speed at which some of it got going, and the sheer amount of war material produced over the course of the war, even just right around here, is almost mind-boggling. There were the women who stepped up to work, either in the factories or by enlisting in the armed forces to do work here in the States (the first time they were officially allowed to enter the US military). And of course there were the millions of men who took up arms and trained and then went overseas to fight.

I wore the mask up high on a daylight run
That held my face in its clammy hand

The allusion for me here to a pilot, flying with Death’s hand on his face, is just chilling. Always riding on the edge, and any flight might be your last. My grandfather was a pilot with the Marines, although in the Korean War, rather than WWII, so it hits pretty close to home that way too.

Crawled over coconut logs and corpses in the coral sand

The juxtaposition of things in this line really gets me: lovely tropical coconut logs and coral sand…covered with corpses. And not just any corpses, but the dead bodies of your fellow soldiers that you must crawl over because the fight isn’t won and you have to keep going. This is a clear reference to the fighting in the Pacific theater, trying to take islands back from the Japanese. It really makes me think about the three men from my area who won Medals of Honor during WWII – all three were in the Pacific, and all three were awarded the Medal for covering Japanese grenades in order to save fellow soldiers. That’s not a part of our research that I can read with dry eyes.

Where to begin? Let’s start with the end
This black and white photo don’t capture the skin
From the shock of a shell or the memory of smell
If red is for Hell
The war was in color

I like the reminder here that not only was the war in color, but it was more than just a visual experience. The concussive blast of a shell exploding, the smell of the gunpowder and the dead and the dying…those are things that most of us haven’t experienced, and that’s an integral part of a soldier’s experience of the war that is pretty much forever out of our reach. We might occasionally have sound to go with the visuals…but that experience of the war is very different from that of someone who lived through it. Even a movie (with that constant subconscious knowledge that it is fiction) does not have the same impact.

I held the canvas bag over the railing
The dead released, with the ship still sailing,
Out of our hands and into the swallowing sea

No time to grieve in war. I know it’s a fairly well-known phrase, but for some reason that “into the swallowing sea” here really gets me. The reminder of the immensity of the ocean, I guess, and its indifference to our tragedies.

I felt the crossfire stitching up soldiers
Into a blanket of dead, and as the night grows colder
In a window back home, a Blue Star is traded for Gold.

For those who may not know: If someone in your family was away fighting in the war, you got a “Blue Star Banner” to hang in your window. Officially, they are called a Service Banner, and they look like this. If that person was killed, then you took down the blue star, and hung a Gold Star Banner in its place. Thousands and thousands of American families had gold stars hanging in their windows before the war was over. (Additional history facts: These were first used during WWI, and are still used today.)

Where to begin? Let’s start with the end
This black and white photo don’t capture the skin
When metal is churned, and bodies are burned
Victory earned
The War was in color

That repeating line of “This black and white photo don’t capture the skin,” that acknowledgment that this photograph isn’t enough to capture what the soldier went through…but it’s all that he has. It is enough, at least, to evoke the memories, enough for him to tell the story. The war was hard-fought and hard-won, and victory, like everything else, was in color.

Now I lay in my grave at age 21
Long before you were born
Before I bore a son

It is one of the harder things to learn about, as you study WWII, just how young many of the soldiers were (on all sides, and certainly here in the US as well). The three Medal of Honor winners I mentioned earlier? One of them joined before he was even out of high school, and the other two on their 18th birthdays, as soon as they no longer needed parental permission to enlist. This is true of others killed in action from my area as well. Many of them weren’t even 21 yet when they died.

What good did it do?
Well hopefully for you
A world without war
A life full of color

That was the real question – what good did it do? With the lives of so many individual human beings cut brutally short – was it worth it? I think that, in the case of WWII, the answer is a clear yes. Many, many people were able to go on and live their lives in greater peace and freedom (whatever the conflicts that came later). And that is probably what so many of the soldiers were fighting for: a chance for themselves and their loved ones, friends, and neighbors to live good lives, lives full of color

Where to begin? Let’s start with the end
This black and white photo never captured my skin
Once it was torn from an enemy thorn
Straight through the core
The war was in color

Where to begin? Let’s start with the end
This black and white photo never captured my skin
From the flash of a gun to a soldier who’s done
Trust me grandson
The war was in color

Trust me grandson
The war was in color

Trust me grandson
The war was in color

(Performed by Carbon Leaf. Written by Barry Thomas Privett, Carter Gravatt, Scott Andrew Milstead, Terrell H. Clark • Copyright © BMG Rights Management US, LLC)

The refrain at the end, trying to emphasize the realness of it to someone who was not there, who has only “old war movies” and this box of black and white photographs to learn from. But the soldier was there, and he saw it all, and smelled it and heard it and breathed it, and now he can give a little piece of that story to his grandson, to help him learn and understand.

I don’t know that I have much else articulate to say about this, and this is really more of an “oh god the FEELS” than a proper review, but I needed to get some of this down. I hope other people enjoy the song, and perhaps even the mini, rather disjointed history lesson.


4 thoughts on “Song Review: The War Was In Color by Carbon Leaf

  1. My grandfather served in World War II. He had probably the least eventful Navy service that anyone could possibly have — he spent the war in the Caribbean, handling Navy dirigibles, until V-E Day, whereupon he was sent to San Diego for staging for Operation Olympic. And there he finished out the war. Both of his older brothers saw combat, one in the Pacific, one in the Ardennes in 1944. Both came home.

    I never asked any of them about their service. The truth is, I didn’t realize until it was too late that I had questions and that I’d have like to have conversations about things. The things that interested me in my thirties were not the things that interested me in my teens.

    “The War Was In Color” is, in some ways, the conversation I now wish I could have had. The first time I heard it, a bootleg of a live performance circa 2005, I was really taken with it. The song hit emotional buttons that I wasn’t even aware were there. The studio versions of the song (on the original LLHR, then on LLHRR) didn’t have quite the same impact; they were too slow, too polished. The rawness of the song was lost.

    It’s a song that astonishes me any time I see it live. Carter makes his electric guitar weep — truly, he is a virtuouso — and he improvises a guitar solo that conveys the pain and the anguish, the horror and the terror of war. Was World War II worth the cost in blood and treasure? As a moral matter, as a world historical matter, the answer is obviously yes. On an individual level, of the lives that were lost, the lives that were shattered, the dreams that vanished, the souls that were scarred, the answer is more nuanced. And Carter’s guitar conveys that nuance and makes the listener weep for what was lost.

  2. I am glad to hear that all of your relatives made it home!

    My dad has similar regrets about his father, who served with the Marines in the Korean War. He passed away (cancer) when my dad was in college, and before he really had learned enough about that war to think about asking. I myself wish that I had spoken more with my maternal grandfather about his Army service; that was all peace-time here in the States, but I still wish that I knew more. If I may be permitted a war-metaphor in this, at work I often tell people that “You are the first line of defense against your family history disappearing.” That is sometimes easier said than done, though, and I think most families have some regret about not having asked the right (or perhaps any) questions before a family member passes away. :\

    Thank you for that recommendation! I will try and see a live performance. I can believe that it is even better that way.

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