There are Lives in the Balance

There are Lives in the Balance February 12, 2019

Note: This is the third in a series of articles I’m writing about songs that are particularly important and meaningful to me. These are songs that carry an important message about America, our history, and our continuing struggle to live up to our own creed. 


In this third installment of my analysis of songs that have meant a lot to me, I’m going to share a song called Lives in the Balance. Unlike the first two songs I shared, Wildfire by Mandolin Orange, and White Man’s World, by Jason Isbellthis song is by an artist who is a household name, the legendary Jackson Browne. While I do love a lot of Jackson Browne’s music, this song had somehow eluded my notice until relatively recently. It’s message is one of anti-war. I love the way he breaks down the seedy nature of the roots of most wars and focuses on the victims of the greedy leaders who pull the strings of their armies of puppet soldiers. I’ll reflect on the lyrics and then ask you to take a moment to watch the video of the beautiful live performance of the song featuring David Crosby and Stephen Stills on backing vocals.

Verse 1

I’ve been waiting for something to happen
For a week or a month or a year
With the blood in the ink of the headlines
And the sound of the crowd in my ear
You might ask what it takes to remember
When you know that you’ve seen it before
Where a government lies to a people
And a country is drifting to war

The opening verse is rather vague to start off. Browne is setting the tone with ambiguous foreshadowing–waiting for something to happen–blood in the ink of the headlines–government lies–and then, in the last line, we know the topic is war.


And there’s a shadow on the faces
Of the men who send the guns
To the wars that are fought in places
Where their business interest runs

In this first short refrain, Browne pulls no punches and gets right to the issue at hand, greed. Men with shadowy faces, lurking in secret behind the scenes–smoke filled rooms–dirty money–weapons deals–all in an effort to fortify their own businesses and bank accounts.

Verse 2

On the radio talk shows and the T. V.
You hear one thing again and again
How the U. S. A. Stands for freedom
And we come to the aid of a friend
But who are the ones that we call our friends–
These governments killing their own?
Or the people who finally can’t take any more
And they pick up a gun or a brick or a stone

Here, Browne calls out the hypocrisy of the justification we place on war. We are indoctrinated from birth that the United States is the land of the free and that we are the watchdog of democracy around the world, always ready to come to the aid of people in peril. While there have been instances in our history where we have used the military for noble purposes, there are also times where we have ignored some nations in need in favor of others that have something to offer us in return. We’ve supported regimes that have abused their own people because we don’t want to lose the revenue they can bring us. Meanwhile, the people being trampled on by their own governments are left to fend for themselves.


There are lives in the balance
There are people under fire
There are children at the cannons
And there is blood on the wire

The chorus focuses on the victims of the greed of war–lives in the balance–people under fire–children at the cannons. These are the overlooked minions whose lives are controlled by the whims of tyrants. It’s not their fight, but the war comes to their front door all the same, and they are left to pay the price while the warmongers rake in the profits.

Refrain 2

There’s a shadow on the faces
Of the men who fan the flames
Of the wars that are fought in places
Where we can’t even say the names

The second refrain reinforces the isolation of ignorance that Americans often wallow in when it comes to war. The war doesn’t normally happen here. They are over their in those places that end in “stan” or other places we’ve never even heard of. It’s easy to become callous about wars when we don’t have to look at them.

Verse 3

They sell us the president the same way
They sell us our clothes and our cars
They sell us every thing from youth to religion
The same time they sell us our wars
I want to know who the men in the shadows are
I want to hear somebody asking them why
They can be counted on to tell us who our enemies are
But they’re never the ones to fight or to die

The last verse hits the nail squarely on the head. Browne points out how much we are sold a bill of goods by the government. We are under constant bombardment by propaganda. The leaders who we elect to work for us, instead spend their energies trying to manipulate us into buying their agendas. Meanwhile, our sons and daughters are sent off to die in far away lands under the guise of protecting liberty. It’s never the leaders who go to war to fight and die.

If emperors, kings, and presidents were on the front lines, wars would be rare things.

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