Life is war. It’s a common metaphor. In fact, I thought it was the theme of Metallica’s new song "Confusion" when I first heard it. The lyric that comes through most clearly is “My life, the war that never ends.”
Listening more carefully, though, I discovered that the song is more subtle. It’s not simply about the struggle to survive and succeed; it’s about returning home from war.
The plight of the warrior has been a recurrent theme in Metallica songs across their career. “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (1984) depicts the absurdity of death on the battlefield, “for a hill men would kill, why? They do not know.” The album Master of Puppets (1986) includes the song “Disposable Heroes,” whose title captures the crass view that some military leaders take of their young recruits: “Soldier boy, made of clay / Now an empty shell / Twenty-one, only son / But he served us well / Bred to kill, not to care / Do just as we say / Finished here / Greetings, Death / He’s yours to take away.” Inspired by the book and movie Johnny Got His Gun, “One” from the album …And Justice for All (1988) depicts the horror of a combat-wounded veteran who has lost his sight, speech, hearing, arms, and legs to a land mine. He wants his life support removed but can’t find a way to communicate his wish: “Fed through the tube that sticks in me / Just like a wartime novelty / Tied to machines that make me be / Cut this life off from me.” More jingoistically, “Don’t Tread on Me” from The Black Album (1991) celebrates the warrior’s spirit and code: “Liberty or death, what we so proudly hail / Once you provoke her, rattling of her tail / Never begins it, never, but once engaged / Never surrenders, showing the fangs of rage.”
“Confusion” from Metallica’s latest album, Hardwired … to Self-Destruct (2016), begins with a martial drumbeat and doom-laden accompaniment. But then just as we prepare to sink into a dirge we hear a triumphant riff emerge, promising perseverance and offering hope in the midst of despair. To find the hope we must face the reality, though: “Coming home from war / Pieces don’t fit anymore.” Reflecting on the state of our returning veterans, we need to consider carefully that a tour of duty does not end in the field: “Rapid is the road to sacrifice / Just takes longer to come home.” In a real sense, “War is never done.”
Metallica, of course, are not the first artists to notice this. The theme goes all the way back to the first literary sequel, Homer’s Odyssey. After telling the story of the Trojan War in The Iliad, Homer chronicles the winding way of Odysseus and his warriors trying to make it back home to Ithaca. The various traps, dangers, and temptations—sex and drugs among them—they meet on their ten-year journey home can be interpreted as a combat veteran’s long struggle to regain some sense of normalcy.
Metallica’s “Confusion” can be interpreted even more broadly. Though mercifully few of us have PTSD or have done a tour of duty in a combat zone, we have all been scarred by life. No one makes it to adulthood without some damage and disorientation.
In writing the song, James Hetfield (Metallica’s lyricist) drew inspiration from American Sniper, and I suspect he mined his own experience as a recovering alcoholic. In many ways, recovering from addiction is a matter of journeying back home, of clearing away the wreckage of the past, and returning to a simpler state of being.
According to the old saying, you should “be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” Reflecting on this elicits sympathy, but we might be even more sympathetic if we recast all those we meet as walking wounded: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is returning home from battle.”
Maybe the goal is impossible, though. After all, Thomas Wolfe said “You can’t go home again.” In other words, home has changed and so have you. True enough. But even if it is impossible to make all the pieces fit again, to reach a place of complete contentment and belonging, it is still a goal worth striving for.
And in those who suffer most, those who are most lost on the way home, we can most easily recognize of our common humanity.
William Irwin is the editor of Metallica and Philosophy.