When Violence Is Not the Answer but Certainly the Question: Bruce Cockburn’s “If I Had a Rocket Launcher”
Bruce Cockburn’s powerful “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” is quite possibly the most violent song about peace ever written. The penultimate track on his 13th album, Stealing Fire, Cockburn wrote the tune following an Oxfam-sponsored visit to several Guatemalan refugee camps in 1983. Its raging poetry is the kind one can only hope will lose relevance; yet, today it is about Ukraine, Gaza, Yemen.
A notch up from your mother’s “If I Had a Hammer,” “Rocket Launcher” was released among the ’80s wave of music hip to the greater suffering of the masses (“We Are the World,” “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”), which attempted to “[make] a literal difference, metaphorically,” as Bo Burnham would say. Neither a charity single nor a protest song nor a late addition to the civil rights movement’s great musical canon, “Rocket Launcher” endures for its brutal honesty, as an example of how an artist can meaningfully walk alongside the subjects of suffering, and as a unique display of Christian pacifist practice.
Within the track, Cockburn’s voice and lyrics live in the space between his mournful, open electric guitar riff and contradictory frenetic dancing synthesizer. The song is in E minor, a natural fit for both a guitar’s standard tuning as well as for creating a sense of restlessness, as it almost, maybe, just might resolve to the relative C major, the purest of the keys. The BPM is 97, sitting above a normal adult’s resting heart rate. It is as if rather than turning to face the magnitude of his desolation, Cockburn’s sole weapon in his fight to maintain his sanity is his escalating thoughts of vengeance.
He begins the lyrics in medias res, setting the scene of a predatory helicopter approaching for “the second time today.” It is circling helpless civilians, who can only “scatter” and “[hope] it goes away.” These are the human victims of dictator Efraín Ríos Montt’s counter-insurgency campaign against the indigenous Mayan people of Guatemala. Montt’s genocidal logic has been summarized as “they are communists and therefore atheists and therefore they are demons and therefore you can kill them.” Montt constructed cathedrals of cognitive distortions to rationalize why his will gave him a pass from the commandment thou shalt not kill, but Cockburn’s reckoning is both conscious and sober—What about, not in self defense, offing a dictator?
“How many kids they’ve murdered?” he challenges us, not hesitating to spring the camera on the viewer on the other side of MTV. The question is rhetorical, but Cockburn doesn’t know the answer either. “Only God can say,” he cries out, before revealing his first order of business upon acquiring his rocket launcher—to “make somebody pay.”
Cockburn qualifies in the second verse that he “[doesn’t] believe in guarded borders… hate… generals, or their stinkin’ torture states.” The way he spits out “stinkin’” as an epithet accentuates his geek-ery. This verse also emphasizes his perspective as an outsider to the Guatemalan conflict, particularly with the line “when I talk with the survivors of things too sickening to relay… If I had a rocket launcher, I would retaliate.” Cockburn did not attempt to write a song from the perspective of a Guatemalan refugee, as his anguish for others is not predicated on his ability to put himself into their shoes. Rather, he can empathize all the same with the suffering of others walking alongside them in his own.
In that vein, the third verse speaks to the fact that while the song’s anguish may be timeless, Cockburn’s was provoked by a specific incident—“On the Rio Lacantun, one hundred thousand wait, to fall down from starvation, or some less humane fate. Cry for Guatemala, with a corpse at every gate, If I had a rocket launcher… I would not hesitate.”
In slightly “We Are the World” fashion, the fourth and final verse begins with “I want to raise every voice, at least I’ve got to try,” but ends in a very un-“We Are the World” way with the song’s most famous line: “If I had a rocket launcher, some son-of-a-bitch would die.” The line is jarring coming from the same bespectacled Canuck whose curse word of choice only two verses ago was “stinkin’,” but also for making explicit that his intention with his firearm is not to fire off warning shots or browbeat somebody. His cup of empathy has overflown into a thirst for blood.
In that sense, the song is both a call to compassion and a warning. It asks us to question whether wars can ever be holy, crimes of passion ever justified. In his article “Beauty Limned in Violence: Experimenting with Protest Music in the Ignatian Classroom,” Christopher Pramuk compares that:
The human predicament expressed in “Rocket Launcher” recalls in some ways the youthful [St. Ignatius of] Loyola, whose “hidalgo” personality— loyal, impetuous, passionate, fearless—led him on at least one occasion to the brink of murder. Indeed, the Jesuit bent toward action more than words, the mobilization of energies and resources toward a single-minded purpose, can be seductive and flatly dangerous if not grounded in humility and relentlessly honest self-examination.
Interpreting the song as honest self-examination rather than a sympathetic ode to vigilante justice lies in one’s assumed moral posture of the songwriter. Bruce Cockburn’s faith, politics, and peaceful convictions are strong themes in his music. He had a Christian conversion experience in 1974 and has been involved in activism regarding the rights and welfare of indigenous peoples, toward the abolition of landmines, and for pro-environmentalist causes. It is important to note that he does not identify himself as a pacifist, but he has conceded that “my hardest fight as a performer has been with myself, to be as clear a conduit as possible for what needs to be said… [to] get my ego and my brain out of the way and let this stuff happen.” While it may not have been his intention, one can venture to guess he would be open to the song serving as a secular hymn of solace to the struggling peaceful person, as well as to the pacifist.
That said, Cockburn has frequently expressed his concern that “Rocket Launcher” would be misconstrued. In a 2017 interview he shared that “I almost didn’t record it… I didn’t want people to think that I just wrote the song because I thought they should go down and kill Guatemalan soldiers.” He even took a brief hiatus from performing the song live post-9/11, expressing that he was more cautious “to run the risk of feeding a body of emotion that I don’t want to trip up.”
The question of the dissemination of dangerous ideas through art is always a contentious one but it was particularly hot-button when “Rocket Launcher” was released in the ’80s, from Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center to Ozzy Osborne having to be cleared of any wrongdoing following a teenager’s death by suicide after allegedly listening to “Suicide Solution.” In that case, Superior Court Judge John Cole wrote in his opinion that “[m]usical lyrics and poetry cannot be construed to contain the requisite ‘call to action’ for the elementary reason they simply are not intended to be and should not be read literally. Reasonable persons understand musical lyrics and poetic conventions as the figurative expressions which they are.”
Two critical distinctions about “Rocket Launcher” that protect it from misinterpretation are (1) the grandiose, almost comical choice of weapon over, say, “if I had a handgun,” and (2) the keyword “if.” (“Once I Get a Rocket Launcher” would be a very different song.) America’s racial imagination can also explain why “Rocket Launcher” quietly peaked at number 88 on the Billboard Hot 100 while Ice-T’s comparably themed “Cop Killer” received mass condemnation up to and including the Oval Office. Of course, “Rocket Launcher” encourages the MTV generation to look beyond the relative comfort of their nation’s borders, whereas “Cop Killer” points to the fire inside the house. Ice-T’s defense of his song explains why portraits of violent rumination are still art, important art, and can not be considered a call to arms:
I’m singing in the first person as a character who is fed up with police brutality. I ain’t never killed no cop. I felt like it a lot of times. But I never did it. If you believe that I’m a cop killer, you believe David Bowie is an astronaut.
“I felt like it a lot of times. But I never did it.” That admission distinguishes the Christian pacifist from the spiritual bypasser. If the human violent impulse can never be eliminated, it can always be transformed. As in Proverbs 3:31, “Rocket Launcher” does not “envy the violent,” nor does it “choose any of their ways.” Rather, it demonstrates how a Christian may use artistic expression as more than a fleeting solace but as the medium through which the feelings they share with warmongers can be channeled.