30 years ago this year, Dire Straits released their 5th studio album, “Brothers in Arms”. I’m hard pressed to think of another album that is tied as much to the time in which it was released, as this album. From “Money for Nothing” (forever inextricably tied to MTV) to the pop sensibilities of “Walk of Life”, the entire release is a perfect reflection of the 1980s. And so it is with the album’s titular track.
The song is unparallelled in its use of softly-spoken lyrics, and soaring (yet at the same time, complexly restrained) guitar lines. It is this song, despite others’ reputations, that heralds Knopfler’s God-like status amongst guitarists. Quite capable of overwrought shredding, it is the understated manner of the guitar that signifies mastery. By restraining the lines, the emotion wrought throughout “Brothers in Arms” is like nothing else. This is a song, ladies and gentlemen, that cannot be listened to without feeling something. And there are very few songs that can lay claim to that feat.
The Song’s Backdrop
Written with the events of the Falklands War still reverberating, “Brothers in Arms” is the album closer, and the final of the trio of album closing tracks to deal with military themes. Told from the viewpoint of a soldier dying on a battlefield, the song itself deals with the absurdity of battle, that puts brother against brother.
The Falklands War was a ten-week war between Argentina and the United Kingdom over two British overseas territories in the South Atlantic: the Falkland Islands and South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. It began on Friday 2 April 1982 when Argentina invaded and occupied the Falkland Islands and ended with the Argentine surrender on 14 June 1982, returning the islands to British control. In total, 649 Argentine military personnel, 255 British military personnel, and three Falkland Islanders died during the hostilities. The absurdity of these deaths was best described by Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges as “a fight between two bald men over a comb”.
The Song’s Format
Interestingly enough, the song has three “official” lengths, given that it has been released three times. The version that appears on the “Greatest Hits” album is shortest, at 4:55 (with reduced organ section); a 6:05 version, with shorter guitar solos; and the majestic 6:58 version, which should be required listening.
A Closer Look at the Lyrics
The song opens with the soldier, dying away from his true home.
These mist covered mountains
Are a home now for me
But my home is the lowlands
And always will be
Someday you’ll return to
Your valleys and your farms
And you’ll no longer burn to be
Brothers in arms
As the soldier lies dying, he realises that the mist covered mountains will now be his home, never to see his true home of the lowlands again. His compatriats will return to their own valleys and farms, and he knows that they will no longer feel the need and desire to be brothers in arms.
Through these fields of destruction
Baptisms of fire
I’ve witnessed your suffering
As the battle raged higher
And though they did hurt me so bad
In the fear and alarm
You did not desert me
My brothers in arms
Despite the absurdity of war, there is a relationship forged with his brothers in arms.
There’s so many different worlds
So many different suns
And we have just one world
But we live in different ones
Interestingly, the concept of “One World” (also a track on the same album) is frequently discussed by Mark Knopfler in interviews – or more accurately, the concept of “third worlds”. Knopfler has commented previously that it seems strange that a single world can so easily be segmented into other worlds; whether that’s through the boundaries of our own minds, or from defined economic lines.
Now the sun’s gone to hell and
The moon’s riding high
Let me bid you farewell
Every man has to die
But it’s written in the starlight
And every line in your palm
We are fools to make war
On our brothers in arms
As the day draws to a close, the soldier says his final farewell to his compatriots. And although every man has to die, it is a foolish death to die in war against your brothers.
In Popular Culture
The West Wing episode, “Two Cathedrals”, employed the song to great effect, in the season finale… when Jed Bartlett stands up on that stage and puts his hands in his pockets, signifying his mind is made up… man, some of the best tv series soundtracking you will ever see.