40 Years Ago: Iron Maiden Tackles Folly of War on ‘The Trooper’
To sing loudly and passionately about a subject is not necessarily to endorse it. For proof, look no further than Iron Maiden's "The Trooper," a bloody battlefield anthem that reveals the folly and futility of war.
Bassist and chief songwriter Steve Harris was inspired by the Charge of the Light Brigade, an ill-fated military maneuver conducted by the British light cavalry against the Russians during the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War. On Oct. 25, 1854, nearly 700 British soldiers charged the Russians and were instantly met with devastating gunfire on three sides, resulting in roughly 110 deaths, 160 wounded soldiers and 375 horses lost. Alfred, Lord Tennyson memorialized the slaughter in his poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade," published six weeks later.
It was the perfect source material for the second single off Iron Maiden's fourth album, Piece of Mind. "It's the idea of someone being ordered to go and fight," Harris, a lifelong history buff, told Rolling Stone in 2019. "In those days, you didn't question it. They weren't allowed to question it. You got on the horse and went straight into battle no matter how ridiculous it was, charging cannons firing at you. There have been a lot of crazy things people have been ordered to do in wars, and quite a few of our songs are about that."
Despite the band's fascination with war, it would be virtually impossible to misinterpret the lyrics to "The Trooper" as jingoistic. Beneath its spitfire riffs, galloping rhythms and heroic choruses lies an unflinchingly bleak tale of the horrors that transpire during battle. "And as I lay there, gazing at the sky, my body's numb and my throat is dry," Bruce Dickinson wails, "and as I lay forgotten and alone, without a tear, I draw my parting groan." And if that weren't clear enough: "On this battlefield, no one wins."
Watch Iron Maiden's 'The Trooper' Video
"I think you can sum up Maiden's attitude to war … that in 99% of cases, it's lions led by lambs — or lions led by donkeys, in the case of the first World War," Dickinson told The Orange County Register in 2008, "and indeed that Crimean debacle, which is the subject of 'The Trooper.'"
Released as a single on June 20, 1983, "The Trooper" became an instant classic and a massive hit by Maiden's standards, peaking at No. 12 on the U.K. singles chart and No. 28 on Billboard's Mainstream Rock Airplay chart (their second-highest ranking up to that point behind "Flight of Icarus"). It's their fourth-most played song live, according to setlist.fm, and a centerpiece of every performance, with Dickinson bounding across the stage while waving a giant Union Jack.
In a way, this juxtaposition of lyrical horror and visual splendor reflects the dichotomy of war itself. "War represents the best and the worst of humanity," Dickinson explained. "It represents human beings driven to extremes, doing extraordinary things that they would never, ever be able to do in any other circumstances. And it also represents huge waste and stupidity. And you need some way eventually to resolve those things – and maybe give human beings the opportunity to exercise their passions, as they do in wartime, but in a more productive way."