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Protest Song of the Week: ‘M-16’ by Jefferson Pepper

Singer-songwriter, musician, and activist Jefferson Pepper released a Christmas album in October 2005, which was directly inspired by a neighbor who was a U.S. Army medic deployed in the Iraq War. One of the songs on the album specifically makes the connection between companies that make toy guns to give to boys at Christmas and war.

Over a drum riff and bass line, the song opens with the lyrics, “I’ve got a nuclear submarine/I’m gonna ride it straight to hell/I’ve got an M-16/That’s made by Mattel.”

The tone of the song is a deeply ironic about how companies market these toy guns to children so they are already programmed to not have a conscience when they are trained and deployed to war. He consistently refocuses the song on the corporations, who run the country, and how this is all part of their plan.

Pepper’s style is similar to protest songs by Steve Earle or Billy Bragg. “M-16” was featured on Neil Young’s website, “Living With War,” which documented protest songs about war after Young released his album inspired by the shock and awe of the Iraq War.

Pepper sings about “harmless” little toys that teach “all us little boys what it means to be a man/It’s all part of the master plan.” He adds, “They make the real ones too/Paid for by me and you.”

The weapons manufacturers in this song directly benefit from the toy companies, which have boys playing with toy weapons at an early age.

Pepper recalls what it was like to “play Army men” with his friends and pretend they were recreating the Vietnam War. “We didn’t realize/The highly organized/Mechanism behind/All the reasons why/We did the things we did.”

“It’s called indoctrination/It happens all the time/Gotta defend our nation,” Pepper adds.

More than ten years later, the “indoctrination” is no longer just giving young boys toy guns but giving them video games, like “Call of Duty,” to play on game consoles. The indoctrination is more vivid than ever.

Both boys and girls can use their imagination and feel like they are really doing battle in a war. The adrenaline rush can turn them on to training to go fight in wars abroad. Or, it can make them want to help develop weapons systems to be sold in America and places around the world.

Yet, given the hundreds of thousands of people killed by guns in the past ten to fifteen years, the message does not have to be solely applied to fighting wars for empire. Here at home boys, and even girls now, are taught that they need to own a gun to protect themselves. It starts from an early age with toys, which their parents may buy them for Christmas.

Listen to “M-16” by Jefferson Pepper:

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."