Editorial note: According to an article called "Hell Fire!" by Bridget Freer, FHM magazine, December 1999 issue, "If I Had A Rocket Launcher" was one of the songs played at high volume outside the Vatican Embassy in Panama City in 1989, in order to drive out Manuel Noriega. Along with "I Fought The Law" and "Nowhere To Run" among others, it was not successful because of complaints from the Ambassador. Thanks to David Newton for sending this in.
19 October 1984
[If one of "Rocket Launcher's" suggestions is not only that anger can signal a beginning of commitment but that such anger can get out of hand, Cockburn is quick to point out that it reflects a very personal experience.] "Aside from airing my own experience, which is where the songs always start, if we're ever going to find a solution for this ongoing passion for wasting each other, we have to start with the rage that knows no impediments, an uncivilized rage that says it's okay to go out and shoot some one."
[Like "Nicaragua" and "Dust and Diesel," "Rocket Launcher" came directly from Cockburn's visits to Guatemalan refugee camps in Mexico.] "I can't imagine writing it under any other conditions." [He had gone to Mexico and Nicaragua in early 1983 with several other Canadian artists at the invitation of OXFAM, the world hunger organization; OXFAM had sponsored a similar trip the year before with members of the Canadian Parliament.]
According to Cockburn, "the idea was to reach a different audience than the politicians by having us go and observe, using the relative visibility that we have to educate the Canadian public to what we had seen and to raise money for projects that OXFAM has in the region." [Cockburn was already involved in the issue, having spent time reading the poetry of Ernesto Cardenal and a report by Pax Christi, the Catholic human rights organization, on its investigation of alleged church persecution in Nicaragua. His three weeks in Central America confirmed some opinions, but also aroused the kinds of frustrations evidenced in 'Rocket Launcher.' Ironically, the political stance it inspired is linked to a similar public position Cockburn took several years ago, when he confirmed that he was a born-again Christian.]
"One is directly responsible for the other," he says, though he insists neither commitment defines his work. "I don't consciously or not consciously write certain kinds of songs," Cockburn says. "In fact, I almost didn't put 'Rocket Launcher' on the album because of the ease with which it could be misinterpreted."
-- from "The Long March of Bruce Cockburn: From Folkie to Rocker, Singing About Injustice" by Richard Harrington, Washington Post, 19 October 1984. Submitted by Nigel Parry.
15 November 1984
"If one needed a reason to; needed an example of why there wasn't a Nicaraguan revolution, you can look at the situation in Guatemala, because the situation is, if anything, worse than what was happening in Nicaragua under Somosa, has been for the last 30 years.
Since the military government presently in power was installed with a little help from your neighborhood agents.... the Washington boys. They ran the country on behalf of themselves and a small land owning elite, using everybody else in the country as their personal servants; and with a cheap labor force. The way they do that is they make sure that the people don't have enough land to support themselves on. Aside from keeping them from any access to medical care or education, they make sure that they don't have enough land to grow enough food for a family. Which means that people have to go work for them if they want to survive.This doesn't necessarily guarantee survival either, of course , because if people object in anyway to that kind of situation.....or maybe if they just sort of go about peacefully trying to rectify things on their own.
Getting together with their neighbours to pool resources. Getting together with their neighbors to study the Bible, for that matter. Those attempts are met with acts of incredible ferocity in order to prevent it from spreading. You never knew when one was gonna swing in from the north and start shooting. That situation ---thats the first time I'd even seen anything like that. First hand, you know, you watch it on TV, and it doesn't look the same somehow when you're there. Partly because of the incredible spirit of the people. Because of that spirit and the sense of that spirit and the stories that they told of what they had survived and what they witnessed, it was impossible not to feel great sympathy for and with them. And the ease at which that sympathy slid over to a willingness to kill those who were inflicting that agony on them was a little bit shocking. It's not an answer, especially for us, you know, to go down there and start shooting Guatemalans.... maybe for them..."
Audience member: [unintelligible]
BC: "What's that?"
Audience member: "Helicopters"
BC: " Yeah,well, there are people in them, you know? Which is something that - the thing is, the weird thing about it is they stop looking like people because of what they're doing. I guess that's what makes it so easy to want to shoot them down because they [snickers] make- - -they make you feel like they forfeited their humanity somehow. But they're pawns in it. Anyway, this song is all about that. The one thing I must stress in case anybody's under any delusion that this is so, is that this is not a call to arms. This is, this is a cry..."
-- from an intro to the song at a gig at the Cotati Cabaret, Cotati, Sonoma County, California. Submitted by Bobbi Wisby.
23 May 1985
Religion also led Cockburn to spend three and a half weeks in Central America in 1983:
"It was all part of the same process, which is that you can't love your neighbor if you don't know who he is." In Nicaragua he was impressed by the grass-roots support for the Sandinista government, but he was discouraged and angered by poverty, repression and the fear of U.S. interventionism. Observing the horrors of refugee camps along the Guatemalan-Mexican border, he went back to his hotel room and cried and wrote in his notebook, "I understand now why people want to kill." Then he wrote "If I Had a Rocket Launcher."
Since he visited the area, Cockburn has been working nonstop, fueled by the urgency of his message and by his first worldwide hit. And while he's not optimistic about the future of the area that inspired his songs, he's maintained his idealism.
"The universe will continue to unfold regardless of what happens to the Sandinistas, or me and you, or Russia and the States," he says. "I also think that death isn't such a horrifying experience. It's like the ecstatic experiences - I think life is like that underneath it all. It's just too bad the rest of it keeps getting in the way."
-- from "Bruce Cockburn Launches a Hit: Fired by Christian pacifism, the Canadian singer targets new, worldwide success", by Steve Pond, Rolling Stone magazine, 23 May 1985. Anonymous Submission.
18 March 1988
"Some of them got a little nervous when I started talking about politics," he adds, "because you're not supposed to do that if you're a certain type of Christian -- especially if you're a songwriter. I got a lot of letters from people, especially after the album 'Stealing Fire,' and there were a lot of people in the Christian scene who found 'If I had a Rocket Launcher' very difficult. Because they weren't used to thinking about those things. "There were a lot of Christians who did understand it, the more liberal, for want of a better word, turn of mind," he points out. Nonetheless, "A lot of people wrote letters urging me, exhorting me, not to lose the way. At no point was I threatened with excommunication, but there was definitely a kind of standing back and going, 'What is this?' on the part of a lot of people."
-- from "The Social Commentaries of Bruce Cockburn" by J.D. Considine, Sun Pop Music Critic, Baltimore Sun, 18 March 1988. Submitted by Nigel Parry.
10 April 1989
"1984, when the 'Stealing Fire' album came out, was the beginning of anything happening in the United States for me. 'If I Had a Rocket Launcher' got a lot of radio play. It was the last song I would have thought would get attention. All of a sudden we could do a tour around the U.S. and not lose money. It has been growing slowly but steadily ever since."
-- from "Cockburn sings with a conscience", by Mary Campbell, 10 April 1989, Marin Independent Journal (Associated Press credit). Submitted by Bobbi Wisby.
"Visited two of the Guatemalan refugee camps in southern Mexico. The refugees were the survivors of terrible atrocities perpetrated by a vicious miliatary government in their homeland. In the fragile shelter of the camps, they were starved, denied medical care, and were still subjected to attacks by the Guatemalan army. The notes for this song were written over tears and a bottle of Bell's in a tiny hotel room in San Cristobal de las Casas, the nearest town to these camps."
-- from "Rumours of Glory 1980-1990" (songbook), edited by Arthur McGregor, OFC Publications, Ottawa, 1990. Submitted by Rob Caldwell.
29 October 1991
Jamie Frederick:"...and if you had a rocket launcher would you really not hesitate?"
BC: "If I had a rocket launcher? Well I guess it depends on the context,
you know? If I had a rocket launcher and I was in that refugee camp at the time that I thought of that song, yes, I would use it, but I would hope I never find myself in that situation."
-- from "Intimate & Interactive with Bruce Cockburn" (phone-in show
with live audience, hosted by Michael Williams. Interviewer: Jamie Frederick. Location: MuchMusic (Canadian music video channel). Airdate: 29 October 1991.
Submitted by Dave Macklin.
12 January 1992
"These people were dealing with this fear every day -- Guatemalan helicopters would fly over the camps, maybe drop a bomb on them, or some soldiers would kidnap some of the refugees, take them into the woods and chop them up," says Mr. Cockburn. "You know the scene at the end of the movie 'Apocalypse Now?' That's nothing compared to what I saw."
-- from "A Rising Northern Star: Canadian Bruce Cockburn Wins More U.S. Converts" by Brad Buchholz, Dallas Morning News, 12 January 1992. Submitted by Nigel Parry.
3 April 1992
"When I wrote 'Rocket Launcher', I was in San Cristobal de los Casas in Mexico. I was in a hotel drinking a bottle of Scotch the day after I came out of the refugee camps, and I was in tears thinking about it and writing this song. It doesn't get much more direct than that."
-- from "Bruce Cockburn - A Burning Light and All the Rest" by William Ruhlmann, Goldmine magazine, 3 April 1992. Submitted by M. Goddard.
3 April 1992
Asked if such trips necessarily give the observer the clearest possible view
of what's really going on, Cockburn replied, "I wouldn't say so, but it gives
you a vivid view." Then he went on to explain.
"The moving part of it for me," he said, "was, well, first of all, to see
what suffering people can really experience, and then to see how people
respond to that suffering or to the threats that they're under and so on.
Especially in the refugee camps, people were so together, given the
circumstances, and had such an ability not to fall into hopelessness. That
was the most moving thing at all, and that, combined with the threat of
violence against those people particularly, was a terrible feeling and a
terrible set of feelings to have and a terrible sort of juxtaposition to see."
"These people had absolutely nothing and no prospects whatever. Still, they
were trying to get something going, they were still building schools in their
refugee camps even though they had nothing to put in them, no books and no
teachers. They built a little infirmary even though they didn't have any
medicine, just so they'd be ready when it did come, and it never did, of
course. The Mexican army went in and burned it all down after a while."
"But those people still had this ability to go, 'Well, okay, we're just gonna
build something here.' That just made the kind of cynicism, that we who live
in the developed world can so easily feel about the usefulness or not of
political action, seem so pathetic. It seemed like complete self-indulgence
for us to sit around going, 'Oh, well, there's nothing we can do.'"
Naturally, Cockburn tried to express such impressions in song. "Art,
particularly song, deals with little fistfuls of feeling," he explained. "You
can't expect to do much more in a song than hand little bundles of stuff over
to people, and I've tried to push that sometimes, but that's really what it
comes down to. So, you're dealing in pretty graphic little images and as
strong a shot of feeling as you can put into it, which is something that
magic does very well, but non-specifically, until you put words with it. It
makes it interesting, it's an interesting angle from which to approach
songwriting, but also not that much intellectualizing goes into it."
[... Editor's note: It is not clear whether the paragraphs above this note came before or after the paragraphs below...]
Unwilling to let Cockburn off the hook, or the trigger, as the case may be,
his interviewer pressed the point one step further. "Rocket Launcher" in
particular seems to cross the line from observation to involvement. It sounds
like the kind of thing you write before you give up something as passive as
songwriting and go join the revolution. Had Cockburn been tempted, like
Rimbaud, to put down the guitar and actually take up the rocket launcher?
"No, actually," Cockburn said. "Whatever temptation I feel to be involved
with that has more to do with fascination than frustration. The frustration I
feel is the more honest -- well, not more honest, it's the more useful
feeling, and that says to me that the solutions like the kind of response
that 'Rocket Launcher' talks about are not the way to get things done. I
mean, sometimes they're inescapable, but it's not a principle on which to
act, really, for me, especially because it's not natural to me to do that.
I'd just be another honky trying to get in on something, trying to give my
life meaning, if I went and did that, and I don't have to resort to that to
give my life meaning. But I have [supported] and will again support people in
those kinds of positions who are doing that kind of thing because I don't
think they have much choice sometimes."
"But there is also something very attractive and fascinating about a war
situation. That's why journalists become war junkies and why some military
people become mercenaries when the war's over, because things are just so
intense and immediate in the presence of that much death. The life that's
going on around you becomes really intense and special in a way that normally
is not. When I came back from Nicaragua the first time, and somebody was
asking me about what it was like to come back from that -- I mean, not that I
experienced anything so drastic and dramatic, but I was there where stuff was
happening, had happened, would happen again, and surrounded by people to whom
it was happening. It was just like coming from color to black and white to
come back home after that. Things just didn't look the same. Nothing was the
same after that. And when I went to Mozambique [in 1988], it was like that."
"It isn't only the presence of potential violence, it's also the novelty of a
situation that makes it like that, that sense of being on the edge, and the
fear that nags at you. I've never been in a situation where I was directly
threatened from extinction from bullets or anything, but I've been close
enough to it where you have to go around with a certain edge of fear --
'What's around the next corner?' And I guess that's the big thing that really
heightens everything, that extra little shot of adrenalin that you live with
all the time. Plus the fact that you know that the emotional contacts you
make with people may be very short-lived. Everybody feels that in those kinds
of situations, and there's kind of a shared warmth. It's like a massive
"All the other stuff just seems kind of unimportant, and whoever you're with
at the time is -- I'm not speaking of sexual things, just of any human
contact, just who you're with at the moment becomes very important to you,
that contact is very important and immediate, and that's very attractive. So,
if I were to go off and become a guerrilla, it might be falling prey to that
kind of temptation more than the failure of reason."
- from "Bruce Cockburn - A Burning Light and All the Rest" by William Ruhlmann, Goldmine magazine, 3 April 1992. Anonymous submission.
21 April 1996
[In talking about "If I Had a Rocket Launcher," Leaver writes] The powerful lyrics were laid over an aggresive rock beat and catchy melody, which Cockburn admits might have distracted some people from what the song was actually ssaying. "I did get one angry letter -- at least one, maybe a couple of them -- from people who sort of liked the song until thy realized it wasn't about the Russians in Afghanistan," he said, with resigned laughter. "And you know, that suggests that they weren't quite listening to the lyrics for a while."
-- from "Cockburn Interview", Grand Rapids Press, 21 April 1996.
Bob Duran: You traveled to Nicaragua with organization called Oxfam. What is it?
BC: Oxfam is an international aid agency. It started in England and there is a Canadian arm of it that sent me down to Central America to bear witness to the goings on and to be able to try to get attention to the work they were doing and the need for that work. That trip was the beginning of a template for something that's happened many times since and has been rewarding in every case, to me at least, hopefully sometimes to their people too.
BD: How did it influence your work?
BC: It was my first encounter with the real Third World other than as a tourist. It had a profound effect on the direction of my life generally and consequently on the music, at least on the lyrics. The experiences on the trip (which also included) the south of Mexico, Chiapas, and the refugee camps, produced "If I Had A Rocket Launcher" and that alone changed the course of things for me because it got on the radio...
BD: and MTV...
BC: ...a most unlikely thing, even MTV. It's the only thing of mine that they've ever shown that I can think of. I guess they hadn't yet figured what videos were, so we snuck in. The song got exposed and that changed my history. More important was getting that glimpse and beginning to understand what people have to live with in the world.
-- from "A Conversation with Bruce Cockburn", by Bob Duran, North Coast Journal , November 1997. Submitted by Bobbi Wisby.
6 October 1999
[But he says that to view songs like 1997's "Mines of Mozambique" and his 1985 hit "If I had a Rocket Launcher" as political tracts is to miss the point.] "These songs are the product of circumstance, distilled experience, just like the others. The real goal is to share an experience with the audience."
-- from "Without cause: Bruce Cockburn gets personal", by Banning Eyre, Boston Phoenix, 6 October 1999. Anonymous Submission.
Steve Lawson: Didn't you get some adverse press for Rocket Launcher?
BC: No, it got no adverse press, it got nothing but positive response - it blew
my mind! The Religious Right to my mind said nothing about it. I got the odd
letter from somebody who was disappointed in it. One woman I remembered
writing saying how could I write an anti-American song like this - her
husband was a jet pilot and didn't I know what awful things the Russians
were doing in Afghanistan? Well yeah I do, but it doesn't excuse what you
guys are doing in Guatemala, and it's not your husband who's guilty, it's
I got the occasional letter like that, but what I also got was a huge amount
of air-play for that song, which I hadn't really had before - the one
exception being Wondering Where The Lions Are which got played in the US as well as Canada. WWTLA was the first song I'd had that got big time national
air-play in Canada and it got on the Billboard chart in the US. But whereas
it was the start of something in the Canada, in the sense that the next few
records I put out also got a lot of air-play, in the States that didn't
happen, so with Rocket Launcher it was like starting all over again. And
that time it did take, and it's been progressively better since then.
-- from "Bruce Cockburn Interview", Guitarist Magazine, November 1999, by Steve
Susan Adams Kauffman: In a previous interview, you said that sadness is a part of your character. Could you elaborate?
BC: I'm sort of nervous about focusing on that, because of the question I used to get a lot in the mid-eighties, around the time I wrote "If I Had a Rocket Launcher." It was particularly prevalent among airhead radio interviewers who would say, "Do you think you're a happy person?" The implication was that I must not be happy, or I wouldn't write these angry sorts of songs, that somehow this had something to do with anything. So the subject of whether I'm happy or not has to be put in the right context!
Leonard Cohen once said something to the effect that all poetry springs from regret. Which is a typical Cohenism, in a way. There's no question that the chemistry that's involved in whatever sadness I carry is also part and parcel of the writing. I don't really know where that sadness comes from. I can speculate on it, but I'm still working on figuring that out.
-- from "Fire in an Open Hand" by Susan Adams Kauffman, The Other Side magazine, November/December 1999. Submitted by Nigel Parry.
27 July 2000
"It was my first encounter with the real Third World other than as a
tourist. When you go with--I hesitate to call it 'official' status, but
--with a reason to be there beyond tourism, then you find that you have
access to people in their homes talking about the way that they think and
it's a whole other experience-- a much richer one. The experiences on that
trip produced 'If I Had A Rocket Launcher'. I was trying to describe the
sensation that was very easy to feel and make people understand how easy it
was to get into that mind set, coming from the relatively secure and
sheltered environment most of us have in North America."
"It changed the course of things for me because the song got on the
radio--even MTV. It's the only thing of mine that they've ever shown that I
can think of. In any case, the song got exposed and that changed my
-- from "The North Coast Journal, Taking a Stand", by Bob Duran, July 27, 2000. Submitted by Bobbi Wisby.
3 March 2001
Bill Cameron: This song was written in 1983, after a visit to a refugee camp in southern Mexico. The refugees were running from Guatemala, where the military and the
death squads were fighting guerrillas at excruciating cost to the people in
BC: "Up to that point, I had not been particularly supportive of the violent
overthrow of government and that sort of stuff. But there I was in this
refugee camp, hearing these unbelievable stories of the atrocities these
people had fled from, stories that were beyond anything the grossest slasher
movie could come up with, and in the background was this helicopter going
back and forth along the border. The Guatemalan flyers had a recent history
of having strafed the camps from the air, even though the camps were in
Mexico. The desperate condition these people were in, and their dignity in
the face of that desperation, all this horror made me feel the people in
those helicopters had surrendered their humanity long since. I actually had
great reservations about recording it. And then I thought once I had recorded
it, 'The radio people are never going to play that song.' And of course it
got a lot of radio play."
-- from "The Witness, Saturday Night Online", March 3, 2001, by Bill Cameron.
4 December 2001
"When I wrote the song, it was an expression of those feelings, but I didnít want to incite people to go down there and kill Guatemalan soldiers," he admits. "It was a bit more vivid because it was the first time I had experienced it."
--from "Bombs Away: Can a Broad-based Anti-Landmine Campaign Work in Wartime America?", Cleveland Free Times, 28 November- 4 December 2001, by Jeff Niesel.
27 March 2002 - Commenting on not playing If I Had a Rocket Launcher circa 9/11/2002
"I think it's the wrong emotional climate, especially in the U.S. right now. People will hear it the wrong way, and I don't want to run the risk of feeding a body of emotion that I don't want to trip up."
Asked if it's tougher for people to be critical of the government down south in the current political climate
"Certainly. Although I think it's coming around a lot. If you believe CNN and its counterparts, things are a certain way."
"But I'm meeting a lot of people in the U.S. every day who feel like they need to resist the current tendencies. "
"I'm not a pacifist. You don't have to be a pacifist to think peace is better than war. There's just a best way to go about things."
"The world has gotten worse. The poor are getting poorer. Tension is increasing. In terms of most of us in the developed world, we have a choice."
"And we can exercise that choice with wisdom. That's what I stand for. "
"My hardest fight as a performer has been with myself, to be as clear a conduit as possible for what needs to be said. That's the ongoing struggle. Get my ego and my brain out of the way and let this stuff happen."
-- from "mouth that roared: Bruce Cockburn says he's not an activist but a concerned voice", Edmonton Sun, 27 March 2002, by Fish Griwkowsky.
2 July 2005 -
"These are some songs . . . I'm going to sing some songs that I wrote as
a result of my first few encounters with what we think of as the 'Third World' quite a few years ago now.
Although sometimes the first impressions they don't go deep, they are intense -- and those are the
things that make songs. But I just wanted to make an observation about
a phrase like 'Third World.' We can say 'Third World' and we form a
picture in our mind of whatever that means to us. But what a lot of us
don't include in that picture is that the 'Third World' is made up of
people, of human beings just like us -- in the same boat as us, with
the same kinds of dreams and hopes and wishes for a happy life. Their
dreams may be a little scaled down from some of ours. They may be hoping that
their kids will live to see the age of five. You know, most of us can
assume that's going to happen, but in a lot of the world they don't.
But you know, these are people with human faces, with lives, with
individual talents and characteristics . . ." [performs If I Had A Rocket Launcher]
- Transcribed by Glen Philip Hansman from a videotape of the 2 July 2005 Live 8 Concert.
15 June 2010
On Wednesday (16 June 2010) at Massey Hall, iconic recording artist Bruce Cockburn and guest stars will perform some of his best-known material. Cockburn talks over the set list with Brad Wheeler.
Famously, Woody Guthrieís guitar had a message written on it, "This Machine Kills Fascists." Are Cockburnís songs and guitars his own rocket launchers?
"Itís not out of line to say these things," Cockburn replies. "But when I wrote that song, in 1983, it wasnít intended to be any kind of weapon. It was an expression of my own surprise at feeling so specifically a certain way, when I was confronted with the [Guatemalan] refugee-camp scene [in Mexico]. Itís about a sense of outrage. I donít know whether Iím violent or not. I donít know if I have the talent for it. I think probably Iím chicken, if anything."
- from Bruce Cockburn Set for Luminato Honours - 40 Years of songs to Live By by Brad Wheeler.
"After Wondering Where the Lions Are, there wasn't anything on the radar in the States. Years went by and then If I Had a Rocket Launcher came out. It took things up another notch. It shocked me that anybody played it on the radio at all. I almost didn't record it. I was afraid it would be misconstrued. There were other songs about Central America on the album, Stealing Fire. I didn't want people to think that I just wrote the song because I thought they should go down and kill Guatemalan soldiers. But there were enough people who understood it that I felt okay to having done it." - from Bruce Cockburn - a life in seven songs by Brad Wheeler - Globe and Mail. (Inteview date: September 11, 2017)
"Think RPG. Two jungle camps by the Guatemalan border eight thousand frightened, starving Mayans, terrible accounts of massacre and atrocity told against the coming and going of throbbing, predatory helicopter engines..."
~ from the liner notes of Greatest Hits (1970-2020)
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This page is part of The Cockburn Project, a unique website that exists to document the work of Canadian singer-songwriter and musician Bruce Cockburn. The Project archives self-commentary by Cockburn on his songs and music, and supplements this core part of the website with news, tour dates, and other current information.