Concert unknown. 1972. Until this song, Gaye rarely participated in the songwriting process. For this album, he took control of the production so he could make a statement as an artist. Motown management was skeptical, but Gaye was an established star and had enough power to pull it off, going so far as to use an orchestra on this track. Gaye's lyrics in this song were inspired by the stories his brother Frankie told him when he came back from the Vietnam War.
This was one of the first Motown songs to make a powerful political statement. Stevie Wonder and the Temptations were also recording more serious and challenging material, which was a radical departure from the Motown hits of the '60s. The song had a tremendous impact because listeners weren't used to hearing social commentary from Gaye. As Jackson Browne said in a 2008 interview with Rolling Stone: "No one was expecting an anti-war song from him. But it was a moment in time when people were willing to hear it from anybody, if it was heartfelt. And who better than the person who has talked to you about love and desire?" The What's Going On album takes on many issues, including the environment ("Mercy Mercy Me") and poverty ("Inner City Blues"). It was the first album Gaye released that sold a lot of copies. Until then, like most Motown artists, he had lots of hit singles but album sales were secondary.