Bruce Dickinson told the crowd at the Live At Donington concert what this song is about:
[This song] was written about the people that fought in the Gulf War. It's a song about how shitty war is, and how shitty war is that it's started by politicians and has to be finished by ordinary people that don't really want to kill anybody.
Bruce Dickinson 22nd August 1992
The song starts off slowly and quietly, but then breaks into a faster beat, a trademark Maiden riff and an inspired instrumental section. It is actually a very beautiful song and a Maiden classic.
Unlike most war songs that usually deal with the combat itself, like 'The Trooper', or with its terrible consequences, like 'The Aftermath' or Metallica's 'One', 'Afraid To Shoot Strangers' takes us into the mind of a soldier preparing for battle. Although he is nothing but an anonymous element of the powerful tool used by the government of his country and known as the Army, he remains human, with his feelings and his doubts. He's "trying to visualise the horrors that will lay ahead", the main one being the fact that he probably will have to kill (hence, "afraid to shoot strangers").
With the exception of a minority of mentally dysfunctional individuals, the act of killing another man is one of the most traumatic experiences a soldier can face in combat, even more than risking his own life under fire ("When it comes to the time, we'll be ready to die" to die, yes. But to kill?). Like in any other animal species, normal human beings are deeply reluctant to cause the death of their fellow humans and, when they do so, can be marked for life if not given the appropriate treatment. But let's not forget that the individual this song is dealing with is a professional soldier and not a poor conscript sent into the midst of battle with only a crash-course in gun-handling he's been conditioned for this kind of situation and shooting at enemy soldiers is an ingrained reflex through continuous military training some kind of brain-washing. Steve Harris shows here the point of view of a normal man who is understandably "afraid to shoot strangers", but he seems to have overlooked the fact that trained combatants do not feel this fear as strongly as others would, and have therefore less problems in opening fire upon other humans. The consequences of this act can be devastating, but this is irrelevant in the present discussion.
When it comes to the time, are we partners in crime?
What does the soldier really question here? Is he reflecting on the fact that, although he is only an instrument of his government, he is part of a crime that his country is committing? What is the crime, then? Had Britain (and all the other so-called "Allied" countries who participated in the First Gulf War) the right to engage a war with a country so distant for such preposterous reasons as to protect the oil fileds for the West? Or maybe he's simply referring to the fact that his comrades will kill too, thus making them all partners in crime.
But how can we let them go on this way?
The reign of terror corruption must end
And we know deep down there's no other way
No trust, no reasoning, no more to say
These verses are probably the worst written since those of 'Quest For Fire', with the dinosaurs walking the earth at the same time as Man. Not only in retrospect, but even at the time, it was obvious that the First Gulf War was not about ending a dictatorship, but about protecting (and controlling) the crude oil drilling in Kuwait. There's a "reign of terror, corruption" in many other countries, but no one is interested enough in ending any of them in any way. Steve's lyrics sound here like the headlines of The Sun or any other disgustingly jingoistic tabloid "trying to justify to [the gullible population] the reasons to go." It is obvious that the use of force can be necessary in certain situations and that "we know deep down there's no other way", but in the case of this particular war, such justification doesn't stand a close examination of the real reasons to engage in a conflict. What is a fantastic song musically is quite sadly somehow ruined by lyrics that seem to condone a rather dubious international action.