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The GWOT Soundtrack

As soon as we started rolling on my second convoy in Afghanistan, the sergeant in the front seat turned around and told me that though they weren’t supposed to, they listened to music in their truck. As he put Aerosmith through iPod speakers, I thought, “Not bad music to be listening to if we get into contact.”    

Soldiers listen to music. Soldiers are people, people listen to music; a war zone doesn’t change that. It is the life blood of our emotions. From hip-hop to heavy metal to any sort of rock, music makes sense in the war zone, to prepare your mind and steel your nerve. And with technology such as it is, the modern American soldier has more music at his finger tips and in the little white ear buds of his iPod than ever before. Yes, it isn’t standard operating procedure (SOP) but it is a core of the daily soldier’s life.

There is something about this, though, some gut impulse that listening to music in war feels wrong, impolite, or obscene. It violates some vague notion of justice for soldiers to simultaneously jam to tunes while executing violence, often on a personal level. The music trivializes the battle. The most mainstream example of this condemnation is a scene from Farenheit 9/11 as soldiers shoot Iraqis, while pump rock music plays. Or the videos soldiers create of blowing things up or combat, set to heavy metal soundtracks. Or Apocalypse Now’s Colonel Kilgore storming a beach to Wagner. Society, it seems, wishes our soldiers took to combat with solemnity, and less like a video game.

Ironically, soldiers express similar dismay about war music when it comes from the opposite side. The Taliban listens to music over the radio right before they launch an attack and now many units monitor different frequencies on ICOM radios to know if attacks are imminent. What I remark on here, though is that U.S. soldiers take offense to the music, as if it personally offends them that they would listen to music during or before an attack. Perhaps it is a conditioned response, or perhaps it is because they hate everything about their enemies.

The irony is, it is all the same. Music and war have been together from the dawn of time. Caesar used drums before a battle, civil war draftees marched to flutes. Music causes punk kids to mosh, suicide bombers to attack, and it keeps the guy in the turret sane while he goes on another patrol.

Perhaps, if the music promotes wanton violence, it has gone too far. More likely music isn’t a value opinion either way; it is just another fact of war, and life.

One comment

Music is just a part of organized warfare. Soldiers marched to drums to keep in step and at pace. Somehow it evolved to the drums becoming a weapon of fear to show the size of your force. Eventually other instruments are added to the same affect. A bonus is that it primes your troops. Whether this is a good or bad thing, to fight and kill to a soundtrack, I had never considered. But it continued in a way that in the 40’s film reels of aerial assaults on Nazi Germany and fighter combat sequences are accompanied by Vivaldi or Mozart. But that goes back to propaganda again. The unfortunate effect is that we associate those musics with war once we experience this. Thanks to Apocalypse Now, Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” will be forever associated with rocket strikes on Viet Cong.