The Songs They Carried: Music at War

I once followed Metallica through a coliseum's fluorescent underground maze to a pitch-black stage. When the lights ignited, the crowd unleashed a roar like the tailpipe of a fighter jet. The band responded with fusillades of drums and screaming guitars. The players -- thoughtful, even gentle, over pre-show Chinese food -- engaged their mostly young, male audience head-down, tendons bulging. They absorbed and spit back all the directionless anger, unmastered aggression and awe that rolled over them from the fist-pumping crowd. Easy for me to imagine Metallica leading the pre-battle hit parade that Thomas Ricks has posted to his Best Defense blog at the Foreign Policy magazine site.

Ricks, a Pulitzer-winning military correspondent for the Washington Post and the author of Fiasco and Gamble, surveyed his readers to discover what soldiers were listening to in that lonely hour after the gear is assembled, the meal has been eaten, and there's nothing to do but contemplate what lies up the road. That metal dominates the list is not surprising: for getting "amped" there's no better soundtrack than reckless speed, brutally simple rhythm, and screamed anthems. But the appeal is more than physical. Metal in its various speed-, death-, black-, doom- guises provides a musical peepshow, where we draw back the curtain on our darker, baser fears, making them at once a shared bond and Wagnerian drama. What audience would have more reason for preoccupation with dark existential questions than the young soldiers we ask to do terrible things while risking their lives?

So, Metallica holds down #2 ("Anything by Metallica," Ricks notes, "but especially: 'Enter Sandman,' 'Disposable Heroes,' 'All Nightmare Long,' 'Don't Tread on Me,' 'Ride the Lightning' and 'Whiskey in the Jar.' " Not "One"? Perhaps explicit lyrics about massive injuries augmented with explosions and machine-gun fire express too clearly the very real possibilities.), surrounded by AC/DC, Rage Against the Machine, Manowar, and, at number one, Drowning Pool's "Let the Bodies Hit the Floor." But in the comments on the post (Ricks's audience writes colorfully and with authority - note particularly the thread on why so little rap on the list), and in an interview with WNYC's John Schaefer, it becomes clear that not every soldier wants to enter the battle space amped. Ricks highlights the response of "Hunter," who uses the music of Angelo Badalamenti and Enya as a stress-reduction technique. "I found that rather than being revved up to go kill I needed just the opposite," Hunter writes. "I wanted and needed to relax, find that clear mental state and be ready to THINK... of course that was my job to do so... keep a cool head."

Hunter expresses concerns about the use of music in battle, and Ricks notes in the Schafer interview that it's only in our current wars that soldiers have been able to isolate themselves in their own musical worlds. As personal technology spread into the field alongside military technology, soldiers blast into earbuds what they previously would have shared with comrades on Vietnam-era 45s and radio, and Gulf War I-era cassette Walkmen hooked to PAs. While decreasing fighting in the barracks about what music to play, Ricks does worry about unit cohesiveness, because the battlefield is "the loneliest place on earth... you don't want soldiers feeling alone, you want a group feeling." The fractured music landscape created by personal technology doesn't the create the opportunity for group feelings, just as our professional, volunteer military reduces shared experiences between soldier and civilian.

Two recent releases contrast our current wars' isolation from homefront culture with the musical engagement stirred by past conflicts. ...Next Stop is Vietnam: The War On Record: 1961-2008 presents a massive, 13-CD, 300-plus-track document of that war's musical debate, with all sides present and accounted for. From protest songs of the folk revival and draft dodger celebrations, odes to protest and its consequences, to the voices of off-duty servicemen and celebrations of POWs - and the postwar reckoning with the high price paid by the servicemen - it's clear that every segment of society had a musical dog in the fight. With small-label pressings and Top Ten protest songs, music served as broadsheet and call to action (both pro- and anti-). In his New York Times review of ...Next Stop, Jon Caramanica compares those days of rage with today's culture and finds that "apart from some Nashville jingoism and a handful of recordings by soldiers, war and its ravages feel like taboo topics." I would guess that the absence of a draft makes all the difference; danger shared by the sons and daughters of privilege would no doubt raise the musical volume.

Bloody War : Songs 1924-1939, an album from Tompkins Square and Chris King (the team that produced the Grammy-nominated People Take Warning box set) reminds us that music captured battlefield experiences, fears and the humor of soldiers before the recording era. While fifes and drums played a tactical role in pre-electronic war, communicating battlefield formations and establishing the rhythm of advance and retreat, popular music responded to the human consequences of battle. This collection of old-time folk and blues presents songs from the earliest recordings through the early 1930s that document musical echoes of the Civil War, Spanish American War and World War I. There are soldiers' laments (the haunting "Not a Word of That Be Said" performed by Wade Mainer & Sons Of The Mountaineers depicts a dying Civil War soldier asking his brother -- fighting for the other side -- to recall him to their mother), zippy banjo breakdowns, and ballads of loss. In these collections, you hear whole societies engaged in war, sharing common cause or dissenting, turning fear, loss and fervor into song -- and into a musical archival record that may be lost forever as our fractured culture sends troops to battle, earbuds firmly in place.

(A portion of the proceeds from Bloody War will benefit Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America.