Standort: / Meldung: "The Soundtrack of War"

Chris Cummins

Letters from a shrinking globe: around the day in 80 worlds.

12. 10. 2009 - 13:30

The Soundtrack of War

The playlists that US soldiers in Irak have been taking into battle.

US Sergeant CJ Grisham, a veteran of the battle for the restive Iraqi city of Falluja, has clear thoughts on war. “Ugly”, “disgusting” and “inhuman” are three of the words he chooses to describe the experience, pointing out that “it isn’t natural for people to kill other people”. Thankfully.

Indeed, Grisham says, killing is something “no-one should have to do,” but adds that it is something that “unfortunately someone has to do”. And therein lies the problem. Having signed up to the military, Sergeant Grisham found he was that person.

The soldier’s qualms are understandable but counterproductive in the theatre of war. If Grisham didn’t pull the trigger when he had to in Falluja, he would jeopardize the safety of his fellow soldiers’ safety.

How do you deal with that? How do you make the unnatural feel natural?

Grisham says that he and his fellow soldiers had to get into what he describes as an ‘inhuman” state of mind that would enable them to carry out the violent job they faced. And for many US soldiers like Grisham the gateway to that altered state of mind was provided by music.

US Soldiers in Iraq


The Psychology of Music

Grisham described to Professor Jonathon Pieslak, a music theorist from New York’s City College, how he and his team used rap to pump themselves up. “Listening to music would make you aggressive when you needed to be aggressive. You can’t go out there thinking everything will be hunky-dory.”

Grisham’s squad listened to the DMX and Eminem track “Go to Sleep," before hitting the killing streets on Falluja. Grisham couldn’t have been more forthright in his distaste for killing, but before going out on a mission he was listening to lyrics such as “Die, motherfucker, die!/ Unh, time’s up bitch, close ya eyes

Listen to Sergeant CJ Grisham

Professor Pieslak became interested in the way music was used by soldiers in the combat zone by chance. He was working on an article about rhythm and meter in heavy metal music and stumbled upon a statistic on a fan-site for Slayer: some 40% of the band's fan mail came from soldiers stationed in the Middle East. Actually, he discovered that the statistic had been exaggerated, but it peaked his curiosity about “what the soldiers were finding analogous in this music to their experience of combat.

Getting "Crunked"

During dozens of interviews with US soldiers Pieslak found out that sometimes the music they listened to really was indeed analogous to the soldier’s lives in combat. Specialist Colby Buzzell for example told the professor that when on a mission he experienced the machine gun fire and explosions as “real music” that he compared to the death metal thrash of Slayer. “That sounds all twisted and wrong,” admitted Specilaist Buzzell, who added that his favourite track was "Angel of Death"

Listen to Specialist Colby Buzzell

If that screams of trauma, many soldiers explained how they used music like a conscious-changing drug. Time and time, Pieslak heard again how rap and heavy metal was used to put the soldiers into a hyperaware, aggressive state of mind that helped them engage in combat. They call them “getting crunked” songs.

Specialist Jennifer Atkinson described to Pieslak how her husband's platoon would chant the lyrics to the refrain of the Lil' John song "I Don't Give a Fuck" before missions in Fallujah. "They would just chant that over and over and over until they were pretty much screaming it" she says, adding that such behaviour is understandable when you are preparing yourself for a situation in which "anything can happen/"

Listen to Specialist Jennifer Atkinson

Trigger Happy?

On the one level this is all very frightening. Heightened aggression might well mean the soldiers are likely to be trigger happy – and therefore dangerous to civilians. We have certainly seen enough evidence of that being the case during US missions in Iraq.

Ideally, we would like to have our soldiers calm and rational even under the heightened stress of a combat situation. We’d like to see them coolly calculating danger and only shooting as a very last resort. But one soldier described to Pieslak how he used music to turn himself into “a monster”. That monster, of course, would be likely to be sharing the streets of in Iraq or Afghanistan with perfectly innocent civilians as well as potential enemies.

US Soldiers in Iraq


Innate Humanity

So far, so bad. But soldiers are above all human beings and are therefore unlikely to live up to the ideals we would have for them. I find it hard to condemn men who barely out of their teens – if at all - for psyching themselves up for situations in which they might be shot at.

In fact Pieslak finds his research more reassuring than anything. The soldiers told him about turning themselves into different characters to carry out “inhuman” acts. They used music as a catalyst to “become something other than what they are”. In essence, it is positive to think that people can fight and be ultra violent and yet still leave the essential core of their personality behind. As Pieslak puts it, “They obviously have to take very clear steps to be able to engage in combat. For me that speaks for their humanity.”

The Wisdom of Ancient Greece

Pieslak also points out that this use of music is nothing new. Indeed soldiers have been pumping themselves up with music for centuries. He points to the writing of Plato in “The Republic” the Greek philosopher described thought that different musical scales could have different effects on the human condition and he recommended that those “guardians” whose job it was to protect society should be made to listen to music that would make them aggressive and fearless in combat. So the phenomenon is as old as History, but in the age of the portable mp3 player taking your music into battle has become increasingly easy.

US Soldiers in Iraq


Music as a Drug

In a way, the music of Iraq and Afghanistan has replaced the drug abuse of Vietnam. Veterans of that war have described how they used amphetamines to pump themselves up and smoked pot to calm down. Now Pieslak describes how they use the fast rhythms and heavy drums of rap and heavy metal to mentally prepare for battle and then softer music to bring them back to normality.

One soldier told Pieslak how, during his downtime, he listened to music that he personally didn’t care for, but, because his family liked it, it helped transport him back home. “I think music is particularly useful as an instrument of nostalgia” says the music theorist.

Standard Military Issue

Another soldier said, and only half in jest, that mp3 players should be standard military issue for soldiers deployed in war zones. Pieslak laughs at the recollection: “That speaks to me what an important role music plays for these people

Professor Jonathon Pieslak and Chris Cummins discuss war music

Pieslak's book Sound Targets: American Soldiers and Music in the Iraq War, is published by Indiana University Press.