As technology has advanced the delivery of music from live performance to radio, tape, disc, and mp3, pop product has played an increasingly personal part for the typical soldier fighting America’s imperial wars. “Music has become a significant source of combat inspiration for American soldiers in Iraq,” argues composer Jonathan Pieslak, who cites interviews with military personnel in an essay he published in 2010, before the U.S. announced an ostensible end to that country’s occupation. “The relationship between music and soldier life seems more intimate in this war since new technology allows music to be a part of soldiers’ lives on and off the battlefield in unprecedented ways.”1
Unsurprisingly, the metal genre – with a tradition of war-themed lyrics dating from tracks like Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” and Iron Maiden’s “Aces High” – has proven to be a favorite among troops preparing themselves psychologically for the task of committing officially sanctioned mass murder. Pieslak points out that in the documentary Soundtrack to War, “multiple soldiers make the analogy that ‘war itself is heavy metal,’ and, in fact, the original version of Gittoes’ documentary was titled, War Is Heavy Metal.”2 Pieslak offers further gleanings from his series of interviews:
Almost all of the metal songs selected by soldiers as an inspiration for combat involve themes of chaos. A favorite album among soldiers is Slayer’s Reign in Blood (1986), which is often credited as being the seminal album of the death metal subgenre. Another popular band is Metallica; their song “One”, about a WWI soldier who survives a land mine explosion in which he loses his limbs, sight, hearing, and speech, was played frequently by [interviewee] Grisham during the initial invasion of Iraq. Drowning Pool’s “Bodies” is another popular song with its repeated refrain, “Let the bodies hit the floor.” In this case, however, the meaning of the lyrics has taken a different form from the original intent. Drowning Pool claim that the refrain refers to the audience “hitting the floor” of the “mosh pit” at a concert, not bodies falling to the ground from acts of violence. When these themes of chaos are combined with the notions of power inscribed in the metal sound, they provide a highly influential tool for soldiers as they prepare for combat.3
“While the power element of metal is manifest in a variety of ways within the music,” Pieslak explains, “it operates, not as a dominating force over the fan, but as an empowering agent.”4 “Music is a means of establishing the identity of the group,” he adds, “and supports the feeling of togetherness through a ritualized musical experience”5 – which is intriguing in view of the fact that more than one of the soldiers interviewed used “predator” as an adjective to describe their comrades’ musical preference6.
Interviewees describe rituals in which soldiers would gather prior to combat to listen to metal or rap together and chant or shout out the lines of a song as a group. “The tendency of soldiers to come together around music, and to sing or yell the lyrics together,” Pieslak suggests, “seems to have precedence in aspects of BCT [i.e., basic combat training].”7 Training regimes which require the men to collectively sing a set of responses to the prompts of a drill instructor develop camaraderie in the unit but also condition in them a repertoire of programmed behaviors and teach obedience to a superior’s will.
An abdication of the self and of humanity is acknowledged by more than one of the soldiers who spoke to Pieslak:
Grisham highlights the music’s power to […] make them capable of “inhuman” acts. In these instances, the music could be said to have a transformative power that removes the humanity element from human identity. Other soldiers said that metal and rap music had similar effects, to varying degrees, on their experiences as an inspiration for combat. Saunders believes that “War is people having to step outside of themselves. It is you having to become what I consider to be a monster.”8
It is also a possibility that metal, owing to the abrasive sonic palette reflected in the genre’s moniker, has contributed to a readiness on the part of men to find aesthetically pleasing elements in the bombastic cacophony of combat itself. A machine gunner, Specialist Colby Buzzell, told Pieslak that “the explosions and the machine guns, and the shooting that’s going on, that’s the music. It’s kind of like listening to Slayer, like that sort of shit. Listening to a two-forty fire off rounds, or a TOW [i.e., tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided] missile hit something, that’s music to your ears, kind of.”9 It comes to constitute, if readers will forgive the reference, a veritable “Symphony of Destruction”. Megadeth, however, it is worthwhile to remember, warned that “Just like the Pied Piper / led rats through the streets / We dance like marionettes” while “Acting like a robot” whose “metal brain corrodes”. Indeed, Drowning Pool’s album Sinner, from which the Iraq occupation forces’ favorite “Bodies” was lifted, was released by a record label called “Wind-Up” – referring, one assumes, to mechanical toys.
- Pieslak, Jonathan. “Music as an Inspiration for Combat among American Soldiers in Iraq”, in George Kassimeris and John Buckley, Eds. The Ashgate Research Companion to Modern Warfare. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2010, p. 386.
- Ibid., p. 390.
- Ibid., p. 395.
- Ibid., p. 392.
- Ibid., pp. 389-390.
- Ibid., p. 393.
- Ibid., p. 396.
- Ibid., p. 394.