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date: 19 October 2019

Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, thefree

  • Jonathan Pieslak

Music has always been a part of war. While much of music’s role throughout history has been to signal commands and maneuver troops, it also appears as a powerful way to inspire troops for combat, to boost morale, or even to intimidate an adversary. Plato believed that the Phrygian mode could incite aggressive behavior. In American history, George Washington felt that music was so important to the morale of his troops that he ordered drum and fife majors to improve the quality of music or suffer a deduction in wages.

There are seemingly countless examples of the close relationship between music and war, and the wars in Afghanistan (2001–) and Iraq (2003–10) are no exception. Soldiers’ relationship with music in these wars is largely shaped by contemporary audio technology, which allows music to be present on and off the battlefield in unprecedented ways. Although the purposes for which music is used—an inspiration for combat, morale, personal expression—are no different from wars throughout the centuries, mp3 players, laptops, and music recording software dramatically influence how soldiers consume and create music in the combat theater in new ways. If the Vietnam War was, on a musical level, the “first rock ‘n’ roll war,” it may be appropriate to dub the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as the first “iPod wars.” This entry briefly explores some of the ways music operates in warfare, focusing on the experiences of American soldiers in Iraq.

An American soldier in the 3rd Platoon of the 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, wears an Apple iPod on patrol in Afghanistan, 2009.

REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov /Landov

Iraq War veteran Major Sergeant (MSG) CJ Grisham highlights one important way that music operated as an inspiration and motivation for combat during his deployment at the initial invasion of Iraq in March 2003. As he and his fellow soldiers crossed the border into Iraq, they constructed a quasi surround-sound system in their truck by mounting small speakers in webbing made of out 550 cord, and jury-rigged a converter to a laptop with all of MSG Grisham’s mp3s on it. The music that accompanied them into Baghdad, and later Fallujah, was primarily comprised of metal and rap. MSG Grisham said:

you finally get yourself into that mentally that, you know what? I’m going to have to shoot at someone today, so might as well get pumped up for it. So that Eminem song, “Go to Sleep,” when we got to Fallujah was kind of our anthem and before every mission we’d blare that and we’d all scream the lyrics out. Now crossing the border (from Kuwait into Iraq), Metallica was the big push, and generally on the patrols, Metallica was a big patrol one . . . usually it was “Seek and Destroy”—was a good one, “The Four Horsemen,” “One,” which is great song, and “Sanitarium,” because we all felt a little crazy. It seemed like there was a Metallica song for just about every mood.

MSG Grisham’s experience is echoed by many soldiers speaking about their relationship with music (interviews available at Either individually or as a group, soldiers often listen to metal or rap before leaving camps and bases as a way to motivate themselves for the possibility of combat and to put themselves in an aggressive mindset. This music was sometimes heard within vehicles as soldiers used it to stay aggressive and to maintain a heightened state of awareness. However, soldiers also claimed that the music ceased when fighting began. Even in the uncommon circumstance when music played through their vehicle or communication systems, it never truly provided a soundtrack to the fighting because they claimed that the music seemed to stop during actual combat.

Music’s power to motivate soldiers for combat can be contrasted to its equally powerful ability to help soldiers relax. Music can play an important role as a calming tool and even to transport soldiers home with memories of loved ones. An Afghanistan war veteran, who adopts the pseudonym “Major Pain,” effectively explained this power: “Music can help you escape the terror and terrible things you may see. Make you think and see things back home or bring smells of a Christmas morning from home to you in a hellhole. Music can take you through a time warp and even though for a second, can make forget the hell around you” (Pieslak). Unlike the music that motivated soldiers for combat, which was comprised of almost exclusively metal and rap, the music used for relaxation consists of almost every genre and style.

Research suggests that music may have considerable potential in soldier treatment. The emerging field of music therapy shows promising work regarding music in response to trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). For example, the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA), largely funded by the Recording Academy, ran the New York City Music Therapy Relief Project aimed at providing music therapy services for children, victims’ families, and others, to help them cope with the 11 September 2001 attacks. Preliminary evidence shows that these programs were highly successful. Similar music therapy could prove effective for soldiers recovering from physical and psychological trauma.

Additionally, music can be a powerful way of coming to terms with the experiences of war, either through composing music or listening to specific songs that somehow express bottled-up emotions. Specialist (SPC) Joshua Revak, a purple-heart veteran of the Iraq War, composed music for soldier memorial services, and recorded an album, In the Hours of Darkness, while recovering from almost being killed in a mortar attack. He sought to help fellow soldiers find solace in the music and to allow themselves to grieve for their fallen friends as a way of healing.

Another important way that music operates in the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is as a psychological tactic. In particular, the uses of music during detainee interrogation have received considerable attention for the media. In May 2003, Adam Piore wrote a short article for Newsweek magazine about a set of unusual interrogation techniques practiced by US military units. The article explained that “uncooperative Iraqis” were being exposed to music—Metallica, Drowning Pool, Barney (the purple dinosaur from a popular US children’s show)—in an effort to frustrate, irritate, and sleep deprive them into answering questions. Questions surrounding how and if this technique constitutes torture were given significant attention in the 2000s.

A soldier’s musical experience of war is shaped by many factors such as personal preference, ethnicity, geographic background, Military Occupational Specialty (MOS, i.e. their “job”), rank, age, gender, and social class, among others. Soldiers who saw combat on a day-to-day basis may have had a very different musical deployment than soldiers who did not leave the bases or camps that often. Despite these varied musical experiences, developments in audio technology in the 2000s significantly affected the ways American soldiers interact with music. In the Iraq War, music appears to play a more direct and significant role in the lives of soldiers than in previous American military conflicts, so much so that one soldier explained that “Music was a huge thing for me while in the war, music played a great deal in deployment. I listened to it as much as I could. I really don’t know what I would have done without my iPod over there. The military ought to issue an mp3 player to every Soldier!”


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  • J. Pieslak: Sound Targets: American Soldiers and Music in the Iraq War (Indianapolis and Bloomington, IN, 2009)
Journal of the Society for American Music