Tuning into war: Prof's new book looks at music and battle

A soldier in battle gear with ear buds

“Let the bodies hit the floor,” shouts the band Drowning Pool over and over and over during the chorus of their song “Bodies.”

The group wrote the tune as a reflection of the mosh pits they see while performing on stage, but the song became an anthem of war for many troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Its lyrics were the soundtrack that blared through headphones and speakers when they prepared for combat.

But these soldiers didn’t choose the song — or similarly aggressive metal and rap hits by the likes of Metallica, Slayer and Lil Jon — because they were all Rambo-like fighters exploding with testosterone and ravenous for battle.

“They all felt scared, vulnerable, insecure, tired or lacking in motivation as they geared up to leave the wire,” Lisa Gilman, a UO folklore and English professor, writes in her new book “My Music, My War: Listening Habits of the U.S. Troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.” “Part of the experience of war was that a person had to be confident, controlled and dominant — to be otherwise could cost one one’s life and put others in danger.”

The aggressive music helped them “transform their mental state from whatever they were feeling at the time … to the mental state needed for the upcoming task,” she explained.

“I was a completely different animal; you have to be,” said Joseph, one of the solders Gilman quotes in the book. She either used pseudonyms or didn’t reveal last names.

Joseph would keep his headphones on until the second he had to leave the gate, fearing that his aggressive mindset would disappear before he needed it the most.

The fact that many soldiers used aggressive music as a survival tactic was just one of the powerful insights that Gilman uncovered through her research about the music soldiers listen to in wartime.

Gilman, who was frustrated by media coverage that routinely generalized soldiers, decided to research the subject because she wanted to humanize the wartime experience and reveal its implications for the men and women who serve in the armed forces.

But that’s not as easy as just asking troops to talk about war. Asking members of the military to share such emotional memories involves obvious sensitivities. Plus, many soldiers were trained to avoid reporters and interviewers after so much negative press was generated during the two wars.

Music gave Gilman an inroad into profound conversations while being respectful of the people she talked with and allowing them to maintain control over what they discussed.

“Because music is so tied to memory neurologically and experientially, asking veterans about musical listening was a highly effective way to evoke memories of their war experiences,” Gilman said. “Think about it this way: If I asked you what music you listened to as a child, your answer would likely include many stories beyond what songs your parents played during your youth.”

She quickly confirmed that questioning troops about their music listening would inspire them to provide her with answers that revealed much more than what was on their iPods.

One soldier told Gilman how hard it was to be away from his family when he described trading Coldplay and Radiohead for the Beatles before his second deployment. “I thought it would be a little more happy,” he said, describing the soundtrack of his first tour as “not the type of music that was going to keep me alive.”

Another soldier recounted the moment he realized the impact of the Iraq war. He was listening to the Cranberries perform “Zombie,” a song that mourns the loss suffered from war and violence, as he drove through a combat zone. The song’s relevance was not why he was playing it, but it was what brought the war into focus for the solider.

“Seeing the kids and how hard they had it, it just starts to add up, and you’re in the middle of a combat zone looking at what is talked about in the song; whether tanks or bombs or guns, it’s all there,” Keith said.

A soldier named Benji reported using music as a coping mechanism for post-traumatic stress disorder when he returned home from Iraq and, like many veterans, struggled to connect with the services he needed to transition back to civilian life. As another veteran pointed out: “There’s boot camp to indoctrinate you how to be a Marine; there’s not one on how to return to being a civilian.”

The stories Gilman heard were as varied as the musical selections that soldiers shared with her, revealing both how idiosyncratic their listening habits were and how integral music was to their experience in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Troops had artists from Norah Jones to Bob Dylan to Toby Keith to DMX on their playlists. And music served as everything from a sleeping aid to a lifeline back home to an introduction to new political perspectives to a distraction from the physical and emotional demands of war.

While music has always been a paramount feature of the wartime experience, technological advancements have amplified both how ingrained music is in the wars and how closely it is linked to the emotional experience of war and its aftermath.

Sleek technology now enables troops to play music at virtually any time; they can conceal headphones under their helmets and stream music through the sound systems of barracks and military vehicles. And MP3s offer troops a near bottomless supply of music and the ability to control what is playing moment to moment.

 “MP3s allowed users to be more attentive to the vagaries and changes of mood, seeking either confirmation of mood or transformation in an alternate mood via their choice of playlist,” Gilman writes.

If there’s one major takeaway from Gilman’s research, it’s that this “experience of going into war” is as intensely individual as each soldier’s playlist, yet it affects everyone in an intensely powerful way. With so few resources available to help troops deal with the physical, mental and emotional demands of war, it’s not surprising that music has become such a prolific tool for handling such demands.

Multiple soldiers even told Gilman about how music actually saved their lives.

Keith, who suffered from PTSD, was sitting in front of his computer with a gun in his lap and his finger on the trigger when he discovered the song “Support Us” by Soldier Hard, a fellow veteran who shares his own mental health struggles, and his survival story, through his music. Soldier Hard explained that he’s recorded songs like “Road to Recovery,” “Dear PTSD” and “See Clearly Now” to “speak up” for his military brothers and sisters “and help other people cope, or understand.”

Keith listened to Soldier Hard’s song on repeat for hours and put down the gun because it helped him realize that “I’m not alone going through this. If he can find a way to this, I can too.”

Gilman’s research confirmed that Keith is certainly not alone.

“Regardless of how one feels about war … the reality is that in war, no one escapes fear, domination, violence, isolation, pain and loss,” Gilman writes. “Through music, combat veterans remember and sometimes forget, process, and hopefully heal.”

—By Emily Halnon, University Communications