The Spartans had their flutists. The Scottish had their bagpipers. Various cavalry units have made good use of the trumpet throughout history. The Bible even says that Joshua brought down the walls of Jericho with the blast of a ram’s horn.
As long as humans have waged war, music has been an integral aspect of it for those who are sent to fight. So much that even in modern times, when a country is preparing for war, it’s referred to as, “beating the war drum.” Of course, music has been implemented in various ways through the ages. In the past, it was used to call out orders over the din of battle while maneuvering forces engaged in combat. It’s also been what kept a formation in step as it advances on the enemy.
More recently, reports have surfaced that music was a tool for waging psychological warfare against America’s adversaries, sometimes even during interrogations.
For the vast majority of American combat veterans in the post-9/11 era, music played a much different role. For them, music was more personal, capitalizing on the intersection of lyrics with instruments to increase the output of the body’s adrenal glands prior to combat missions. Stated simply, service members used music to get pumped up before leaving the wire. When tasked with going out day after day, night after night in the most dangerous corners of the world, service members needed every advantage possible to get their mind right for the chaos of combat. So what did they listen to, specifically?
Rock may seem obvious, but it’s accurate to say it’s the overwhelming favorite among modern warfighters. Preferences range from classic standbys like Metallica’s “For Whom The Bell Tolls” to more modern hits like Five Finger Death Punch’s “Bad Company.” Andrew Pavlica, who served in the 3rd Infantry Division and 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment as a tanker, told Task & Purpose, “I loved hardcore music to get my blood pumping. It kept me wide awake and alert too.” Pavlica, who preferred listening to “Destroy Everything” by Hatebreed on his way out the wire, went on to say, “Some of the crew liked it, and some didn’t. Shit motivated me. Still gives me goosebumps to this day.”
For Leo Jenkins, a former Army Ranger known for his prose about experiences during and after war, a more introspective approach did the trick. “In Iraq, I listened to the same A Perfect Circle song while kitting up. It’s called ‘The Outsider’ I believe.” Said Jenkins, a veteran of four combat deployments as a special operations medic. He relayed the heavy nature of that song selection in an interview with Task & Purpose recently, saying, “It’s about suicide, and while I wasn’t even close to suicidal in Iraq, I had fully accepted my own death. I wrote my own eulogy six weeks into that deployment. It wasn’t a pump-me-up song, it was more about coming to accept my own mortality.”
Perhaps no song is more synonymous with the wartime experience than “Bodies” by Drowning Pool. It may seem obvious why the song was so popular among combat troops with the hook, “Let the bodies hit the floor,” being repeated over and over again throughout the track. But the band’s original vocalist Dave Williams has a take on the song that presents a view most veterans can identify with even more than the overtly violent lyrics. In an interview with Hiponline.com, he said, “It’s about my perspective when I look out and see the pit. It’s about forgetting everything that has happened to you that week, leave your bullshit at the door, and get it all out. But you have to have respect for the others in the pit. If you push them down, you have to pick them back up. I’m not going to get behind the violence thing, it is violent, but there is a certain amount of respect and a code.”
Of course, there is more to the music of war than just hard rock. But whether it’s country, rap, pop, or even classical music in some cases, music has left its imprint on a generation of warfighters. Those songs, unique to every individual, are the anthem of a generation of youth who willfully put themselves in harm’s way. They are the lyrics and melodies that have the power of a time machine, transporting those who have moved on back to a place where they likely experienced the best and worst moments of their life. They have the power of evoking everything from a tear to a smile, sometimes both at the same time in remembrance of times past and friends lost.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that “For Whom The Bell Tolls” was by AC/DC, not Metallica. (Updated 2/8/2017; 3:34 p.m.)