Literary historians tell us that during the Civil War, World War I, and World War II odes, ballads, and other popular and folk forms of expression related to the wars often appeared in newspapers, magazines, and other venues of wide-spread public dissemination. Though the offerings did not shy from describing battlefield death and destruction, they also paid homage to fallen heroes and attempted to galvanize patriotism and a spirit of sacrifice on the part of the nation’s citizenry. It was against such popular effusions, the historians claim, that more complex and brooding artists, such as Walt Whitman and Wilfred Owen, wrought artful takes on war that eventually made the popular war literature of their time appear simplistic, naïve, and old-fashioned.
By Vietnam, so goes this line of historical retrospective, the elevated literary tone and anti-war politics had practically driven popular styles and themes out of existence. Today, even a Hollywood commercial blockbuster such as American Sniper gussies itself up in the mannerisms of critique, rather than celebration, even if celebrating American war prowess is its (unstated) intent. One exception could be the realm of music, because music unabashedly makes plays on the hearts of listeners and thus might seek to channel the intense emotions generated by war in search of popularity. But even there the record is scant. As far as I can tell, popular hit radio has left the wars untouched. So too have modern or contemporary rock and the club, urban, and dance scene. Metal and punk I don’t know too much about, but country has more to show for itself, though flag-wavers such as Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” seem to be isolated cases that prove the rule rather than common fare.
All of which is funny, because music remains vitally important in the lived lives of soldiers at war. Every soldier since 2001 I’m thinking has gone to war with a playback device full of songs and their heads full of many more. I’ll bet there’s few, for example, who haven’t sung along to the Killers as they chant “I’ve got soul, but I’m not a soldier” and not thought about the implications for their own identities as fighting men and women. But as much as music shapes their actual lives, men and women in the military might listen long and hard for representations of war and soldiers.
And yet I have come today to praise war music, not bury it. Below is a sampler of songs from the popular idiom that illustrate that at least once-in-a-while our nation’s musicians have referenced Iraq and Afghanistan in ways old and sometimes new.
1. Old Crow Medicine Show, “Levi.” Written in honor of Lieutenant Leevi Barnard, US Army, KIA in Iraq in 2009. OCMS can do no wrong, in my opinion, and the sight of these young Virginia men singing and playing their hearts out live makes me go mushy inside.
2. Jason Isbell, “Dress Blues.” Written in honor of Corporal Matthew Conley, USMC, KIA in Iraq in 2006. Country-rock megastars Zac Brown Band have taken to covering this song, which is cool.
3. The Offspring, “Hammerhead.” Nothing subtle about this, but if you think songs about post-war rage should be as aggressively loud as post-war rage itself, or if you just love punk-rock power-chording like I do, then the Offspring have you covered.
4. Josh Ritter, “Girl in the War.” The lyrics are enigmatic and might be interpreted as other than a commentary on women on the battlefield, but why make it hard? The title alone suggests how the times-have-a-changed.
I’m sure there’s more out there, so if I’ve overlooked one of your favorites, send it to me, and if we ever meet, let’s listen to it together. Who knows how any of this works in the minds of impressionable young men and women? I’m old enough to have listened to both Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” and Barry Sandler’s “The Ballad of the Green Berets” in the 1960s. I love Dylan way more than I do Sandler, but later I joined the Army and though I wasn’t Special Forces, I served alongside Green Berets in Afghanistan, so which artist ultimately had the most influence on me?