Happy 5th Anniversary of my redeployment from Afghanistan. I’m pinning this post back to the top because it’s the one I associate most with the day of my return, 8 November 2009. Read on, and you’ll see why.
All soldiers go to war with an Ipod or smartphone full of music with which they while away the long hours of the movement into theater and into which they retreat to block out the boredom and misery of deployment. Vulnerable to the shameless emotionalism of pop songs in a way they may not be in the States, deployed soldiers are seared by poignant expressions of longing and loss, and made exuberant by celebrations of love and life. Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” overplayed to the point of banality on classic rock stations, brought me to my knees when played at a fallen soldier’s memorial service in Afghanistan. But even the most trite song, experienced under the conditions of deployment, accrues intensity. A good example is in the following video, which features Linkin Park’s “Waiting for the End,” a song by a rap-rock band I normally wouldn’t pay much attention to other than in conjunction with this video. But the video features the cheerleaders of my beloved Washington Redskins visiting FOBs in Kuwait and Afghanistan, some of which I recognize. The combination of those familiar landscapes, homely scenes of FOB life, and—what?—all that out-of-place feminine beauty?–jacks up my appreciation of the song, while the song makes my memories of deployment more vivid.
The following video of Air Force personnel performing a stunning version of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” does not make me nostalgic, however. Instead it recreates the power of music within the deployment experience. The brown t-shirts, reflective safety belts, and plywood backdrop add the realistic touches that cinch within the heart the song’s expression of irrecoverable loss, which is a huge emotional component of deployment. The power of the performance is clearly related to the intensity of being so far from home.
Turning to music that specifically addresses the war, the record is uneven and not very clear. On opposite poles of the political spectrum are Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” and John Fogerty’s “I Can’t Take It No More.” Both Keith and Fogerty are fine singers, and all props to Keith for his support of the troops and to Fogerty for being a US Army veteran and also for writing and singing the great Vietnam anti-war song “Fortunate Son.” But here, Fogerty’s lefty screed and Keith’s uber-patriotism are both unsubtle to the max and their sentiments are enveloped in formulaic song structures and sounds. Much more interesting to me is Mike Doughty’s “Fort Hood,” named after an Army base that is not mentioned in a song that only obliquely refers to the war:
The lyrics go:
I’d rather watch movie stars get fat
I’d rather hang up the flag and be done with it
I’d rather keep the frenzy and the fire out of my mind
I’d rather take sides in an argument
I’d rather crank up the bass in a dark basement
I’d rather leave the mobs and the murder in a distant land
Let the sunshine in
My vote’s a bed and a football pool
Five on the red and six on the blue
Wake up, fool, this is no time for a shouting match
I smell blood and there’s no blood around
Blanked out eyes and the blanked out sound
See them coming back motionless in an airport lounge
Let the sunshine in
You should be getting stoned with a prom dress girl
You should still believe in an endless world
You should be blasting Young Jeezy in a parking lot
Let the sunshine in
In a blog post titled “So What’s Fort Hood About?“ Doughty explains:
I want to be really clear about this. I’ve gotten emails from soldiers who dig it, but I want to make it totally explicit what the song means.
The first verse is about guilt. That I can go about my daily life without thinking of the violence and the fear in Iraq, and the sacrifice people are making over there.
The first part of the second verse is about frustration with political pissing matches, instead of unity among our elected representatives to serve these guys. The second half is about how the war haunts me; how I see dudes in uniform in airports and wonder what’s going on in their heads, what they’ve witnessed.
The bridge is about lost innocence. Young guys that go over there and come back scarred–bodily, often, but also psychologically, that so many of them will have the burden of post-traumatic stress disorder, nightmares, haunting images.
I wrote the song basically out of two experiences; I went to Walter Reed last year, met some guys who had lost limbs, and came out scared and grateful. And I grew up an Army brat in the 70s, when many of the adult males around me were in Vietnam, and there was lots of strange behavior that I now recognize as PTSD.
Fort Hood is the base in Texas that’s lost the most people in Iraq and Afghanistan.
OK, cool. In November 2009, two or so years after the song came out, a U.S. Army medical service corps officer named Nidal Malik Hasan shot up the Soldier Readiness Center, or SRC, on Fort Hood and in so doing killed 13 soldiers. SRCs are places where soldiers go through a series of medical and administrative checks just prior to and just after deployment. At the time Hasan was rampaging through the Fort Hood SRC, I was snaking my way through the Fort Riley, Kansas, SRC, just a day after returning from Afghanistan. I watched the news reports of the massacre filter in on TVs meant to amuse us while we were waiting in the SRC’s long lines. My first thought was that a soldier standing in line at Fort Hood had snapped under the tedium of the bureaucratic processing. Only later did I learn that Hasan was a disgruntled Muslim. That’s significant, but actually more interesting to me was that he was from Arlington, Virginia, as am I, and as is General Stanley McChrystal, who was then commander-in-chief in Afghanistan. That confluence made me think about the Vietnamese-American singer Thao Nguyen, whom I saw in concert two days before flying to Afghanistan and whose music I listened to throughout my deployment. Nguyen is from Falls Church, Virginia, right next to Arlington, and in one of my favorite publicity shots she sports an Arlington Cubs soccer jersey. Man did I ever play on a lot of Arlington Cubs sports teams growing up. Maybe Hasan and McChrystal did, too, but I know for sure that McChrystal played, as did I, on a Mario’s Pizza baseball team, because he says so in his memoir.
Sometime later I discovered that Mike Doughty had grown up on West Point, home of the United States Military Academy, where I currently live and teach. I don’t know exactly how, but the music that we listen to that is associated with the war knits together the personal with the national and international by imbuing them with meaning and making them felt deeply in the heart. “Know Better, Learn Faster” sings Thao Nguyen in my favorite song by her, but only if it were that easy.
“Fort Hood,” written by Gerome Ragni, Galt MacDermot, James Rado, and Michael Doughty. Lyrics ©EMI Music Publishing, 2008.