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My Music, My War: The Listening Habits of U.S. Troops in Iraq and Afghanistan

My Music, My War: The Listening Habits of U.S. Troops in Iraq and Afghanistan

by Lisa Gilman

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<P>In the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, recent technological developments in music listening enabled troops to carry with them vast amounts of music and easily acquire new music, for themselves and to share with their fellow troops as well as friends and loved ones far away. This ethnographic study examines U.S. troops' musical-listening habits during and after war, and the accompanying fear, domination, violence, isolation, pain, and loss that troops experienced. My Music, My War is a moving ethnographic account of what war was like for those most intimately involved. It shows how individuals survive in the messy webs of conflicting thoughts and emotions that are intricately part of the moment-to-moment and day-to-day phenomenon of war, and the pervasive memories in its aftermath. It gives fresh insight into musical listening as it relates to social dynamics, gender, community formation, memory, trauma, and politics.</P>

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819576019
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Publication date: 04/05/2016
Series: Music / Culture
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
File size: 3 MB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

<P>LISA GILMAN is an associate professor in the Department of English and Folklore Program at the University of Oregon. She is the author of The Dance of Politics: Performance, Gender, and Democratization in Malawi and director of the film Grounds for Resistance: Stories of War, Sacrifice, and Good Coffee.</P>

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In the wars in Afghanistan, Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), and Iraq, Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), that were instigated by the September 11, 2001, attacks on U.S. targets, musical listening was pervasive in U.S. troops' experience of war. Recent technological developments enabled listening in many different contexts and allowed troops to carry with them vast amounts of music and easily acquire new music, for themselves and to share with others in their immediate vicinity and far away. War is tough. Regardless of how one feels about war generally, or whether one thinks a specific war is just or necessary, the reality is that in war, no one escapes fear, domination, violence, isolation, pain, and loss. For those troops who fought in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as members of the U.S. military, warfare was necessarily fraught with ambivalence. Many U.S. troops may have been proud of their skills and professional accomplishments as well as their contributions in serving their country and protecting its citizens. They may have enjoyed the strong bonds and friendships that developed among members of units and the opportunities to travel and participate in important historical events. Yet most also missed their friends and family members; felt isolated and sometimes dreadfully bored; were uncomfortable with some of what they were required to do; and experienced pain at the loss that surrounded them, both within the U.S. military and what they experienced, observed, and sometimes inflicted on others.

The ways in which those most directly involved experienced these wars were highly idiosyncratic. People navigated the complexities of war in very individualized ways, at the same time that their relationships to their experiences were intricately tied to collective experience, cultural expectations, and widespread political perspectives. Musical listening was one of the few activities over which U.S. troops had control during their deployments and that they could do both privately and collectively. For many service men and women, listening to music provided one of the most salient mechanisms for thinking, feeling, escaping, communicating, connecting, passing the time, bonding, hiding, and grieving.

In his writing on iPod culture in urban spaces, Michael Bull argues that "the use of personal stereos changes the nature of the user's cognition and facilitates the effective management of these states together with a range of strategies (technologies) enabling the successful everyday management of space, place and interpersonal experience." Personal stereo use provides a "variety of strategies that enable the user to successfully prioritize their own experience, personally, interpersonally and geographically." Individual listening devices provide individuals with "a vastly expanded range of management strategies as they go about their daily lives" (2000, 9). Whereas Bull writes about people listening in industrialized cities, this book is about people living within the isolated and dangerous confines of war, where the need for management strategies is especially great. The ubiquity with which contemporary Americans can access and listen to music allowed troops to creatively and ingeniously take advantage of music as a resource available for entertainment, expression of identity, communication, and emotional and physical survival.

Janata Petr and colleagues (2007), Thomas Turino (2008), José van Dijck (2006), and others explain that because music is such a salient part of people's lives, and people often experience life concurrently with listening to music, specific musical pieces, artists, or genres often "evoke autobiographical memories and the emotions associated with them" (Petr et al. 2007, 845). Therefore, it has been especially effective to use questioning about musical listening as my entry point into investigating memories about the experience of war and the process of reintegrating into "normal" life afterward. This study, the result of many interviews, less formal conversations, and ethnographic fieldwork with individuals exploring their musical listening during and after their deployments, contributes to scholarly insights about music and conflict at the same time that it provides an avenue through which to gain greater understanding about what war is like and how individuals survive in the messy webs of conflicting thoughts and emotions that are so intricately part of the moment-to-moment and day-to-day phenomenon of war and the pervasive memories in its aftermath.


I borrow the term "musicking" from the late Christopher Small to emphasize that "music is not primarily a thing or a collection of things, but an activity in which we engage." Musicking includes performance, composition, dancing, and the focus of this study, listening (1987, 50; cf. Crafts, Cavicchi, and Keil 1993). Troops participated in music making. Some brought instruments, which they played privately or in groups at informal gatherings or in more formalized settings, such as religious services. Shannon, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, remembered that at one point during his time in Iraq, the military shipped a piano from "somewhere," he thought maybe Kuwait, for use during religious services. Others brought with them smaller instruments, such as guitars, mandolins, or harmonicas. With the accessibility of recording and editing technology, some troops recorded instrumental or vocal tracks, some of which were made available to wide audiences through YouTube and other Internet sites or on compact discs (CDs) available for purchase. It was also common for units to create videos to commemorate their time at war or to document specific events, many of which are still readily accessible on YouTube and other Internet sites. These videos tended to be scored with popular musical recordings, creating intersecting forms of expression. These examples of musicking are worthy of study in and of themselves. My focus, however, is primarily on musical listening, the objective of which is experiential — active and passive consumption and engagement — rather than something created for an audience, because listening to music was the type of musicking most readily available to U.S. troops at war.

Like Anthony Seeger, I consider that "listening is as important as making sounds" and that "performance is an exchange in which one side is actively giving performance and the other side is actively reciprocating with attention" (2010, 123; see also Cavicchi 2011). When music is experienced through recordings, audience members are not limited to those present when the music was first produced, but rather expand across time and space, yet always as reciprocal participants in the performance. Listening to music was pervasive throughout the days and nights of troops' deployments, and musicking permeated their day-to-day reality through what Heike Weber refers to as dedicated and secondary listening. "Dedicated listening" refers to people consciously focusing on music, whether or not they are also engaged in another activity, and includes such things as a person choosing to play recorded music, actively paying attention to the music in the surroundings, discussing music, sharing music with others, and so on. Weber defines "secondary listening" as "listening to music while doing something else" (2009, 69). I add to this definition occasions when individuals may not be doing much else, but nevertheless are not listening closely to the music; rather, the music simmers in the background of their consciousness as they contemplate other things. The distinction between the two is muddy; it is relevant here only because of the importance of examining the types of dynamics that occur in all sorts of contexts in which music is present, regardless of the degree of active engagement.

The men and women I interviewed described music as "being everywhere" throughout their time at war. Army veteran Joseph's description in an interview on July 9, 2009, echoed that of many others: "I was always listening to music, I mean constantly. Music was sort of a sound track of my life." Musical listening was an integral part of work and nonwork activities for many, though they all reminded me that leisure time during deployments was not the same as in civilian life. Most civilians leave their physical work environments behind when work is over and engage in leisure activities with different people or at least in other places. During deployments, no such distancing was possible. Troops were largely in the same spaces whether they were working or not, surrounded by the same people, wearing the same clothing, and were always at risk of similar dangers, with their weapons in easy reach. The overlap of work and leisure times and spaces made music especially attractive, because it provided a way to differentiate time and space. Someone needing distance from others usually had no separate place to go or much opportunity for differentiated activity; thus putting on headphones and listening to music privately was often a way to create privacy, what Bull refers to as a "sound bubble" (2000, 2007) — or as Benji, a veteran of the U.S. Marines, explained, putting on headphones signaled "leave me the fuck alone."

Troops I interviewed described listening to music through headphones privately during all sorts of nonwork activities, from resting to sleeping, reading, writing letters, exercising, hanging out with friends, watching movies, and playing video games. They listened to music in collective settings by sharing one side of their headphones with a friend; projecting music through speakers attached to individual listening devices or computers; or when they were available, through CD and other media players. Group listening occurred in sleeping quarters, in gyms, on basketball courts, and on large bases, sometimes at organized events, such as dance nights.

People also listened to music during work activities. Troops reported listening to music on bases in operations centers, clinics, motor pools, and other work environments. Some music in work situations occurred privately, for example when a medic or chaplain played music in a consultation with a suffering soldier, or when a marine on watch listened to music through headphones in the middle of the night to help stay awake. As has been widely documented, troops often listened to aggressive musical forms through headphones or collectively through speakers as they prepared for patrols and missions, an auditory pick-me-up intended to get them into the necessary mental state for the activities to come (Pieslak 2009). Though many reported that they were not supposed to listen to music during patrols and missions, they nevertheless did, though whether or not such listening happened depended largely on whether it was tolerated by a vehicle's command.


The rapid pace of technological innovation has transformed the musical listening potential in these wars compared to previous ones. The development of recording technologies in the twentieth century radically transformed people's engagement with music because of the possibility of listening to music separately from the space in which it was performed, which created what Ahahid Kassabian (2001) calls a new mode of "ubiquitous listening." With the availability of recorded sound, people could listen to music simultaneously with other activities, enabling musical listening to blend into the environment. This disarticulation between performance and listening spaces has continued to increase with subsequent technological advances, which have dramatically expanded the accessibility and mobility of musical recording, playing, and listening for U.S. troops at war.

Music has always been an important part of the military and of war, serving as a rallying cry, motivating warriors to charge, entertaining troops during lulls, and providing a means of identity making and self-reflection. Folklorist Lydia Fish (2003) describes the prevalence of musical listening, composition, production, and sharing during the Vietnam War. The Armed Forces Radio broadcast popular music across combat zones, a musical repertory that was restricted and controlled by the military (cf. Baade 2012b). Troops listened to this station at the same time that they created their own idiosyncratic broadcasts through underground and home-style radio systems. State-of-the art recording equipment was widely available, and on reel-to-reel tapes troops recorded themselves playing music, concert nights, and the sounds of war, recordings that were subsequently disseminated across combat zones and eventually within the United States (Heuer 2003). Prior to the advent of portable technologies, when they were in locations where it was feasible troops could also listen to music on turntables, as remembered by ethnomusicologist Frank Gunderson, whose listening habits when he was in the air force from 1980 to 1984 "focused on LPs, played on my PX-purchased stereo" (personal communication to author, January 22, 2015).

People I interviewed who had served in the U.S. military and been deployed in the 1990s described the prevalence of more portable boom boxes in many work and living environments, which enabled troops to listen to music collectively while they worked or hung out. Many people brought individualized listening devices — Walkmans and portable CD players — to deployments, which they listened to mostly during nonwork time. The first cassette Walkmans, introduced by the Sony Corporation in 1979, were revolutionary because they enabled "users to travel through any space accompanied by their own 'individualized' soundworld" (Bull 2000, 3). Yet with portable cassette and CD players, one could only listen to as much music as could be carried on recording media. Though the players were relatively small and portable, they nevertheless took up enough space that it was difficult for troops to easily hide them and listen to music during times when it was prohibited. These devices did allow for private listening and for people to shut out the outside world by creating sonic sound bubbles. With cassettes they could create more individualized playlists through mixtapes, which also enabled music sharing. For example Simon, interviewed on October 11, 2012, who served in the navy from 1993 to 1998, described his personal musical collection at the time as consisting of mixtapes made for him by friends. He enjoyed the opportunity to listen to these cassettes and to spend time with others listening to their music, but his ability to acquire new music or to create new playlists for himself geared to his own mood or musical needs was limited. Music was everywhere on his ship during his two deployments, but he remembered getting bored with his selections very quickly. Troops who served during this period explained that the exchanges (PX), stores on bases, sold CDs, but the options did not necessarily match their musical tastes. They were always happy to find ones that they liked, but many were more likely to count on friends or family members to send them CDs or cassettes in care packages. They also remembered stocking up on recordings when they were on leave.

The timing of the beginning of the wars in Afghanistan (October 2001) and Iraq (March 2003) corresponded with especially significant transformations in the technology of recorded sound. The MP3 format, developed in the 1990s, uses a technique called compression to produce a very small file that can be as small as 12 percent of the size of the original format, for example, a .wav file (Sterne 2012, 1–2). These tiny sound files, which proliferated in the early 2000s, transformed the production, consumption, and distribution of music, and troops benefited because "more music" was "more ready-to-hand for more people than at any other time in human history" (Sterne 2012, 224). The MP3 revolution instigated what Jonathan Sterne refers to as the "age of musical abundance," and it exponentially increased the ability to acquire and share music with others (2012, 224). According to Bull, "for the first time in history, the majority of Westerners possess the technology to create their own private auditory world wherever they go" (2009, 83).

Troops who joined the service before the proliferation of MP3s and served through the transition described dramatic changes in their listening from one deployment to the next. No longer was space or weight an issue, because, as Sterne notes, "MP3s are particularly striking because they are so small but circulate on such a massive scale" (2012, 225). Airman Shannon explained that "in the days of CDs and tapes, those were very hard to bring over to war and especially to trade. ... In this day and age, war is very different, in that people are able to bring over stuff from home like that, that they did not have in previous wars." A number of interviewees noted that with the availability of MP3 players, part of their preparation for deployment was purchasing individual listening devices with the largest amount of memory they could afford so as to maximize the amount of music they could bring with them and continue to acquire. Some brought portable computers, whose memory potential allowed for enormous amounts of music to be stored. Shannon explained: "Even though we were sleeping in a tent [on] a cot in pretty rough conditions, a lot of people had laptops and were able to utilize all that technology." No longer did troops have to wait for loved ones or to mail them CDs or to be on a base that sold music to acquire music; all they needed was access to the Internet.


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Table of Contents

<P>Preface<BR>Acknowledgments<BR>Introduction<BR>Setting the Scene<BR>Musicking at Work and Leisure<BR>Music as a Sound Track of War<BR>Music, Gender, and the Paradox of Masculinity<BR>"Music Doesn't Judge": Managing Feelings at War<BR>Coming Home<BR>Music and Political Transformation<BR>As Time Goes By<BR>Appendix: People Interviewed<BR>Notes<BR>References<BR>Index</P>

What People are Saying About This

Jonathan Ritter

“A gifted interviewer, Lisa Gilman goes beyond stereotypes of the wounded American soldier by painting a complex and nuanced emotional portrait of contemporary soldiers’ lives, ones which the media rarely allow us to see and hear.”

From the Publisher

"A gifted interviewer, Lisa Gilman goes beyond stereotypes of the wounded American soldier by painting a complex and nuanced emotional portrait of contemporary soldiers' lives, ones which the media rarely allow us to see and hear."—Jonathan Ritter, coeditor of Music in the Post-9/11 World

"My Music, My War makes an original contribution to current studies on music and war, with its nuanced discussion of how music listening is used to define, and at times resist, gendered norms and rhetorics of hyper-masculinity, as well as the complex roles that music plays in veterans' reintegration into civilian life.""—Kip Pegley, coeditor of Music, Politics, and Violence

"A gifted interviewer, Lisa Gilman goes beyond stereotypes of the wounded American soldier by painting a complex and nuanced emotional portrait of contemporary soldiers' lives, ones which the media rarely allow us to see and hear."—Jonathan Ritter, coeditor of Music in the Post-9/11 World

Kip Pegley

“My Music, My War makes an original contribution to current studies on music and war, with its nuanced discussion of how music listening is used to define, and at times resist, gendered norms and rhetorics of hyper-masculinity, as well as the complex roles that music plays in veterans’ reintegration into civilian life.”

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