Category: Music and Dance

Sound Targets: American Soldiers and Music in the Iraq War

By Jonathan Pieslak. 2009. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 216 pages. ISBN: 978-0-253-35323-8 (hard cover), 978-0-253-22087-5 (soft cover).

Reviewed by Lisa Gilman, University of Oregon

[Review length: 994 words • Review posted on October 13, 2009]

As the first book-length monograph about the role of music in the current U.S. war in Iraq (2003–present), Sound Targets: American Soldiers and Music in Iraq is an important and timely contribution about relationships between music, soldiers’ experiences of war, and power. Throughout, Jonathan Pieslak emphasizes ways that new technologies have transformed how people variously involved in the war can and do use music for a wide range of purposes. The accompanying website provides sound recordings of the interviews and the videos that form the basis of this study.

Pieslak approaches his project with unusual sensitivity and honesty. Acknowledging that the relationships between music, militarism, and war are controversial and emotionally and political laden, he effectively engages these topics by respectfully presenting different perspectives. He recognizes the limitations of his research methods—primarily interviews, web-based research, and examination of documentary films—and explains that on-site ethnographic fieldwork would have yielded more comprehensive information. Yet, the result is a provocative and insightful study.

As a composer, musician, and musicologist, Pieslak emphasizes how the musical qualities of metal and rap, the genres emphasized in the book, make them especially attractive to soldiers. Each chapter focuses on a clearly delineated topic about specific and very diverse contexts for musical engagement. The same styles of music can be used for a wide range of purposes: personal expression, social bonding, community formation, expressions of patriotism, coping with stress and trauma, indoctrination, and even torture.

Chapter 1 traces the historical process through which metal genres came to be associated with violence, aggression, and war in American culture, by tracing their usage in television shows, movies, and MTV videos. By incorporating metal musical elements in its advertising, a trend beginning in 2003, the military capitalizes on the timbral signifiers of metal—electric guitar distortion, driving percussion, repetition, power cords—which are linked ideologically in the U.S. to physical power, patriotism, heroism, and excitement. Pieslak correlates metal’s prominence in military recruiting videos to the recent proliferation of videos created informally by soldiers and disseminated widely on the Internet that usually include images of wartime experiences with driving metal tracks.

In chapter 2, Pieslak describes soldiers’ use of metal and rap to motivate for combat. Contemporary soldiers build upon long-existing traditions of using music to create feelings of unity, abate fear, and invoke excitement prior to battle. In this conflict, new technologies have expanded when, where, and how one can listen. Soldiers absorb private musical selections through their individual listening devices, and sophisticated sound technology enables soldiers to blare music in military vehicles during missions and patrols.

Chapter 3 considers how anti-American and anti-Israel movements in the Middle East use music to create feelings of solidarity, enmity against the U.S. and Israel, and as motivation for battle. A weakness of this chapter is that unlike with the material about Americans, Pieslak does not interview anyone involved in these contexts. Despite this limitation, this topic is especially important because it highlights that those involved in all sides of a conflict can capitalize strategically on music’s symbolic and emotional appeal to achieve their goals.

Pieslak examines how music has been used by the U.S. military to “demoralize, intimidate, or influence an enemy without physical engagement” (78) in chapter 4. He describes the blasting of loud music on a population through loudspeakers and the use of music during interrogations and explores whether the latter constitutes torture. He cautions against equating all use of music in interrogations as torture because doing so “immediately casts those who used this technique as torturers and war criminals” (91). An ethnographic approach that explores the experiences of those involved, by which he means U.S. military interrogators, reveals a far more complicated story. Excluded from his discussion are the perspectives of those who have been receivers of these techniques, perspectives difficult to attain, but necessary to determine the possibility of long-term repercussions.

Chapter 5 considers some examples of soldiers’ musical expressions. The main sources are recordings that are widely available for purchase or through the Internet rather than less formal examples of soldiers jamming, rapping, or recording during deployment. His examples amplify the complexities of soldiers’ experiences and ways in which music, both the lyrical and musical dimensions, is well-suited for expressing a wide range of emotions, including patriotism, heroism, grief, longing, nostalgia, humor, fear, and anger.

The final and most insightful chapter explores why rap and metal are especially prominent in the soundscapes of American soldiers. Each is a broad category that encompasses multiple sub-genres, all of which are not identically linked ideologically. Pieslak argues that metal genres are prominent because of their lyrical and timbral associations with power, hyper-individualism, and lyrical content about death, destruction, war, and chaos. The sub-genre of rap most listened to is “gangsta rap,” which is about the power of an individual to survive and wage violence against anyone or anything that threatens his survival (138). He then rightly complicates these statements by exploring relationships between the popularity of these genres with the demographics and associated identity politics of the majority of those serving as enlisted men and women. He also contrasts the psychological states of soldiers preparing for battle, which may include fatigue, fear, anger, disillusionment, with the state of mind necessary for combat, and suggests that these genres can help transform people’s emotions. Another important topic is why the same timbral and lyrical qualities of a single style of music or song can be used to motivate some people and to frustrate and irritate others as in the case of psychological tactics discussed in chapter 4.

Pieslak ends by recognizing the book’s ambitious scope and that it raises as many questions as it addresses. The postscript provides an inspiring discussion of possible lines of inquiry for future scholarship. I highly recommend this book for all those interested in relationships between artistic expression and politics, war, militarism, and psychology. Its writing style is both accessible and sophisticated, making it appropriate for use in either undergraduate or graduate courses.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.