Next time you put on the new Spoon single to make that I-4 drive go by a little faster, or turn up Gnarls Barkley on your iPod to drown out the background noise at the office, consider what musical escapism means to troops in Iraq.
Think of them blasting whatever CDs they can find on a shitty disc player (whose life expectancy in that desert sand is just a couple of months). Think of the soldier nursing his ration of two Budweisers, drowning in the sound of 50 Cent and Beyoncé as strobe lights flash in some Spartan military mess hall.
Think of the scenes in Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein's documentary Gunner Palace, which, for showing how life is lived in this war, should be mandatory viewing. Think of gonzo Spc. Stuart Wilf — wild-eyed, lanky in an Exhumed T-shirt, leaping around with guttural death-grind screams, strumming a tinny guitar, purposefully oblivious to the RPG making impact in the distance.
Think of Spc. Richmond Shaw, using freestyle verse to exorcise the demons of those dusty Baghdad blocks, describing the theater of war as "a place where the street lights never come on/ And every time you step outside it's like hearing a sad song." Reminding the audience at home of one inescapable truth: "For y'all it's just a show. But we live in this movie."
From MREs to MTV
American military personnel use music as a way to dispel stress, to steel their nerves for dangerous missions, to give voice to their fears and frustrations. They also find themselves filling the longueurs of endless, deadening downtime with awful television, cheesy music videos from Europe and the Middle East, and whatever movies — good or bad — they can get their hands on. (One soldier I spoke with says he "watched O Brother, Where Art Thou? about 27,000 times.")
As fascinating as it is to speak to U.S. military personnel about the ways pop culture manifests itself in Mesopotamia, it's doubly interesting to examine how veterans' tastes have changed upon their return to the States. So many stories about veterans are told from political angles, or focus on financial questions or health care. Few examine how mass media are used as coping mechanisms over there, and back here. But that's exactly what happens.
Enlisted men and women ship off to fight and return home utterly changed. They are witness to unspeakable acts abroad that we can barely comprehend. It can't be easy to transition back from the land of IEDs and MREs to the land of iTunes and MTV. What does it feel like to depose a dictator, then return to a country where Britney and Lindsay rule the news?
Not good, says Marine Randy Cornejo, 26. "It's crap. When you got little things making big news, when Paris Hilton's getting as much coverage as when the `World Trade Center` went down, something's wrong."
Some troops have become hardened back home. The music they listen to seems devoid of substance, the clubs they haunt soulless. While some use certain songs or movies to remember their wartime experiences, others are just trying to forget and need music to calm their nerves, to fall asleep. Still others are using music and images and words to relay the essential existential experience of soldiers in Iraq — and to work through their own conflicted feelings as they do.
Sand and the city
Asked if a particular song captured the experience of the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Abe Cho, 24, of Allston-Brighton, hardly hesitates. "Bodies": that thunderous, percussive anthem by nü-metal mooks Drowning Pool.
Immediately after Sept. 11, the song — with its screaming refrain, "Let the bodies hit the floor!" — was on Clear Channel's infamous "Songs of Questionable Content" list, banned from the media behemoth's stations for weeks. But in Iraq, violent music was made to order. "I remember being in a tank battalion and they would hook that up to the com helmets," he says. "It just goes so well. It builds up so slow and then gets really intense."
And it serves as a handy soundtrack to real-time death, mediated by technology. "The lyrics are what you're seeing," says Cho. "When you're in a tank, using thermal IR, all you see are little white dots that kind of appear like bodies. And inside the tank, you kind of hear the main gunfire. So it almost looks like a video game. That's what you're thinking when you're shooting."
(Cho offers another chilling glimpse inside the turret. "They teach you when you press the trigger, to say, ‘Die, motherfucker, die.' The time it takes for you to say that phrase is the length of an eight-to-10 round burst.")
Cho enlisted in the Marines when he was a high-school student on Long Island. He joined and completed infantry training in a pre-Sept. 11 world. "I distinctly remember being stationed out in California and thinking, ‘It's gonna be OK, I only have two or three years left,' " he says. "But Sept. 11, that's when everything changed."
In October 2001, his unit was sent to North Africa for a scheduled two-month training tour in Egypt. And then they went back to California, where they spent another year gearing up, performing endlessly repetitive strategic-mobility exercises ("pack your stuff up, unpack it, and repack it") and being impressed with "a false consciousness that you're gonna leave tomorrow."
What leisure time there was at this point was spent getting amped up, "watching really ultra-violent or intense thrillers. Full Metal Jacket was always a popular movie. You could kind of see yourself as the main character."
It was a lot like that scene in Sam Mendes' adaptation of Anthony Swofford's Jarhead, where Marines gather in the flicker of a dark room to watch the "Ride of the Valkyries" scene from Apocalypse Now, Cho says. "A bunch of raucous Marines, shouting at the screen." (In his first act of freedom after leaving Iraq and landing in Germany, Cho bought a paperback copy of Jarhead in the airport with the last 10 bucks in his wallet; he liked the book a lot better than the movie.)
Cho headed to Kuwait in early 2003, cooled his heels there during the buildup to war, and then was one of the first over the border with the Marine Expeditionary Force on March 20. "The guy that pulled down the statue was in the same unit as me," he says. "We knew Al Sadr back when he was a little punk."
In the coming months, he crisscrossed the country: "Basra to Nasiriyah to Najaf, up to Baghdad." And as he experienced war in real life, suddenly he was a lot less interested in seeing it on the screen. "The more you're exposed to that, the more desensitized to it — and the more sick of it — you become."
Cho points to a phenomenon in Marine culture, where the new guys ("boots") are a lot more gung-ho than the guys with service time. Whereas new recruits keep their hair high and tight and project a nail-tough persona, oftentimes "the saltier you are, the less you associate with the Marine identity."
As he racked up service time, Cho found himself yearning for regular movies. "When you become a corporal or an NCO, rather than a junior enlisted … you tend not to care about films that are ultra-violent," he says. "When I was deployed to Iraq, I remembered we were watching Black Hawk Down. Nobody wanted to see that garbage."
So Cho and his fellow Marines turned instead to flicks like the high-school-football feel-good tale Remember the Titans. "Really cheesy movies were more popular," he says. "Things where nothing really happened. Just a slice of life."
At other times, guys had to vent their aggression, says Cho. "You wanted to listen to that hard stuff, the heavy metal stuff, especially if you were really angry and stressed out. You wanted to have an avenue of letting it go."
But now that he's home, Drowning Pool is not on his iPod playlist. "Let's just say I don't go out and download it. I don't seek it out. Now I have more discretion over what I listen to."
Cho's friend and fellow Marine Cornejo says that, at the end of the day, every man in his unit "went to sleep listening to something." While he used Metallica and Outkast's "Bombs Over Baghdad" to get the juices flowing by day, by night he depended on progressive trance turntablists such as DJ Txo and Christopher Lawrence to help his mind float away from the hot sand and toward the cool empyrean.
"We saw everything," says Cornejo. "Saw the dead bodies on the ground. Saw the wounded children. It was pretty fucked up." Trance, with its washes of hypnotic beats, helped clear his mind of those images. Even now, at home, he depends on it to calm him at night. "It puts my mind at ease. I don't know if it's something I'll need to do forever. But I do it every night."
In Iraq, most days are more of the same: long, boring stretches punctuated by dangerous missions. Troops looked to other diversions in the extensive downtime between bursts of frenzied activity.
Cornejo's not sure whether it was the slim pickings or a genuine sympathy for Carrie Bradshaw's romantic entanglements, but he confesses that Sex and the City was popular. "You'd be surprised at the kind of stuff men start watching. We'd sit around a laptop and be like, ‘All right, time for the next episode.'"
"For some reason we used to get People magazine," adds Cho. "I used to know all the gossip. It's weird. You're reading this magazine with these beautiful people, and they're telling you how to dress in these Ferragamo shoes and really expensive clothing, and you're sitting there in this camping chair in a dusty desert. There's dust in your ears and your nose and there's dust on the magazine. It's opposite ends of the world."
There were books to read, too. Lots of books. "Boxes of books," says Cho. "Trash novels. Cheesy romance novels. I kept a list of books I read. A lot of Grisham. The Rainmaker. The Summons. Robin Cook. Stephen King. When you're out there, you want to read something completely unrelated to war: books about what it's like to be a public defender, what it's like to smell a girl's hair, all that stuff."
But it wasn't all mindless escapism. "I read All Quiet on the Western Front twice," says Cho. And the questions asked by the narrator, Paul Bäumer, got him thinking. "How do you win a war? Do you just kill everybody? Do you just take one city? How do you decide?" Soon Cho found himself agreeing with Bäumer's epiphany. "I wish the two leaders of the two nations involved would just go at it themselves in a dogfight rather than ruining millions of other lives."
Cho got out of active duty in 2004, returned stateside, and started applying to schools. "I like the different pace. Laid-back. I like the idea that you're in this intellectual bubble." He's graduated from Boston College and will be starting at BC Law this fall. But along the way, something unexpected happened.
"When you're out, you kind of yearn to go back in," he says. "You reminisce. I started looking at what books were being written about Iraq, trying to make sense of my own experience through different literature. Sometimes it's hard to fully appreciate your own experiences from the inside out. Sometimes you have to look at it through a reporter looking at you."
And so Cho often finds himself at Barnes & Noble, haunting the current-affairs and military-history aisles, thumbing through such books as Baghdad Express and Terror in the Name of God. At BC, he ended up with a minor concentration in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies.
"I'm trying to understand my own experiences," says Cho. "At BC, almost all my free time was spent helping veterans groups. I did my dissertation on homeless veterans. I'm more into Iraq `now` than I ever was when I was there."was there."
Sgt. Rock's Radio Free Europe
Before his deployment, Army Staff Sgt. Nicholas Rock, 27, never thought his tour of duty would give him occasion to learn the Spanish slang for semen. Of course, he had yet to hear the Catalonian rock band Jarabe de Palo (the name of which, according to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, has that connotation in Latin America, though in Spain it refers to smacking kids with sticks).
Starved for entertainment, the Warwick, R.I., native found himself hooked on European satellite radio, particularly stations in Italy, where the acclaimed Barcelona rockers have a following. And upon his return to the States, Rock found himself listening to more and more Spanish music. It reminded him of Kurdistan.
That's right: Unlike Cornejo, who still listens to wordless techno to clear his head of nightmarish war-time memories, this sergeant finds himself listening to music to remember his time in Iraq.
While hardly a Caribbean beach vacation, Rock recalls that Kurdistan was a good deal less violent than other regions of Iraq. "In general, it was safe in comparison to the rest of the country," he says. "You still had to wake up every day and tell yourself, ‘Someone wants to kill you.' But I always tell people, ‘If you had to be there, that was the place to be.' No question. The Kurdish people wanted us there, and they cared about our well-being."'
Because he lived not on a base in the desert but in a house in a Kurdish neighborhood, Rock got to know the people there well, and got direct exposure to their culture. "I have fond memories of being there," he says. "I still keep in touch with my interpreter. That music, the specific songs that I've heard, they definitely bring back good memories for me."
"I am a little bit more worldly in my tastes for music now than I was before," adds Rock. "I listened to a wide range of music anyway, but I listen to a lot more international music now."
And while he confesses that "Middle Eastern music is still not my cup of tea, exactly," Rock says there's definitely some Indian music he's gotten into — thanks to those European channels — and that, slowly, he's also gaining appreciation for Middle Eastern melodies through his exposure to Kurdish music.
Conversely, he says, "the Kurds love American culture. Definitely. More so than a lot of other Muslim people I met there. They watch reruns of Friends on satellite. My interpreter learned the American dialect from TV."
As a whole, his unit wasn't much into shoot-'em-up war movies, Rock says. One war film that did hit home, though, was M*A*S*H. "We completely related to M*A*S*H," says Rock. "It was more like `what` we were feeling as reservists. We were there. It felt like it was never gonna end. It was comic relief with some drama to it."
Rock didn't just have his tastes influenced by his foreign hosts. He learned from his fellow countrymen. There was a lot of cross-pollination among the soldiers in his unit, he says. "One guy was really into punk music. Another guy into metal. My first sergeant was completely into hip-hop. We ranged in age, too. `We had` an interpreter from the States who was 18 and we had a team sergeant who was 45 years old. It was this weird, eclectic mix of people."
It was "like having roommates in college, six of us living in one house," says Rock, who is now in college for real, entering his third year at Yale for his master's degree in graphic design. Except different, of course. "We were trying to feel as much like American guys as we could. We did get one Israeli channel that broadcast Sunday Night Football games on Monday. It was close enough to being like home."
The chronicles of Samarra
In Iraq, Denoh Grear, 26, would sometimes have to spend entire afternoons sitting in the sweltering heat on roadsides around Baghdad, Samarra and Tikrit. Passing the time with his guys in the Army National Guard's 1166th Transportation Company, they'd listen to songs like Jay-Z's "Hard Knock Life" on the truck's tinny stereo. They'd also make music of their own, freestyle rapping about the stresses of being in a war zone.
"When we were in the Sunni Triangle, attacks increased," Grear told me when I first met him in 2005. "We were getting bombed every night. And, basically, they didn't provide any shelter for us. We had to provide our own shelter by digging ditches." But by day, "The whole gun truck was just spittin', flowin'."
Grear had seen war up close long before his tour of duty in Iraq. The son of West African immigrants — a father from Liberia, a mother from Sierra Leone — he was born in Texas, but attended school in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, as a kid. He was forced to flee stateside after bloody unrest erupted there in 1990.
Thirteen years later, he saw more of the same on the banks of the Tigris. "We went to Iraq and saw people suffering," he says, speaking not just of Iraqi civilians, but of American soldiers. "As a musician, and as a writer, I wanted to be able to focus on those issues. Politics. Religion. Interpersonal and intercultural. Focus on the people that are suffering."
In 2005, barely a year after returning from Iraq, Grear threw himself headlong into running A Records, the hip-hop label he'd started in Worcester, Mass., before deployment. Two years later, A Records is still going. But now Grear has a different musical venture — an artistic, poetic and cinematic one.
Iraqi Chronicles is Grear's sprawling online multimedia clearinghouse for soldiers' stories. It's a way, he hopes, for other GIs to tell their tales through music, video, photography and writing. A way to "give a better understanding of the emotions of soldiers, the issues faced by soldiers in the war and after the war."
At the Iraqi Chronicles website, launched June 25, you'll find the seeds of what could be something big. There are separate pages for writing, photos and digital videos from Grear's tour of duty. There are links to his wrenching, inspirational songs, their lyrics steeped in the experience of being a soldier. And there are links to other troops' work, such as the poetry of Grear's fellow vet Carlos Westergaard.
Among the photos of Grear flashing peace signs with turbaned tribesmen, the videos of him busting rhymes with his guys, there are Grear's written meditations on war and its impacts on Americans and Iraqis. "What are the emotions of the soldiers, citizens and especially the children?" he writes. "What is the truth?"
The project gives Grear's life here in America more meaning. Sometimes, he says, "I think I'd rather be back in Iraq. I miss Iraq so much, due to the true relationships I had there, with people who were willing to put their lives on the line for me." At home, "life is boring. The music is boring. People are talking about the wrong things. It's crazy."
Through his music, he hopes to change that. "It's always served as an escape for me," says Grear. "`It` helped me let the energy and anxiety out. Hip-hop just motivated me, kept me excited. People telling stories, educating. There are things in this world I wouldn't know about if it wasn't for music."
On Grear's missions in Iraq, music was verboten. "We were supposed to be paying attention to our surroundings." But they smuggled it in anyway. Otherwise, it was "twelve hours in a vehicle with no music, just listening to the engine. And knowing you could die at any time. It made us happy listening to Biggie Smalls, knowing that you can fade into that music, fade into that story, fade into that beat."
Nowadays, it's different. "Music doesn't have the same weight. It doesn't have the same energy for me. It doesn't have the same motivation, inspiration." Even at the club, "the music makes you more depressed than anything. You see people drinking and dancing, but for the wrong reasons. At the same time, people are back in Iraq suffering and dying."
"I know what it's like to grow up in a war zone," says Grear. "I relate better with the Iraqi children. How it is to grow up poor and dealing with fear and people wanting to kill you."
When he first came back from Iraq, he had some issues with post-traumatic stress disorder. But producing, making beats and writing lyrics have given him an outlet. "I get in the studio and I make the music. I have enough motivation, enough strength and enough courage to keep on moving."
Westergaard says he and Grear come from very different backgrounds, "but we both try to make the best of things. What drew me to Denoh was his attitude. He was always trying to cheer people up and bring morale up. When we were in Iraq, we were taking a lot of photos and we saw a lot of different opinions and views. Iraqi Chronicles is a way to talk about that."
The concept is "for it to be diverse, not just one person sharing stories," says Westergaard, who's primarily a poet, but has penned some scripts that re-enact some of his and Grear's experiences. "There's a lot of misunderstanding and propaganda about Iraq. There's not enough discussion in a positive direction. A lot of it is just rhetoric. We want new people, young people, different, diverse people to have a voice."
Grear and Westergaard have complex feelings about the military. The bonds they formed in the Army are lifelong and profound. But war, as always, is hell. With Iraqi Chronicles, they want to use the tools of music and film to show that duality. "Hear the music of a soldier," says Grear. "See their movies. Pay attention to the stories of others. That's how you're patriotic. That's how you support the troops."
A version of this story originally appeared in The Boston Phoenix.[email protected]