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Battle rock
VH1ís Soundtrack to War

Back when the DNC was in town and Jon Stewartís The Daily Show had set up shop at BUís Tsai Center, the programís bemused host found himself wrapped in such a tangled web of ironies that even he probably gave up on trying to sort them out. The mainstream news media had rediscovered a story from four years ago to the effect that a large number of Americans get their political news from late-night talk shows like The Daily Show. It was said that more and more people are looking to Jay Leno, David Letterman, and Jon Stewart for their take on the issues of the day rather than to Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings. So in an event that Stewart seemed to appreciate for the farce it was, networks and newspapers sent reporters to cover a Daily Show press conference instead of, say, anything of interest that might be happening at that other big event happening across town. Doesnít it worry you, the reporters asked, that more people get their news from places like The Daily Show than from real news outlets? No, Stewart answered, what worried him was that anyone is getting his or her news from those so-called real news outlets. To their credit, the editors at USA Today ran an article on Stewartís criticism of the mainstream media and the horrendous job theyíve done reporting on Bushís tax cuts, the war in Iraq, WMDs, al-Qaeda, etc. Michael Moore echoed those sentiments when he said that he wouldnít have had to make Fahrenheit 9/11 if the news media had been doing their job.

Now I donít make a habit of getting my news (or much else these days) from MTV or VH1. But I couldnít help noticing that night after night, MTV news correspondent Gideon Yago appeared to be more cogent, more articulate, and less apt to engage in blatant spin-doctoring as one of the regular panelists on Larry King Liveís special convention coverage. I found that a little alarming, to say the least. And though it hasnít sent me running to MTV for my news (I still stick with The Daily Show), it has made me pay a bit more attention to the programming on the MTV/VH1 axis.

Last week, that attention paid massive dividends in the form of an hour-long documentary by Australian filmmaker George Gittoes with the innocuous ó or at least generic ó title Soundtrack to War. Aired as a "VH1 News Presents" special, it gave me a chance to test the theory that VH1 is committed to offering programming with as much relevance as major network news magazines like 20/20 and Dateline. (I retain a nostalgic fondness for 60 Minutes, but even Morley Safer hasnít exactly been getting to the bottom of the mess in Iraq.) Soundtrack to War focuses on the obvious ó in hindsight ó point that most of our troops in Iraq are in their late teens or early 20s, the age where music plays a big role in their identities. Itís also true that making music has gone hand in hand with making war since the first caveman picked up a stick and began banging out a rhythm to get his buddies psyched up for their raid on the cave across the way. We all know that a quick glance at a friendís CD shelf can tell you a lot about him or her, so itís not surprising that a more concentrated look at what our troops are doing for music can open a window into their individual and collective psyches. Soundtrack to War told me more about the mind set of the soldiers in Iraq than just about anything else Iíve seen since Fahrenheit 9/11.

There are no attempts here to draw parallels between the rhythmic patter of M16 reports answering the deeper rat-a-tat of Kalishnikov fire and the double-kick thrash of speed metal; there are no obvious comparisons between generic industrial metal used as a soundtrack between tank-battle video games and the real thing. The documentary is simply a series of interviews with soldiers about the CDs theyíve brought with them to Iraq and which ones they prefer to play when they roll out on a mission. Turns out, every Humvee, Bradley fighting vehicle, and Abrams tank is wired in such a way that itís easy to hook a CD Walkman up to the internal sound system that each soldier hears in his or her headphones. And though itís an open secret that the militaryís own psy-ops folks are partial to AC/DC as a means to psych up their troops for battle, there donít appear to be any official regulations regarding what a tank commander can and canít play. Both 50 Cent and Jay-Z turned out to be popular among rap-loving crews; here the filmmakers might have asked how the military brass feels about the message of some of 50ís rougher raps. Among those in the know, Mystikal was a favorite because he himself is a former military man. One white private turned out to be a big fan of Jay-Z because heís from the same part of Brooklyn and The Black Album reminds him of home. (I did find myself wondering whether psy-ops distinguish between preĖ and postĖBon Scott AC/DC: though Scottís "Highway to Hell" would have to be high on anyoneís list of kick-ass rock and roll, the post-Scott albums Back in Black and For Those About To Rock are more explosive. Iím sure theyíll be convening a committee to recommend regulations on the use of AC/DC any day now.)

More typical are the tank crews who blast new metal by the likes of Drowning Pool with lyrics like "Let the bodies hit the floor," drums that sound like artillery explosions, and shrapnel-spraying guitars set to hard-hitting martial rhythms. Itís not that these soldiers donít listen to other types of music ó in fact, there are shots of two off-duty privates with acoustic guitars playing a John MayerĖstyle folk-rock ditty and a large group of African-American soldiers doing a fusion of gospel and hip-hop with apparently spontaneous solo raps by various members of the ensemble. And despite the controversy the Dixie Chicks caused last year, a female soldier takes time out to offer her version of "Traveling Soldier." Itís an interesting twist since the lyrics are about a woman waiting for her soldier husband to return unharmed from war. But thatís not battle music, as one group of solider points out when the name of jazz diva Diana Krall comes up. "We support you, but we canít listen to you while we roll," they offer by way of apology.

The most disturbing part of Soundtrack to War is the revelation of how closely rolling out into a tank battle resembles playing a tank-battle video game. With Drowning Pool blasting through the headphones, the gunner targeting the enemy with a joystick on a digital computer screen, and "smart" ammo directing the shell to its target before the enemy even knows heís under attack, you get a real sense of how life imitates art in the confines of an Abrams tank. The experience is depersonalizing in a way that doesnít prepare the average soldier to deal with the reality of blown-apart bodies once he or she emerges from the tank.

Iím not sure thereís a song in the world that can soften that kind of blow, but it certainly wouldnít reflect the opportunistic jingoism youíll find on the new Patriotic Country compilation (BMG), which features usual suspects like Randy Travis, Brooks and Dunn, and Kenny Chesney singing their hearts out about the red, white, and blue. Itís strange how few soldiers in Soundtrack to War even mention Travis or Chesney. Then again, songs like "America Will Always Stand" are written more to keep morale high on the home front than to energize warriors going into battle. Those tank crews donít see the big picture because they donít have time to. They just want the right music, be it hard-hitting rap or bombastic heavy metal, to keep the adrenaline flowing. As one private puts it in Soundtrack to War, "Itís the ultimate rush: it gets you real fired up."

Issue Date: August 27 - September 2, 2004
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