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

BOOK REVIEW by Daniel W. Boothe

· Military Bands

This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in MUSIC REFERENCE SERVICES QUARTERLY on MARCH 15, 2017, available online:



Lisa Gilman (2016). MY MUSIC, MY WAR: THE LISTENING HABITS OF U.S. TROOPS IN IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press. 240 pp., $26.95. ISBN 978-0-8195-7600-2 (softcover).

From the battle rhythms of field cadences during the American Revolutionary War to the country-pop strains of patriotic pride after 9/11, music and war have long been inextricably linked. Lisa Gilman provides a contemporary ethnographic study of this topic by exploring the tectonic shifts in music’s digital availability and its relationship to the American troop experience in Afghanistan and Iraq. My Music, My War offers a compelling survey of the complexities of music’s military role within the racial, gender, socioeconomic, and political subcultures of the military. It explores how modern musical genres, advancing technology, and shifting attitudes illuminate what is seldom debated but easily understood: that music is very personal. Its connections to memory and identity uniquely color how we hear and see ourselves, our world and our wars.

Gilman’s background as a folklorist and ethnomusicologist prove useful, as her approach is thoroughly deliberate and well-sourced. For primary sources, she interviews 35 troops formally and numerous others informally. All but one (a military spouse) were serving or had served duty that included deployments to the Middle East. In addition to a robust index, she references 159 separate sources and provides in-depth chapter notes following the appendix. With such a wealth of information, there is no shortage of credible off-ramps to pursue further research.

Music is such a salient part of people’s daily lives that personal music choices become an autobiographical account of one’s experiences. In war, the way these experiences are processed remains highly idiosyncratic among individuals and may include fluid dichotomies in thoughts and emotions before, during, and following participation in combat (p. 1–2). Throughout the book, Gilman borrows the term “musicking” from the late ethnomusicologist Christopher Small to frame music as an activity of engagement, not just a collection of things (p. 3). In this context, Gilman uses the active process of personal music selection and public sharing as a means to reconcile differences or to calcify them according to one’s own needs within personal and work environments (p. 43). Additionally, modern advancements in digital music access provide for unprecedented musical choices. When combined with today’s wireless technology and ultra-portable devices, individuals can create their own “auditory world wherever they go” (p. 7), further integrating music’s role in social reinforcement, social engineering, and autobiographical realization.

Gilman’s interviews reveal that music was a part of a troop’s war experience at all times, being played either through room speakers, vehicle speakers, or through personal listening devices with or without headphones. In Chapter 4, Gilman explores how music listening “could contribute to the nature of the experience and how a person remembered and interpreted the event afterward” (p. 52). In some cases, certain music was deliberately chosen as a “soundtrack” for combat situations. The song “Bodies” by Drowning Pool became an “unofficial anthem” to many that she interviewed. The aggressive nature of the song was loud, driving, and bombastic and with the incitement to violence by the lyrics “let the bodies hit the floor” created a song that to many sounded “just like war” (p. 54).

While music and war can reflect each other’s nature, music can also reflect or even amplify both the cultural divisions and commonalities among war’s participants. Gilman highlights music’s ability to construct these dominant cultures and subcultures by examining in great detail gender, race, age, and socioeconomic factions within military society and how that is reinforced through shared listening experiences (p. 86). Throughout these chapters, Gilman exposes an alarming side of military culture. Prominent misogyny, racism, sexual misconduct, patriarchal abuse, and violence are underscored with such lewd descriptions and overemphasis through proportion that the main thesis of the book becomes subordinate at times. Homophobia, transphobia, hypermasculinity, heteronormativity, and a “paradox of masculinity” are extensively explored with a comparatively loose argument of music’s inherent role (p. 80–112).

Although all of these topics are relevant to military cultural contexts as reflected through musical tastes, they are not necessarily unique to the military. Any sampling of modern pop culture alongside daily news reports would likely show similar correlations. The emphasis on these issues contradicts other accounts that “a critical ethos of the military was that everyone was part of a team and that everyone’s efforts and commitment were required for everyone’s safety and for the successful completion of all missions” (p. 125). Consider also Gilman’s admission in the Preface (p. xii) that she interrupted her work on this study to create a documentary about Coffee Strong, an anti-war organization of military veterans, and that those associated interviews were also incorporated into this study. This questions whether Gilman’s approach in My Music, My War objectively reveals the acute factors that bind music and military culture or if it subjectively indicts military culture and the music that it implicitly champions.

Gilman devotes considerable time to the emotional and psychological impact that the aftermath of war can have and, in particular, how music serves to both re-injure and heal (p. 123–136). Her interviews convey how music in war can serve as a source of celebration, courage, stress, trauma and as an outlet for destructive emotions but that “it has also been an integral mechanism for coping and healing; musical listening has helped war veterans in ways that have sometimes been more meaningful and long-lasting than the service provided by the institutions intended to serve them” (p. 167).

In actuality, those institutions have supported music as a therapeutic tactic in the past and today there are new innovative partnerships existing between music therapists and the military. The American Music Therapy Association indicates in Music Therapy and Military Populations (Silver Spring, MD: American Music Therapy Association, Inc., 2014) that in 1945, the U.S. War Department issued Technical Bulletin 187, detailing the use of music for reconditioning among service members convalescing in Army hospitals. In October 2016, the National Intrepid Center of Excellence at Walter Reed National Medical Center released an internal report to this reviewer describing how the innovative partnering of musicians from the United States Air Force Band with music therapy activities in their facility yielded unique and unprecedented benefits for wounded warrior patients. These examples further underscore Gilman’s findings that music can transformatively impact the treatment of our military men and women of war.

Gilman’s style seemed bumpy between chapters and the extensive re-threading of numerous interviews within shifting topics proved confusing to this reviewer. Although the reiterated examples of social deviance consumed extensive portions of the text and at times obscured music as the focal point of the study, Gilman’s efforts did extract high- context, culturally specific narratives that plausibly illustrate how modern Western military culture entangles itself in autobiographical and community social structures. My Music, My War will serve as a useful and revelatory addition to public and academic libraries, but as someone who has deployed to Afghanistan specifically with the mission to share music with troops, I caution that the tone of this text should be treated with skepticism if an objective review of the subject is desired.

Captain Daniel W. Boothe

Assistant Director of Operations
United States Air Force Band
Washington, DC

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