- My Music, My War: The Listening Habits of U.S. Troops in Iraq and Afghanistan by Lisa Gilman
My Music, My War is a wonderful addition to the scholarship on military folklore that Lisa Gilman and others have pursued since Bruce Jackson’s 1989 JAF special issue (vol. 102, no. 406) on Vietnam, a war that received considerable resistance both at home and on the battlefield. Building on the work of such scholars as Lydia Fish and Carol Burke on Vietnam, Gilman has given us an even greater understanding of the importance of music among soldiers who compose, record, and share their music-listening preferences while overseas. Unlike previous work, however, this study covers a time when technology now allows soldiers to access expressive forms in almost limitless ways. Gilman’s approach in this ethnography is based on the notion of “situated listening,” examining troops’ musical practices of listening in order to shed light on the ways soldiers constitute their identities during war.
On the book’s cover is a photo of a soldier listening to his iPod through a pair of earphones while awaiting his next assignment. The soldier is engaged in situated listening, a term Gilman uses to describe soldiers’ listening to recordings that connect with their immediate context, whether during combat, during a period of rest, and so on. Such listening often includes members of one’s group when individuals engage in activities that invite certain musical choices that often contribute to group cohesion while group members focus on specific tasks, as Gilman’s study demonstrates. Clearly, the ability of a soldier’s auditory system to localize sound sources via an iPod is just one component of his or her perceptual systems necessary for survival. Manipulating those sources according to one’s immediate needs helps listeners attend to a range of situations and emotional needs while in a combat zone.
Gilman interviewed many active military personnel and veterans by phone, email, and Skype. Observing and interviewing soldiers between deployments to combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, she focuses her study on “musical engagement” (p. x), which offers listeners a psychological escape while focusing on military duties. This could include those struggling to cope with their own identity as soldiers while seeking acceptance into the many folk groups within the military. Her study includes soldiers from diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. The reader quickly realizes the power of music to move soldiers to action during combat, to reduce [End Page 223] stress, and to express concerns, anxieties, fears, and loneliness while based far away from loved ones. Listening to music has the potential to transport at-risk soldiers from a combat zone to a different reality. Gilman is well aware of the power that music can have for listeners who are desperately seeking solace in the midst of chaotic environments or a way to decompress from traumatic experiences. Early in the book, Gilman describes the typical settings in which soldiers have opportunities to listen to and share music. She notes how technological advances have led to newer forms of transmission (especially of MP3 files) that enable soldiers to listen to music when they do not share the same tastes as others in their troop. She then describes how music in a war zone may serve its listeners as a way to manage their gender and their masculinity.
The musical preferences of the soldiers Gilman studied varied widely: from the patriotic lyrics of country and western, which underscore one’s duty to fight for one’s country, to the anti-establishment and even anti-American sentiments of punk rock and heavy metal. As Gilman notes, demographics play an important part in accounting for the popularity of certain musical genres, such as heavy metal and rap, among young male soldiers. “In addition to men dominating the scenes as performers,” she writes, “other dimensions of the music also accentuate hypermasculinity” (p. 90). The same is true of country music. The popularity...