I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

‘Tis Death, ‘Tis Life: Songs in War


by Joe DeMartino
Aug. 3, 2012

You wouldn’t know it from humanity’s unfortunate history of violence, but it’s actually really psychologically traumatic for a soldier when he kills someone. For a time, there was a study indicating that only 25 percent of soldiers in a given battle in World War II would actually fire their weapons at the enemy. Said study has been all but debunked (evidently it’s a good idea to be scientifically rigorous when you’re making sweeping conclusions about the nature of one of mankind’s oldest activities), but it’s certainly true that the U.S. military employs several means of overcoming a soldier’s resistance to killing -- live fire drills, shooting at targets shaped like people instead of bullseyes, even a very serious form of laser tag. Still, there’s no guarantee that an individual soldier will react the way you want him to in the heat of combat -- some might panic, others might freeze, still others might fire wildly or blindly. What you need to do is make sure that the soldier cares more about his friends -- the men immediately in his general vicinity -- than he necessarily does about maximizing his own safety.

One thing that’s somewhat striking about the modern soldier is how big of a role music plays in his daily life. Evan Wright’s time embedded with a Marine company in Generation Kill is punctuated by the near-constant singing of the soldiers in his HumVee, and there are even lists of the Top 10 songs soldiers listen to when they know they’re about to enter a combat area. The Marine rocking out to Metallica or Slayer with his friends as he’s rolling through Afghanistan is actually following in a practice as old as combat itself -- a practice that may have a lot more to do with love than it does with hate.

Singing is a communal activity. We listen to it as a group, we band together to make it, and nearly all its permutations (notable exception: opera) encourage audience participation and sing-alongs. Listening to a particularly good song can produce dopamine (one of the brain’s “feel-good” chemicals) and can make drudgery tolerable -- just look at how many people wall themselves off in the gym with earbuds and headphones. When we sing with others, it reinforces bonds* of friendship and obligation.

*You’ll often hear soldiers who’ve been in combat refer to their fellows as something more than friends. I ran into a childhood neighbor of mine at a bar last Thanksgiving -- he’d joined the Army after graduating from college and we’d lost touch in the interval. He introduced me to an Army buddy of his in this fashion: first, he told his friend that he’d grown up with me, and then he told me that he grew up with his friend -- only in a much different place, and a much different manner. I understood, but I didn’t really understand. It was more of an acknowledgement that what he and his friend had gone through was something so far outside of my own experience as to be essentially unrelatable.

You’ve only got to look at -- and, more importantly, listen to -- the Maori haka to see exactly what a good war song can accomplish. Sports are not war, of course, but they share certain structural similarities, and teammates in the more violent contact sports can form bonds not unlike those between soldiers. Music serves much the same function in sports as it does in war. The haka is undoubtedly intimidating -- the kind of men who would make the national team of a rugby superpower would be scary just going to the supermarket -- and you can see its effect on the opposing team. They don’t look scared, but they feel the need to band together in the face of its performance. The song itself is an opening-act volley, so the players have made themselves into a fort. In the case of the French national team, they built said fort directly in front of the hakaitself, with the snarling face of Sebastien Chabal (who does stuff like this on a semi-regular basis) as its front gate. It’s music as violence.

Listening to the lyrics of that particular haka (known as “Ka Mate”) reveals a slightly different purpose. A rough translation of the main chorus would have it go something like this:

’Tis death! ‘tis death! ’Tis life! ‘tis life!

’Tis death! ‘tis death! ’Tis life! ‘tis life!

This is the hairy man

Who brought the sun and caused it to shine

A step upward, another step upward!

A step upward, another... the Sun shines!

That’s more New Age than it is Nu-Metal. The haka’s original use was as a song sung prior to battle, and intimidation was only part of its effect. What it’s really doing is preparing you to die -- reconciling you to the fact that you need to head into this next battle with the sense that you are already dead. Only then can you act without fear and properly face a cavalry charge, or a hail of arrows, or a storm of artillery. This is difficult enough on your own, but if you’re beside your friends, singing your heart out, screaming about death and life (or Teenage Dirtbags or Sk8er Bois or, really, just about anything), then that particular lesson is really going to stick. You can kill, or be killed, but the song in your head at the time will be anything but mournful.

Joe DeMartino is a Connecticut-based writer who grew up wanting to be Ted Williams, but you would not BELIEVE how hard it is to hit a baseball, so he gave that up because he writes words OK. He talks about exploding suns, video games, karaoke, and other cool shit at his blog. He can be emailed at jddemartino@gmail.com and tweeted at @thetoycannon. He writes about sports elsewhere. The sports sells better.