Next week I’ll be delivering my TEDxPSU talk on how heavy metal is really good at telling us about social problems. Maybe we should listen to this hard-to-hear music because it’s good risk indicator…and it kicks ass. This is my second quick entry before my talk. The first was on metal and nuclear annihilation and this one is on soldiers and unjust wars.*
I really woke up to metal when I was twelve. I’d come home from school and turned on MTV. The video for Metallica’s “One ” came on. Black and white footage of the band playing in a warehouse alternated with snippets from Johnny Got His Gun, a movie about a soldier who loses his senses and limbs in the Great War. Trapped in the holding cell of his body, he desperately calls out in Morse code for someone to save him. It’s a brooding, morbid and brutal song. Many would want to turn it off or discount it as adolescent noise or lurid garbage. But it’s more than that.
If we’re honest, we know we can’t turn away from veterans. We have to face the issues. Just look at the continued problems we have with our VA hospitals, the number of paraplegic or quadriplegic vets, the amount of PTSD, and problems with drug abuse, suicide, or broken veteran homes.Obviously, not every veteran faces these problems, but too many do. Clearly, turning away isn’t the answer. “One” helped me hear and see that.
Metal doesn’t just the cost of war on our soldiers. Artists have also tackled our justifications for going to war.
On October 16, 2002, the U.S. government enacted the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution. It cleared the way to invade Iraq. Over the coming months, the Bush administration falsely claimed that Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed weapons of mass destruction. It was America’s duty to bring democracy to Iraq. An intense narrative about the clash of civilizations stoked people’s passions. But critics on the political left argued the invasion was ultimately about oil, imperial control of the global economy, nationalist and religious pride, and that ultimately you can’t bomb people into a democracy.
Veteran reporter Chris Hedges and author of War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning said Iraqis didn’t view the U.S. military as liberators but as “an invasion and occupation.” He later wrote, “Militarism and violence are diseases. It does not matter under what guise they appear. Renegade jihadists…and the U.S. Army 101st Airborne are all infected with the same virus.” In a 2015 piece in Truthdig he wrote that young people, victimized by the engine of profiteering globalization had been and “are denied jobs, benefits, dignity and self-worth. They are easy prey for the siren calls of those for whom war is a lucrative business. They dress in uniforms. They surrender their individuality. They experience the intoxicating drug of violence. They assume a new identity—that of warrior.” The warrior would carry out Shock and Awe, a form of precise and overwhelming warfare that would produce “a shock on the system” so great that “the Iraqi regime would have to assume early on that the end was inevitable.”
Enter Lamb of God’s 2004 album Ashes of the Wake. One critic wrote Lamb of God is “outraged at the liars, murderers and thieves that have hijacked our country’s government.” The criticism comes through clearly on “Now You’ve Got Something to Die For.” Randy Blythe sings,
Bombs to set the people free, blood to feed the dollar tree
Flags for coffins on the screen, oil for the machine…
Send the children to the fire, sons and daughters stack the pyre
Stoke the flame of the empire, live to lie another day
Face of hypocrisy, raping democracy
Apocalyptic, we count the days.
Blythe’s gravely vocals, the constant barrage of distorted guitars, and Chris Adler’s bass-heavy drums overwhelm the listener. It’s an imitation of military force and the utter certainty of death in war. The lyrics criticize the underlying system. The band ensonifies (is that a word?) the assailants, the architects of the war, and the victims at the same time. How’s that for a power relationship?
More metal on war:
Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs”
Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls”
Metallica’s “Disposable Heroes”
Forbidden “Twisted into Form”
Heathen’s “Dying Season”
* I taught a short five-day course a few years ago, “Damage, Inc.: A Crash Course in Metal” that I blogged on. Have a look.