Battle Hymns

Written in 2006 and excerpted from a previous manuscript, this piece didn’t make the cut for my book, Nothing In Reserve.  I’d like to put a couple of these out there during the week before Veterans Day (during which Nothing In Reserve will be on sale in recognition of veterans).

Hope you find something worthwhile here. Thanks.


Musical battle standards are pretty non-standard, these days. Each group has its own slant, based on its members’ home cities, acculturation (keepin’ it gangsta versus cowboyin’ up), ranks, ages, prejudices, ethnicities. But in the age of multimedia, all your soldiers rock.

Comms are a given for tactical vehicles, and this is increasingly extended to all crewmembers via speakers and combat vehicle crewman helmets, which look like Mickey Mouse ears, especially on Michael Dukakis. The same kids who grew up figuring out how to set the clocks on their parents’ VCRs and beat the latest Gameboy offering don’t meet an overwhelming challenge in adapting their HMMWVs and Strykers to pump up the volume. Everybody’s got iPods, MP3s and CD Walkmans; a 20-dollar hajji boom box and a couple of RCA mini-jack cables are about all it takes to spread the gospel of funk. A 20-odd ton Stryker armored vehicle, cruising the streets of an Iraqi city with its tall tires and birdcage slat armor, may not look much like a tuner Supra from East L.A., but the music floating up through the air guard hatches can take you right back to the ‘hood, the barrio or the Westchester Mall.

Everybody disses everybody else’s music. The straight rock and country guys (not so many as I remember from the Eighties) squabble with the hip-hoppers and punks, but most everybody’s music gets a turn in the rotation eventually, as long as it’s LOUD and unsentimental. No Jewel, Gordon Lightfoot or Sade. The play list usually boils down to prosaic realities:  who brought the equipment, who’s got what tunes on board, what does the VC (vehicle commander) want to hear.

So white kids in the army hear more rap than even the pistol-poseur wiggers of the ‘burbs. And their brother “soldiers of color” (laugh at that one, I dare you!) play it because it’s like comfort food to them, not because they need to emulate super-produced urban machismo. “Double-dubs” may look big and shiny on an Escalade, but a Stryker has eight wheels that are a hell of a lot bigger than dubs, and these soldiers don’t mess around with drive-by shootings. They get off and discuss matters personally.

And black kids — they may be African-American now, but they’re a lot less into African music than, say, Paul Simon — likewise get a lot more country than they signed up for. They may not buy the albums, but tolerance, like most two-edged plowshares, cuts both ways. Toby Keith choppered all the way out to our miserable little FOB to play a short set, and EVERYBODY who could get the time showed up, black, white or anywhere in between. Toby played “I’ll Never Smoke Weed With Willie Again,” and we all laughed together. When he played “American Soldier,” we all . . . never mind. Best (only!) concert we got this year.

And when someone blares Tim McGraw’s lines, “I hope someday that you will get the chance / to live like you were dyin’,” I don’t care who you are — if you’re here, you’re going to pray inwardly for that chance. Tomorrow isn’t promised to anyone, but combat soldiers aren’t even promised this afternoon.

PSYOP teams don’t have CVC systems in our trucks. But we do have a not-so-secret weapon:  the great big speaker array on the roof, useful for deafening our gunner and any civilians standing too close. When their fingers are in their ears, we figure we’re getting through to them. The speakers are also good for blasting a little motivational pre-mission music.

Kickin' out the jams in al Sarai


Genial DJs, we’ll play anything that anyone requests (and has a recording of), but CCR’s “Fortunate Son” always makes it into our lineup before a roll. Usually, we also play “Sweet Home Alabama,” which takes me back not to ‘Bama — I’m not a native son, after all — but to 20-some years ago on a radar site on Soi San Mountain in the Republic of Korea from which we eyeballed the troops of the Dear Leader’s daddy, and a site chief who took that song at face value every chance he got.

I’ve got an MP3 device that records voices for immediate playback, which is useful for instant formatting of PSYOP messages. But SGT Shone brought an iPod with about 200 of his favorite tunes on it, so he rules the speaker, pre-roll, and plays what he likes while he checks his gun and lines up the chicken plate. One less checklist item for me.

Commanders occasionally try to co-opt the FOB airwaves for their favorite inspirational music. The lieutenant colonel who ran the base prior to the arrival of the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment, which sports a bigger colonel, found out that he had a very large speaker called an LRAD stashed in one of Commo’s MILVANs. He promptly ordered that it be propped up outside the TOC bunker and fired up with the cavalry’s fife-and-drum standard “Garry Owen” every morning at 0530.

DORK FM, coming to you live from Tal 'Afar Castle

That solution could not stand. I promptly dreamed up a PSYOP mission for the LRAD and re-deployed it off the FOB to irritate terrorists and their mommies in al Sarai.  I can now officially report that Tal ‘Afar insurgents hate ”Garry Owen” just as much as our infantry does.

For us, the fun bunch to roll with is Blackjack, aka B TRP 2-14 CAV. We get along well with those guys. Maybe their personality quirks just skew along deviancies resembling our own. This is another way of saying they treat us like family. They have a great commander, and a recently imported first sergeant who kicks big ass with a smile and “Ranger goggles” on his face. 1SG “Mo” Macrae celebrated the end of the clean-up in Fallujah with a one-man assault on a washing machine he found standing, forlorn and unexplainable, in a field on the edge of town. You’ll no doubt be relieved to learn that the target was thoroughly destroyed with 180 rounds of extreme prejudice.

Mo is a motorcycle rider and fisherman out of SW Washington state who likes beer, cigarettes and loud Celtic rock. He’s been great to my team, very cooperative about integrating us into missions, and is an all-around good guy. Smokes are cheap and nasty here and beer’s off-limits, but we decided to tactically support his evil scheme of waking up the whole FOB on Saint Paddy’s Day by screaming Irish bagpipe punk out of the PSYOP vehicle speaker array at about oh-dark-thirty while circulating through the billeting areas. The notion of pissing off the colonel to a very complete degree was a bonus, of course. We would start with his hooch-al area.

Naturally, we drew a mission that morning and had to scrub Operation GREEN MEANIE, but at least the mission we pulled was to run out to Sinjar with Blackjack. So we played Mo his “Drop Kick Murphys” CD in the vehicle assembly area outside their HQ bunker — but quietly, so as not to give away our mission start time.

Yeah, there are different notes for different folks. For a low-intensity day roll in the spring to recon a gas station in town, while the guys are waiting for their commander to show up and make it a go, you’ll see a football flying back and forth and hear upbeat party music. Somebody could get dead, of course, but in the meantime the weather’s good, you’re probably looking at a short run and it’s harder to brood when there’s a mission to do.

There’s very little light pollution in NW Iraq, even around towns. Most of the generators cut off around 2200 and aren’t re-cranked until 0700 the following morning. That makes it great for stargazers, not so good for late-night drunks:  yes, Muslims do drink, sometimes while driving or shooting up the neighborhood.

The only folks who can see through the thick night are air guards, vehicle commander and gunner with their NVGs, and the driver through his IR system. Sometimes, dopey with post-mission drowsiness while rolling back under those black skies, someone will clip their music maker into the CVC system and punch up the digits for slow, quiet hip-hop, just loud enough to be heard over the rattling diesel, and nobody complains down in the crew hold unless it startles them awake.

Then there are aggressive, power-projection missions where squads are tense, checking and re-checking their weapon safeties, running their fingers over their kit to make sure nothing is loose, tangled or misplaced. Ammo, carabineer, bandages, ammo, sling, knife, ammo. Count the warrior’s rosary, and count it again:  got water?  If there’s music now, it’s immediate, aggressive, and in your face; what New Agers might call, with typically uninformed charity, “in the moment.”  That’s when you hear growling, screaming, vicious punk thrash or full-throttle gangsta rap. “Let The Bodies Hit The Floor” is an old stand-by for soldiers in Iraq.

On the move to Muholl'ibiyah

Soldiers get irony. The most ironic Americans walking around today — those who viscerally understand the paradoxes of foreign policy and the disconnect between idealism and execution, global strategy and ground tactics — are unlikely to have honed their sensitivities in a liberal arts curriculum. They are grunts, ground pounders, infantrymen. Whether they’re grunts, jarheads, SEALs or JTACs, guys moving across the face of battle so close that they have to climb over its pimples know what it is to laugh at death, bureaucracy, dogma and themselves.

So what plays through the CVC earpieces as Rattlesnake Three-Three moves out beyond the wire, past the barriers and gate guards, and powers into the medieval ruin of Tal ‘Afar?  The theme from “Team America: World Police,” a satirical movie made with puppets:  “America, (Expletive Deleted) Yeah!”  And do we know all the words?

Oh, fuck yeah.

APR 05, FOB Sykes, Tal ‘Afar



All images copyright Jack Lewis 2005

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  1. Nice. I’m always mentally transported by your prose. This one s no exception. I loved the bit about “Operation Green Meanie”. Snork.

  2. Dammit, Jack… I sorta see why you left this out of the book, but I wish you hadn’t… I cried – really! I admit it! – at the Tim McGraw, and then laughed harder and longer than I have in a while the rest of the way through… maybe it’s the heady endorphin cocktail of a new relationship, or maybe it’s because music is sacred to me, or maybe you really are Just That Good… I suspect it’s all of the above… and I still like “Green Flash” better for the *story*…. but for sheer heart-string-tuggery? This is your best yet.

    Carry on!

    • Thanks, Glenn. I always liked that bit, but it never fit anywhere. Thought I’d put it up here so at least it could wither in the light of day, rather than rotting in the dark.

  3. Paula Milburn says

    I’m gonna have to stop reading your stuff… really… or you and Glenn will have to get me those shares…. you know what I’m on about.

    Thing is… hit a helluva lot closer than most people will ever know.

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