Even in Iraq, the band plays on

Ben Holskin ’04 is a member of the U.S. Army V Corps Band. When his service with the band ends in the fall, he plans to pursue a master’s degree in music performance.

The band arrived in a cold rain, at 3 a.m. in the middle of January 2006. We were the U.S. Army V Corps Band, based in Germany, and I played clarinet. We were to spend the year traveling between military installations in Iraq, Kuwait, and Qatar, entertaining troops and performing at military ceremonies and official functions. Stepping off an Air Force C-130 at Baghdad International Airport, we quickly discovered that the brief winter’s heavy rainfall had transformed the earth into a muddy soup the consistency of pancake batter mixed with peanut butter; soon we would find that the mud gets everywhere, including in your tent, your sleeping bag, and your shower.

Our group consisted of approximately 35 musicians; each musician performed with two or three small ensembles. We traveled most often by helicopter, less frequently by cargo plane or armored convoy, from the Victory base complex outside of downtown Baghdad to wherever we were to perform.

Our first sortie found us flying through the middle of the night on a pair of Chinook helicopters, trussed up in body armor, each carrying an M-16 semiautomatic rifle in one hand and a flute or saxophone or trombone in the other. The destination, an off-the-beaten-path post near the southern city of Diwaniyah, housed a contingent of American, Polish, Slovak, Mongolian, and Iraqi troops, none of whom had seen anything approaching live entertainment during their stay. We lugged our three-and-a-half tons of sound equipment from the helipad to the mess hall and proceeded to put on a two-hour show, playing everything from Glenn Miller to Simon & Garfunkel to Evanescence. Halfway through, a bunch of Iraqi infantrymen, lured by four women from our band, took to the dance floor. Soldiers of various nationalities circled around and cheered, laughed, and poked fun.

Most of our performances took place in mess halls like the one in Diwaniyah, or in lounge areas where soldiers attempted to relax between patrols. I would see sweat-drenched and dust-covered troops roll through the gates into U.S. compounds, having just spent hours or days dodging car bombs and sniper fire in places like Fallujah and Ramadi, and I would feel pampered and inadequate holding my clarinet. At some point, though, it occurred to me that all of us — mechanics, cooks, infantry, helicopter pilots, musicians — sought to justify our presence in Iraq.

For many, answering the big “why?” was not so important as answering the question of what to do, especially during endless stretches of down time. Troops barbecued, partied, shopped at the little PX, watched movies on their laptops, played video games, listened to music on their iPods, tossed footballs, worked out, or called family and friends — all things that one likely would do during free time at home. Here, though, a different attitude accompanied these activities. Gathering in a tent to watch Family Guy on somebody’s computer, or rehearsing tunes for our next performance, became purely ritualistic: an end unto itself, rather than a means of enjoyment or relaxation. The surroundings and tension necessitated the pursuit of familiar leisure activities, but precluded the pleasure normally derived from them.

Early in autumn, part of the band traveled to Baghdad to the Polish embassy. I couldn’t help but notice the pools of stagnant water mixed with sewage that had yet to drain since the last rainfall, or the huge piles of garbage collecting everywhere, or the burned-out vehicle skeletons dotting the roadside every few miles. Equally remarkable, however, was that amid the squalor, people defiantly went about their daily business. Imagine knowing that the local marketplace might be blown sky-high at any moment, but shopping there anyway.

At the embassy, in a once-elegant, now-dilapidated complex formerly known as the Baghdad Country Club, we played cocktail-hour music and received the vocal support of a rather inebriated but unfailingly polite military attaché from Warsaw who insisted that we toast (which we did) and drink (which, abiding by Army regulation, we did not) to Polish-American relations. A week later we found ourselves back in the Green Zone, performing Mozart and Strauss at the U.S. embassy. Among the substantial crowd, business suits outnumbered military fatigues. Audience members applauded politely between movements of each work and adjourned to an antechamber for coffee, tea, or champagne during intermission. Following the energetic Rondo Finale of Mozart’s B-flat “Gran Partita” (or, as it came to be known, the “Big Party”), we socialized with the audience before donning our body armor and ballistic helmets for the short flight back to Victory base.

In retrospect, I suppose that playing a formal, classical concert for an audience of State Department employees in Baghdad was not terribly out of line with anything else we did during our tour in the Middle East. We played music to help everyone forget where we were. All the people there — civilians or military, of all nationalities — had their own ways of maintaining connections, however tenuous or superficial, to their everyday, pre-war lives.

I cannot package a well-defined sound bite about what the war means, but one theme constantly grounded us: Wherever we traveled, we played memorial ceremonies honoring fallen soldiers. We performed battle hymns and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Friends and fellow soldiers paid their last respects and placed mementos — medals, pins, photos — on shrines honoring the deceased: rifle planted bayonet first into the sand; helmet hung on the upended rifle butt; ID tags draped around the barrel; and boots, laced and tied, standing at attention. At each ceremony, a friend gave the eulogy. The commander called the names of the soldiers present, and each replied: “Here, Sir!” The commander called the name of the deceased. Silence. A rifle platoon fired the 21-gun salute and our trumpeter played “Taps.” The chaplain gave a benediction. We played “Amazing Grace.” Each service member in attendance approached the shrine, saluted, and quietly walked away.