Music In Wartime

Music in Wartime

There the wicked

Carried us away in captivity

Required from us a song

Now how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

(By the Rivers of Babylon)

These words are based on Psalm 137, and ring true in many wartime circumstances, especially describing the oppressors’ requirements of the oppressed. However music has always been important in wartime.

The first conflict to take place in the era of mass music consumption was World War II. The BBC played jaunty tunes throughout the war. This included many by the singers nicknamed the Forces Sweethearts, Vera Lynn and Gracie Fields.

The Americans, meanwhile, called on big names such as Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Marilyn Monroe to entertain their troops with visits to airbases and the front line. Johnny Cash purchased his first guitar while serving in Germany and his first band was made up of fellow soldiers.

Come Vietnam and the US forces had full blown radio stations on their bases as immortalized in the film Good Morning Vietnam. Through Armed Forces Radio, troops could hear all the music they were accustomed to hearing at home, including Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix.

Perhaps surprisingly, music played an important part in the lives of concentration camp detainees. The Nazis used to order them to sing while working, however, beatings for forgetting the words were common.

Some camps had loudspeaker systems over which German music was played, while others employed rousing marches to cover the sound of executions. When singing themselves, prisoner groups were often required to sing songs that reflected their political beliefs or faith.

Orchestras and choirs were common, playing a mix of popular classical pieces, easy listening and dance music for the guards and visiting dignitaries. Composers interned in some camps even composed new pieces. The guards used to summon musicians for private performances, which often led to them being given extra rations, lighter work or other favors.

Music is not only used for pleasure in wartime. It can be a propagamda tool and a torture method. In the Nazi camps, music was played late at night to deprive the inmates of sleep. Similar techniques were reported to be employed by the US to culturally offend Iraqi prisoners of war.

To many people, listening to or playing music is a coping mechanism. It allows them to forget pain or sorrow, evokes memories and calms racing thoughts. However it can also be used as an oppressive tool, when employed as part of interrogation techniques. Music is the ultimate psychological weapon. Its pleasure is highly subjective and its use affects a person’s mood but leaves no physical mark.

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