Jake Warga – Iraq: Soldier’s Soundtrack to the War

I had never really talked to a soldier before and knew nothing of ranks or the deep culture of service. I discovered something wonderful once I started meeting them: they’re just regular people stuck doing a tough job. The modern teenager or 20-something has an i-pod or personal music player of some sort. We all love our music. The plan I fermented before leaving was to talk with soldiers about their music: what they listen to, and from there, through their music, talk about them.

Sound Targets by J. Pieslak (2009) is an excellent book that looks, with academic thoroughness, at the history of music in conflict and current soundtracks to wars:

Technique:

During downtimes (majority of the time), I asked soldiers to cue their favorite song for this deployment (if multiple) on their i-pod, the track they listen to most. With a simple male-to-male mini-cable, I would patch their device into my recorder and together we would listen to the song. I would then switch to my mic and interview them about the song…and them.

Staff Sergeant Adam Treen – Song “Send in the Clowns”

I discovered how you can slow the mightiest army in the world: let it rain. MRAPs have a hell of a time not getting stuck, so to avoid a quagmire we did a dismounted patrol (went on foot) to get a feel for what residents needed, etc. The biggest complaint from the few that didn’t immediately hide when we arrived was about the slow progress on repairing the main bridge into town—one the U.S. destroyed by driving over it a while back in an MRAP. Then we met at the mayor’s house to talk about a micro-grant loan (we used to just throw money towards reconstruction, now we do loans). I was surprised; this was an engineering battalion doing things like diplomacy, micro-grant lending…politics. They’re not trained in much of what they’re asked to do, so says Adam Treen.

Staff Sergeant Adam Treen

Staff Sergeant Adam Treen

Specialist Kriegshauser – Song “Raindrops”

I did all I could to make soldiers feel comfortable with the experience of being recorded and sharing personal views. I first met Kriegshauser at the little Hajji Shop at FOB Bernstein—a basic store run by Iraqis that sold sodas, smokes, souvenirs, kitsch, and lots of pirated DVDs. I was bored and buying more cigarettes (I don’t smoke, I shared them with soldiers, another ice-breaker technique) and some Mountain Dew, commonly called Squiggly-Dew since one side of the can is in Arabic. He was really worried about what he said to me about Iraq, about his experiences, about the interview in general. To put him at ease I let him listen to it along with his commander. I got really in with his group; they even invited me along on their mission that night. I went, even after I discovered they were a “route clearance” team—going ahead of convoys to look for IED’s.

Specialist Kriegshauser

Specialist Kriegshauser

Private First Class Dalere – Song “Undead”

A typical music choice of soldiers: metal/death/rock/ImStillNotSure genre. It cost me a pack of cigarettes, but he eventually opened-up and let me know what he was feeling about serving in Iraq and his friend who was killed.

Private First Class Dalere

Private First Class Dalere

Specialist Bowers – Song “Kiss My Country Ass”

Unlike the textbook conflicts of WWI and WWII, there were quite a few female soldiers around, and after listening to a lot of metal, death metal, a country song was most appreciated by this reporter.

Specialist Bowers

Specialist Bowers

Tech Notes

I recorded first with a Sony PCM-D50. But for portability and less frustrating battery life, my back-up recorder became my primary: the fantastic Olympus LS-11. I recorded on the internal 4gb and loaded the SD card with music for the ample down and transit times the military excels at. Thanks to Barrett Golding from Hearing Voices for re-mastering the final audio.

The only microphone I’ve ever used, Sony ECM-MS907. A $70 camcorder mic (plus additional windscreen). I had a shotgun mic (AT-835b) but didn’t like waving it around at people with real guns and used it only rarely, often leaving it behind for missions.
Field editing on my computer using ProTools.

My camera was the Canon 5D. Lenses: 16-35mm and a 50mm.

Official site for the group I was embedded with.