Review | Sound Targets: American Soldiers and Music in the Iraq War

Sound Targets: American Soldiers and Music in the Iraq War. By Jonathan Pieslak. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2009. [240 pp. ISBN: 978-0-253-22087-5. Paperback: $21.95; EBook $18.65].

Reviewed by Matthew Sumera / University of Minnesota


Sound Targets: American Soldiers and Music in the Iraq War, by Jonathan Pieslak, is an important contribution to the nascent study of music and conflict. Expansive in scope, the book covers a variety of timely issues including the use of music in military recruitment advertising, music as an inspiration for combat, and the employment of music in interrogation/torture. As the last of these issues has received considerable attention both among the general public and music scholars, resulting in the penning of the Society for Ethnomusicology’s “Position Statement on Torture” (2007), Pieslak’s work usefully contributes to several important debates.

In his introduction, Pieslak details the methodology he developed for his study, primarily based on interviews with eighteen U.S. soldiers over the phone, in person, and through email. While he cites the obvious limitations of such an approach, especially the lack of a long-term fieldwork engagement in the combat zone, his findings are nevertheless compelling. Moreover, Pieslak’s methodology is consistent with a number of newer anthropological engagements addressing warfare at a distance (Robben 2010, Whitehead and Finnström, 2013), and should not be dismissed because of a lack of actual “fieldwork under fire” (Nordstrom and Robben 1995).

Chapter one is devoted to “Music and Contemporary Military Recruiting.” In it Pieslak provides a useful history of the role of music in military recruitment advertising, focusing his analysis on what he identifies as two recurrent musical themes: “honorable duty music” (26) and music that promotes action/excitement. Readers are aided immeasurably through the development of a companion website that hosts the commercials under discussion. Pieslak also explores the introduction of heavy metal music in more recent military recruitment ads, notably the use of two songs by the metal band Godsmack in the U.S. Navy’s “Accelerate Your Life” campaign of 2003, an important piece of sonic indexicality that sets up discussions of the resonance of heavy metal with soldiers in later chapters. While a brief discussion of music in basic combat training and a detour into the music of several 1980s television dramas are less crucial to his overall analysis, the chapter introduces a wealth of useful information about the role of music in American armed forces recruiting efforts.

Chapter two is devoted to “Music as an Inspiration for Combat.” Here Pieslak explores the various ways in which soldiers use music “in the process of inspiring themselves for combat” (54). Covering issues from the jerry-rigging of military vehicles to play music to collective listening in pre-combat scenarios, the chapter addresses one of the more commented upon aspects of music in current combat zones, made famous in films such as Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 in a scene in which soldiers psych themselves up to the sound of metal band Drowning Pool’s “Let the Bodies Hit the Floor.” While providing a compelling analysis, the chapter does risk oversimplifying the listening practices of soldiers. Interested readers should also consult Lisa Gilman’s “An American Soldier’s iPod: Layers of Identity and Situated Listening in Iraq” (2010) for additional nuance.

Titled “Looking at the Opposing Forces,” Chapter three provides a preliminary analysis of the use of music in anti-American and anti-Israeli music videos. In particular, the chapter focuses on the role of nasheeds (nasyids) in videos produced by Fatah, Hamas, and Hezbollah, with a specific focus on those created and disseminated by the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). In his analysis, Pieslak usefully addresses the standardization found among such productions, noting, “the structure of most ISI videos is uniform, consisting of a slogan in an introductory graphic, an overdubbed war/jihad nasheed, and images of an IED attack” (64). The chapter also includes an informative discussion of the various similarities between these video productions and U.S. armed forces recruitment advertising. This kind of cross-cultural comparison is especially welcome, as it helps articulate the ways in which opposing forces nevertheless function similarly in the realm of representation and aesthetics. It also helps de-familiarize U.S. practices while de-exoticizing those of its putative Other. While the chapter risks eliding the cultural and political differences found among a wide diversity of groups in opposition to the U.S. and some of its allies, it is nevertheless an important attempt to explore the ways in which music functions among some resistance groups in the Middle East.

Chapter four, “Music as a Psychological Tactic,” begins with a short account of the now famous (especially among scholars of music and war) campaign against Manuel Noriega in December 1989, in which the U.S. military bombarded the Vatican embassy where Noriega had sought asylum with amplified music. As Pieslak writes, this was a “seminal event in the practice of utilizing music as a distinct psychological tactic” (82). Pieslak then traces the ways in which the U.S. military has similarly used music in Iraq in a number of different offensives.

The second part of the chapter is devoted to the exploration of the use of music in interrogation/torture. Pieslak begins be rehearsing the ways that music has come to be used as such, a history that will be familiar to those aware of the work of Suzanne Cusick on the issue (2006, 2008). He continues with a lengthy discussion of the legality/illegality of such practices, with specific reference to the experiences of U.S. soldiers and “international law and U.S. military policy” (91). As he states, his overall goal is to complicate the claim that all uses of music in interrogation are always immediately torture. He writes, “my hope is that this work will provide a better understanding of music in interrogation and the laws that directly shape soldiers’ training and practices” (97).

Here Pieslak’s appeal to a discourse of legality/illegality evidences an unfortunate lack of engagement with broader theories of violence in fields such as anthropology and philosophy. Indeed, as Steve Goodman notes in his essay “Nihilism and the Philosophy of Violence” (1997), the very concept of violence (or, in this case, torture) always already involves notions of legality and illegality:

Two kinds of violence are thus distinguished using dichotomies such as public-private, legal-illegal, legitimate-illegitimate, useful-harmful, etc. These are only distinguishable by the partisan justification given to one. In fact, one is termed positively—for example punishment or the enforcement of law and order—while the other is censured as violence (160. Italics in original.)

To this end, Pieslak’s appeal to a discourse of legality has the unfortunate effect of obscuring rather than illuminating the actual uses of music in interrogation practices, defining instead an attempt to explain such actions in a court of law. As anthropologist David Riches (1986) importantly observes, violence is best explored through a tripartite model that accounts for the perspectives of victims, perpetrators, and witnesses. Focusing exclusively on the actions of only one of these (in this case, those of the interrogators), tells us less about the practice itself than about how one group tries to justify it through legal appeals. While such legalistic context is undoubtedly useful, Pieslak’s analysis of such a controversial practice would have been stronger if he had also included the voices of those who have been subjected to musical interrogation.

Chapter five, “Music as a Form of Soldier Expression,” focuses on the various ways in which U.S. soldiers fighting in the Iraq War turn to music as a way to cope with and comment upon their experiences. After a brief historical account, the chapter addresses the variety of genres soldiers perform while deployed: from hip hop to acoustic guitar-based music to computer music. Pieslak does an admirable job exploring what he calls “barracks humor” as well, where “controversial topics are treated with humor and a deliberate lack of insensitivity” (123). Such analysis helps explain lyrics that some readers might otherwise too easily dismiss as being beyond the pale. 

The final chapter, “Metal and Rap Ideologies in the Iraq War,” addresses the two most prevalent genres listened to by soldiers in Iraq and the ways in which they are used. Pieslak’s comparison between pre-combat collective listening and trancing practices of the kind Judith Becker (2004) has written about is particularly compelling, once again offering intriguing cross-cultural analysis that complicates distinctions between self and Other. While providing insightful discussion of the particularities of genre formation and fan identification, the remainder of the chapter suffers slightly in revisiting topics covered previously in the book.

Sound Targets: American Soldiers and Music in the Iraq War is an absorbing and much needed analysis of the various connections between music and contemporary warfare. Rich in detail, vast in scope, Pieslak has done us a huge service in addressing one of the more complex and politically charged uses of music at the beginning of the 21st century. An ambitious work that sometimes falters because of its reach, the book nevertheless sets forth a critical path with which any serious future attempt at understanding the uses of music in war must contend. While a more thorough engagement with other scholarship on war and violence would have enriched his analysis at times, this is nevertheless an important and accessible book, one which should appeal to the general reader as much as the academic.



Becker, Judith. 2004. Deep Listeners: Music, Emotion, and Trancing. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Cusick, Suzanne G. 2006. “Music as Torture/Music as Weapon.” Revista Transcultural de Música/Transcultural Music Review. 10:1-18.

———. 2008. “ ‘You Are in a Place That is Out of the World . . .’: Music in the Detention Camps of the ‘Global War on Terror.’ ” Journal of the Society of American Music 2(1):1-26.

Gilman, Lisa. 2010. “An American Soldier’s iPod: Layers of Identity and Situated Listening in Iraq.” Music and Politics 4(2):1-17.

Goodman, Steve. 1997. “Nihilism and the Philosophy of Violence.” In Violence, Culture, and Censure, edited by Colin Sumner, 162-192. London; Bristol, PA: Taylor & Francis.

Nordstrom, Carolyn and Antonious C. G. M Robben, eds. 1995. Fieldwork Under Fire: Contemporary Studies of Violence and Survival. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Riches, David. 1986. “The Phenomenon of Violence.” In The Anthropology of Violence, edited by David Riches, 1-27.

Robben, Antonious C. G. M, ed. 2010. Iraq at a Distance: What Anthropologists Can Teach Us About the War. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Society for Ethnomusicology. 2007. “Position Statement on Torture.” (9 September 2011).

Whitehead, Neil and Sverker Finnström. 2013. Virtual War and Magical Death: Technologies and Imaginaries for Terror and Killing. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 

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