By: Nikki Levy Miller PHD
Wars develop their own ethos, and each generation adopts songs from popular culture that reflects this ethos. There are two broad categories of music that are popular with soldiers. The first are stirring songs, the kind that go along with wargasm imagery, the kind that is popular with combat arms, the kind you play to make yourself forget that the business of war is to kill people. My generation played the Clash’s “Rock the Casbah” while we bombed Baghdad. I was always reminded of gay dance clubs on “bi” night, and thought the amyl nitrate in the nerve gas kits was a bit ironic.
But there is another kind of songs that are popular with soldiers, the kind you play to keep yourself going. My generation of soldiers did not need these songs. I have friends that did brave things, ran emergency rooms and even dodged a few bullets. I myself spent the Gulf War in Honolulu. It was not without its deprivations and trauma; my own service related injury consisted of a nasty case of plantar faciitis that I contracted while hiking across a lava bed on the big island to get to a goddess shrine.
My generation’s war was not like this one.
The social consequences of this war are just beginning. More and more young people are coming home from combat to marry and go to work as cops, truckers, and miners, using the GI bill to take evening classes at the community college. You can feel a tension and a pain in these young people; they have thousand yard stares like the kind I haven’t seen since our older brothers and sisters came back from Viet Nam.
Apparently, this generation of soldiers adopted Rancid’s “Fall Back Down” as one of their songs.
Feeling a need to contextualize the experience of my patients, I decided to go to the show when they came to Tucson. A Google search on the band revealed influences connected with my own youth, bands who remain forever in my memory as young men and women, as young as the young people I now see in my practice. We were children then, we just didn’t know it.
The show at the Rialto was packed. The music itself was as hard and as poignant as my own memories, like roses and thorns, cathartic of soma and psyche; a norepinephrine mediated response followed by depletion and endorphin release, intrinsic speedball for the punk rock soul.
I was waiting in line for the bathroom. Many of the younger people wore band shirts from bands that were around before they were alive. There was a young girl in her early twenties behind me, wearing a Ramones T-shirt. I wondered if she had heard them, or if the t-shirt was just a convention.
“The Ramones, huh? I saw their first tour.”
“I saw their last three tours. I have a D-ring off of Dee-Dee’s jacket. It’s one of my prized possessions.”
We talked for awhile. She is an undergraduate, taking some time off to make some money working in a marine lab based in the Sea of Cortez. She had driven two hundred miles from Sonora to Tucson to see this show.
Rancid played “Fall Back Down” as an encore. The kids put their arms around each others shoulders and held up cellphones; no one carries a lighter anymore. A generation of latchkey children fighting a war, holding each other up when they fall.
We exist with a circle of life and culture. Culture is a palimpsestic process; although each generation rewrites the American ethos, it is done over the tracings of each previous generation. Memory speaks with soft voices as well as the loud ones that we more immediately associate with catharsis.
I turned and saw the girl from the bathroom, her faced flushed with excitement. Overcome with emotion, I said, “You just go on…do it all and don’t regret anything, not one damn thing you do in your life.”
I realized that at this point in my life, I have been part of many wars, not just one: I have been part of wars for housing, healthcare, and free speech. I am still part of a war, and will be so until the day I retire.
It’s been worth it, every minute.