Music and War's Grief Print E-mail

Platoon_village_scene(San Diego Union-Tribune, Veterans Day, November 11, 2010)

The degree to which we mourn our war dead as a nation is matched by the music for mourning our composers have given us. In America’s case, it’s virtually none. The reason our composers have been so stingy with writing elegies—contrast this with the Irish ballad or the fiddle dirge, keening traditions that go back 1,000 years—is that our culture has not demanded they write sad music.

We attend to public loss with private grief. We have a funeral, a memorial, a wake; we pay tribute, shed tears, tell stories and play a brief, favorite tune to remember the departed and to evoke a modicum of sorrow. We grieve not for the dead. We lament the individual who lost his or her life. If the remembrance has a religious bent, someone sings “Amazing Grace.” If it’s military, the tune is “Taps.” We watch the casket lower or the ashes scatter, and return to our separate lives, changed only in personal ways.

But what do we do with loss our country feels? Where is our grief for what has died in us?

Two months ago, nine years after Sept. 11, 2001, we grieved—and there was music to mark the anniversary. Among the most powerfully felt remembrances are Leonard Slatkin’s London performance of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings”; Alan Jackson’s ballad “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning”; and John Adams’s mood piece, “On the Transmigration of Souls,” a work the composer calls a “memory space,” where listeners might be “alone with their thoughts and emotions.” During its brooding 25 minutes, names of the lost are recited by children amid eerie electronic and spatial sounds: The effect is like wandering with a flashlight through a cave.

Simple. We keep 9/11 alive because we attend to its grief.

But for this Veterans Day, I wonder what music we might use to lament our losses in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. In a culture where the music of uplift (from Sousa to Bernstein to the winners of “American Idol”) rules, no one wants to linger on how these wars have hurt us and others as well. Not even America’s rockers lend a hand. They avoid national sorrow by turning difficult emotions into sentimentality or patriotism or tribal ecstasy.

And yet, doesn’t grief—if it’s to be felt—demand more than bowed heads and five seconds of silence during a montage of fallen soldiers’ photos on CNN? Why don’t we attend to the dark side of our military adventurism, the costs of freedom and liberation, goals we so easily crow about as a people?

We Americans are good at many things. But grieving as a nation is not one of them. As we leave Iraq and hold on for the indeterminate long haul in Afghanistan, I doubt we will attend to either war with a victory parade or a hand-wringing assembly. As the men and women return, what marks their re-entry will be an absence of emotion, a limp “thanks for your service.”

This is not to say that we declare our Mideast forays failures. What I am saying is that the consequence of rolling on for years in these foreign wars—never a victory, always a political stalemate—breeds an internalized and unredeemed suffering in us. It is that which I felt in my Navy father’s lifelong despair: his unshared and ungrieved pain after fighting in World War II.

Here’s how I imagine our memorials will come down this year. At NFL games, the theatrics of welcoming soldiers home from their Pyrrhic victory will take center stage. Field-size flags will unfurl, Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” will sound, the Blue Angels will fly over, and the roaring crowd will cheer a sanctimonious idea, not a bloodied reality.

But what if our moments of silence were extended, uncomfortably so? What if we played Barber’s “Adagio”—the full nine-minute version—and the PA announcer beseeched us to feel for the dead and wounded, our soldiers and their civilians? What if during Barber’s ode we watched images of the toll: flag-draped coffins, dead children, charcoaled body parts, legless Americans? What if our collective remembrance had such teeth?

If we don’t want another quagmire 10,000 miles away, one (partial) way to stop it is to ask our composers and musicians and the venues that embrace their work to help us grieve what’s been done in our name and what we should own up to as a country. Having fully felt the pain of war, we may think twice before rushing into another.