Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The Best Defense list of the top 10 songs for heading into combat

The Best Defense list of the top 10 songs for heading into combat

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I like most kinds of rock. I like folk, country, blues, bluegrass in measured doses, and most jazz. I like Italian opera. I enjoy a lot of classical stuff, and I love Beethoven's solo piano music. My son even carefully selected for me rap he thought I'd like, and he generally was right. On the other hand, I just can't stand heavy metal. As I wrote this item, I was listening to the top 10 list (below), and my normally loyal dogs abandoned their posts in my home office.

But this is not about me, or the dogs. This is not a discussion of good music or even of favorite music, but rather songs that U.S. soldiers have used in recent years to prepare themselves to fight. Here's a comment, from "JC333," that explains what drives people to listen to the songs on this list: "I would pretty much know if I was going into a particularly hairy area. I used to get in a pretty dark mood and while some people liked to get amped to songs by Metallica or AC/DC, I liked to listen to Nine Inch Nails' 'Downward Spiral.'"

As a whole, the list below is full of grandiose, amateurish, cliched, narcissistic, high-energy songs -- but of course, that's what heavy metal is all about, as is a lot of male adolescence. "Sleep with one eye open," "the mob rules," blah blah blah, etc.

I like most kinds of rock. I like folk, country, blues, bluegrass in measured doses, and most jazz. I like Italian opera. I enjoy a lot of classical stuff, and I love Beethoven’s solo piano music. My son even carefully selected for me rap he thought I’d like, and he generally was right. On the other hand, I just can’t stand heavy metal. As I wrote this item, I was listening to the top 10 list (below), and my normally loyal dogs abandoned their posts in my home office.

But this is not about me, or the dogs. This is not a discussion of good music or even of favorite music, but rather songs that U.S. soldiers have used in recent years to prepare themselves to fight. Here’s a comment, from "JC333," that explains what drives people to listen to the songs on this list: "I would pretty much know if I was going into a particularly hairy area. I used to get in a pretty dark mood and while some people liked to get amped to songs by Metallica or AC/DC, I liked to listen to Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Downward Spiral.’"

As a whole, the list below is full of grandiose, amateurish, cliched, narcissistic, high-energy songs — but of course, that’s what heavy metal is all about, as is a lot of male adolescence. "Sleep with one eye open," "the mob rules," blah blah blah, etc.

A few artist-specific comments:

  • Metallica showed up on more lists than any other band, but with an array of songs. Second favorite band is probably AC/DC.
  • I thought we’d see more votes for Three 6 Mafia and other rappers, but that may be a reflection of the demographics of this blog.
  • Warren Zevon’s "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner" may have been a favorite of Boomer soldiers, but not today’s privates. So, like the oeuvre of Ted Nugent, a 1991 Gulf War favorite, it does not appear on this list.

The winner is probably my least favorite song ever. But, of course, this isn’t about me.

1) Drowning Pool, "Let the Bodies Hit the Floor"

2) Anything by Metallica, but especially  — "Enter Sandman," "Disposable Heroes," "All Nightmare Long," "Don’t Tread on Me," "Ride the Lightning" and "Whiskey in the Jar." (I found the last one tolerable.)

3) AC/DC, lots of songs, but especially "Thunderstruck" (here’s a version featuring Apache attack helicopters) or "Hell’s Bells." (I couldn’t find the version with George Patton’s speech to soldiers overdubbed into it.)

4) Rage Against the Machine. A variety of songs show up on lists, but a favorite is "Down Rodeo." (Also, "Killing in the Name" and "How I Could Just Kill a Man." But "Bullet in the Head" was not listed by anyone.) I remember an officer in Baghdad playing RATM back on little speakers in the summer of ’03. When I expressed surprise that an Army major would like the band, he said, "Hey, I get my music from them, not my politics.")

5) Manowar shows up a lot. I’d never heard of them. "Hail & Kill" seems to be one of the more popular of their many hymns to bloodshed.

6) Survivor, "Eye of the Tiger" (You’ve heard this. You’ve just tried to forget it.)

7) Dope, "Die Motherfucker Die" ("Great when you have to bust wire," commented "Centurion").

8) Limp Bizkit, "Rollin’." What a cheeseball!

9) Stevie Ray Vaughan, "Voodoo Chile" (but only because it was in the soundtrack to "Black Hawk Down," a favorite of deployed soldiers).

10) The Hold Steady, "Stevie Nix" (But not their "Multitude of Casualties.")

Finally, here’s an editorial from "Hunter," who listed a bunch of head-smashing music, but then ‘fessed up that slow, reverb-heavy guitar is what helps him best prepare for combat:

All that said — most of the time before I went out on mission I listened to the ‘Twin Peaks theme‘ by Angelo Badalamenti at least three times (5:06 minutes long x 3 = 15-plus minutes). Why? Because at my rockbound highland home of USMA I was a participant in the Performance Enhancement Center where we learned relaxation techniques, imagery and mental skills — these skills are now being fielded to the wider Army to deal with PTSD etc. The ‘Twin Peaks’ theme and some other astral music like Enya were used to assist us in relaxing when we were learning these techniques. In 15 minutes I can relax, rejuvenate and clear my head for the task at hand.

I found that rather than being revved up to go kill I needed just the opposite. I wanted and needed to relax, find that clear mental state and be ready to THINK… of course that was my job to do so… keep a cool head.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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