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Music and war: 4 songs that forever bring me back to Afghanistan

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soldiers playing music in Afghanistan

Soldiers in the field have always used music to ease nerves worn raw from daily perils. They have used it just as religiously upon returning home from war, whether to quiet the demons, as a means to return emotionally to those war zone times, or as a way to pacify a reckless psyche. In fact, music has always been one of the healthier ways that fighting men and women have to defragment their war-worn minds.

A particular song can evoke a series of memories – over and above nostalgia – from a significant time in one’s life. That is especially true if the song is linked to an emotional time period. The song embeds itself into the permanent soundtrack of our lives. That soundtrack of course grows longer as we grow older, and the songs might even recede or change their meaning over time.

My own warzone soundtrack is not necessarily made up of songs that are all about war, but rather, that I listened to repeatedly while in Kosovo, Afghanistan, or Iraq. They just happened to be in rotation for me during those times, or maybe some of them entered the rotation because I was in a war zone, and my subconscious mind craved them. Who is to know, really? The point is, they burrowed in deep, and remain there even now. Some 20-plus years after my first foray into a conflict zone, they still bring me back there when I hear them. 

For the purposes of this article, I will name just four – all released in 2006 – that I listened to on my iPod more times than I could possibly count while in Afghanistan from 2006 and into 2007. They will always be linked in my mind to that time. They have certainly done their part in first getting me through those days, and then in making sense of them as the years passed.

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Pearl Jam – Come Back

Pearl Jam’s eponymous album. (J Records)

Pearl Jam’s self-titled album was a regular in my playlist while in Afghanistan. This standout track speaks to the urge – the primal need – to get back home to loved ones. It played in my head constantly while I was stationed at a CIA base in eastern Afghanistan. I would sit and write cables back to headquarters in our secure space, after some particular foray out into the nearby dusty town, all the while looking up regularly at the picture of my 6-month-old firstborn son that hung over my desk.

Tom Petty – Square One

Tom Petty’s Highway Companion album packed a double emotional punch, as it was new (and great) music from an artist already in my own personal pantheon. This somber and uplifting song about redemption spoke to the need to escape the war-zone life and start over back home with family. It was a sonic impetus to make it back and relearn my place in the normal world. “It took a world of trouble, it took a world of tears; it took a long time, to get back here.”

Related: Country music star Craig Morgan re-enlists in the Army to boost recruitment

The Killers – Bling (Confessions of a King)

The Killers’ Sam’s Town album (Island)

Not every impactful song for me was about going home. This track from the album Sam’s Town brings me back to the exhilaration and unique sense of fulfillment that came from living and working in a war zone for a year. We had a job to do after 9/11, after all, and we were fortunate to have the chance to play a part in the American response to that horrible day. A soaring chorus and defiant lyrics spoke about more than trying to “get my glory in the desert rain.” The song is about survival, and you can’t help but be inspired by the crescendoing “higher and higher” that ends the song, determined indeed that “we’re gonna make it out of the fire.”

Tim McGraw – Beautiful People

Finally, this song from McGraw’s Greatest Hits Vol 2 album, even now some 17 years later, makes me tear up when I hear the verse about an old war hero forced to bury his son who was “killed outside Tikrit.” The song brings a flood of emotion about the ones who didn’t make it back home. It is also really about the people back home, living their lives the best way they can. It was a time before we were all so angry at each other, when a song about the beauty of everyday people and their struggles could be released without so much as an ounce of controversy. 

Finally, here are five more songs that also have a permanent place in my life soundtrack, and all bring me back to those days both in uniform and with the CIA, even though some were released years after those days had already passed. Maybe they can bring you some solace, too.

Jamey Johnson – In Color (2008)

Ruston Kelly – Paratrooper’s Battlecry (2018)

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – Tour of Duty (2011)

Jason Isbell – Dress Blues (2007)

The Decemberists – This is Why We Fight (2011)

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Frumentarius is a former Navy SEAL, former CIA officer, and currently a battalion chief in a career fire department in the Midwest.