As far back as the Revolutionary War, the U.S. military has trumpeted its gleaming, brassy bands as a point of pride and a critical soft power weapon in its arsenal. But in an era of budget cuts and troop reductions, Congress is signaling that it may be time for one of the largest employers of musicians in the world to turn the music down.
The Pentagon fields more than 130 military bands worldwide, made up of about 6,500 musicians, and not just in traditional brass and drum corps like the kind that will march in many Fourth of July parades on Monday. There are also military rock acts with artsy names, conservatory-trained military jazz ensembles, military bluegrass pickers, even a military calypso band based in the Virgin Islands.
All of this cost about $437 million last year — almost three times the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts.
In June, the House of Representatives passed bills that would force the military to give a detailed accounting of the bands’ activities and expenses and limit where and when the bands could perform. The House Armed Services Committee inserted a line in the latest National Defense Authorization Act saying the committee “believes that the services may be able to conserve end strength by reducing the number of military bands.”
Rep. Martha E. McSally, R-Ariz., a former Air Force fighter pilot who introduced one of the measures, noted that spending on bands had steadily increased in recent years, with the military buying $11,000 flutes and $12,000 tubas, while at the same time the Air Force has been facing a shortage of fighter pilots and aircraft maintainers.
“While our communities certainly do enjoy being entertained by our military bands,” McSally said on the House floor in June, “they would, I think, prefer to be protected by our military.”
The military has staunchly defended its bands, saying music is an important asset that helps strengthen relationships with allies and bolster morale among troops. Senior leaders and enlisted musicians say bands are a relative bargain for the peace and goodwill they spread. Getting in requires the push-ups and shooting practice of basic training and an audition that can draw graduates of some of the country’s finest music schools.
There is ample history behind military music making. At the start of the Revolutionary War, George Washington, who dabbled in the flute, personally directed the creation of a fife and drum corps and ordered that the fifes be sorted by pitch to ensure proper sound.
“Until you see what we do, it’s hard to really understand the mission impact music can have,” Senior Master Sgt. Ryan Carson said in a phone interview from Doha, Qatar, where his Air Force rock band, Max Impact, is deployed.
In recent months, he and his five band mates have played in Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait and a number of what he called “undisclosed locations,” performing popular songs in Arabic for foreign dignitaries, troops and children, as well as globally recognized American rock anthems by groups like Journey and Bon Jovi.
“We are allowing people to relax, connect, have meaningful interactions. For a lot of these people, it leaves a really lasting, positive impression of our country and our military,” he said. “It’s hard to put a value on that.”
None in Congress have indicated they want to silence bands completely. Instead, they have focused on what they describe as frivolous gigs and costs that have grown considerably, even as overall military spending has shrunk.
Some military bands travel to music competitions far from relevant audiences. Others play free at festivals that charge admission. In 26 years in the Air Force, McSally said she saw plenty of performances that did nothing to further national interests. Often ensembles would play for officers at private gatherings. When she was a cadet at the Air Force Academy, the academy’s band, made up of professional musicians, not cadets, played each day as students marched to lunch.
“Doing that stuff in this day and age, when we don’t have enough people for combat positions?” she said in a phone interview. “I just don’t get it.”
Her amendment would prevent military bands from playing at many social events, including those that are not free and open to the public.
It is the latest of a number of attempts to rein in spending on bands in recent years. The first was in 2011, when Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., proposed a $200 million cap on what was then a $325 million program.
“The original mission had sprawled with little or no oversight,” she said in a phone interview this week. “They were doing general PR, and often the events weren’t even open to the public. A lot of it was community events where a member of Congress could call up and say send us a military band. What does that have to do with national defense?”
Her 2011 amendment failed. So did another she introduced the next year, when spending on bands had grown to $388 million.
Though the current $437 million price tag would barely qualify as a drop in the defense budget bucket of about $600 billion, it still dwarfs all other federal spending on music.
Leaders in the Pentagon quietly grumble that by focusing on bands, Congress is going after small potatoes. The military has for years proposed base closings that it estimates would save more than $2 billion a year, but Congress has not acted on the politically troublesome proposals that could cut jobs in their districts.
The tension between the military’s push for pomp and Washington’s aversion to paying the piper is hardly a modern problem. At the outset of the Civil War, Union regiments enlisted lavish bands with as many as 50 musicians, sometimes complete with turbans and other exotic regalia. When forces converged in large encampments, one Union bandmaster later wrote, “the effect of the confusion of sounds produced can hardly be imagined.”
By 1862, the Union had nearly 15,000 bandsmen, and the secretary of war issued an order limiting band size and pushing thousands of buglers, trombonists and other music makers out of the Army.
In 1927, Congress was considering an increase in pay and rank for military bandsmen. One senator opened hearings by noting that many military leaders “regard the band as a nuisance.”
But the first witness, none other than John Philip Sousa, composer of the country’s most famous marches, including the unofficial theme song of Independence Day, “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” underscored music’s power by saying that every great army since ancient times had relied on it.
“I do not believe that any nation that would go to war without a band would stand a chance of winning,” he said. “You want something to put pep in a man, to make him fight.”
These days, of course, troops ride into battle more often pepped up by a Bluetooth speaker on the dashboard, but the military still relies on bands for ceremonies and funerals.
Perhaps taking a cue from Congress, the military has started in recent years to cut back on its own. The Army has trimmed 600 band personnel since Congress started calling for reductions in 2011, and it plans to cut 270 more by 2019. The Marines and Navy cut two active-duty bands, and the Air Force cut three. A Pentagon spokesman said it was unclear whether decreasing the number of bands would decrease costs, since the cuts would mean more travel for the remaining musicians, but Pentagon figures show more than 90 percent of costs cover personnel.
Even with troop reductions, the military has no plans to curtail the main functions of its musicians, which range from playing on the White House lawn and at Arlington National Cemetery to playing in dusty and distant forward operating bases.
“Military bands are a critical part of operations,” said Mark Wright, a Defense Department spokesman. “They inspire, they build a rapport with our citizens and foreign nations. The types of operations we do may be hard to understand, but everyone understands music.”
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