March Madness: A Brief History of Military Bands

From George Washington’s fife players to combat rock groups, two centuries of a proud (if costly) tradition.

<a href="http://www.jackson.army.mil/sites/band/pages/234">282nd Army Rock Band</a>

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One item that briefly landed on the budget chopping block this spring was the Pentagon’s funding for military bands, which, it turns out, adds up to around $320 million a year. Here’s a brief history of this proud, if costly, military tradition.

1776

George Washington, described as “an accomplished flutist” in an official Army history (PDF), orders more training for his fife and drum corps.

1865

Union General Philip H. Sheridan orders his musicians to “play the gayest tunes in their books…never mind if a bullet goes through a trombone, or even a trombonist, now and then.”

1918

Not to be outdone by our European allies’ grand bands, General John Pershing beefs up America’s bands. He later forms the US Army Band, still known as “Pershing’s Own.”

1945

Members of the 28th Infantry and 101st Airborne Division bands fight in the Battle of the Bulge. A truckload of sheet music is destroyed, despite the efforts of a bazooka-wielding clarinetist.

1969

The 1st Infantry Division band performs “The Colonel Bogey March” just one mile from a North Vietnamese Army regiment. According to an official account, “The enemy, confused by the action, withdrew from the area.”

1990

The 3rd Armored Division band deploys to Kuwait, where it “performed on the enemy side of a berm while the division advanced into Iraqi territory.”

2010

“Popular music elements,” such as rock bands like the one in the video below, are deployed in overseas combat zones. “If it can’t fit into two Blackhawks, it’s not going to happen,” an officer tells the New York Times.

2011

Congressional cost-cutters try to slash the band budget by $120 million. House Republicans like Texas Rep. John Carter step in and preserve “an integral part of the patriotism that keeps our soldiers’ hearts beating fast.”


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You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

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