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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In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America will move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

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