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New songs for old strings

Posted in Music, War by Alex L. on June 9, 2012

Photo of orchestra is courtesy of Pedro Sánchez via WikipediaJake Runestad is the same age as me (26) and is already making a contribution to society. His new project is described in “Out of War, a Symphony,” an article in the New York Times blog At War. Runestad is composing a three-part piece for orchestra, piano, and chorus hoping to capture the emotional journey that soldiers experience when they go to war and back. He is relying on poetry, memoirs, and interviews with American veterans of the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq to get a sense of their experiences.

Aside from the social benefit of lifting the veil (if only slightly) for the civilian public about what warfare wreaks on the psyche, Runestad is also helping the cause of classical music. Like other forms of expression which originated many generations ago (including, for that matter, the profession of history) classical music has to confront the stigma of irrelevance. A great way of exhibiting the richness of expression that classical music has to offer is to pair it with the emotional experiences of a new generation. New wine may fare better in new skins, but nothing enlivens the sound of an old instrument like a new song.

Subtle intrusions of comfort

Posted in American, Asian, Culture, Reading by Alex L. on February 20, 2011

Mountains in AfghanistanI have recently been reading Pete Blaber’s memoir, The Mission, The Men, and Me: Lessons from a Former Delta Force Commander, about his experiences during training and in combat around the world (including action in Iraq and Afghanistan). As may be gleamed from some of my previous posts, I have a high degree of admiration for battle-tested warriors such as this Chicago-born operative in the military’s perhaps most unconventional unit.

During late 2001 and early 2002, when Americans special forces were making their first incursions into Afghanistan, Pete Blaber was commanding a detachment of advanced force operations (AFO) soldiers. He describes this early phase of the war in Afghanistan as an uncharacteristic one.

The U.S. government, according to Blaber, knew very little about the country they were invading, and special forces were sent in to acquire contextual information and carry out the initial attacks on the enemy. Since the character of the war to come was still unknown, these various units were allowed to organize and operate in a way that did not necessarily reflect their usual departmental divisions. Combat teams were frequently formed and reformed around a mix of AFO, the Green Berets, and CIA agents as need dictated without a regard for traditional military structure. In true special forces fashion, the only thing that mattered was completing the mission no matter how unconventional the means.

Much like I am in awe of master craftsmen who restore old aircraft, I am stunned by the audacity of the challenges that such special forces troops undertake. My confusion about the morality of war aside, when viewed simply as a problem-solving endeavor, the task of entering a hostile country in small teams of a few dozen men to chase out the entire ruling class baffles the mind. Sure the U.S. soldiers were equipped with the latest supplies and technology to help them accomplish this mission (not to mention scores of Northern Alliance soldiers as allies), but as Blaber describes and the U.S. military had to learn the hard way, technology is never a substitute for one of the basic assets of warfare: contextual knowledge of the people, locations, customs, and ways of thinking of others, especially the enemy. (more…)