Loss and Sorrow in the Words of Soldiers: David T. Little, Soldier Songs

By Daniel Garrett

David T. Little, Soldier Songs
featuring David Adam Moore, Newspeak,
Kelli Kathman and Todd Reynolds
Edited by Lawson White and Royce Jeffres
Produced by Lawson White
Innova, 2013

Soldier Songs is a dramatic song cycle about war by musician David T. Little, with a complexity of perspective and tone: analysis and expression, anger and humor.  It is a work of theater, text, and music, intending to present the stages of youth, responsibility, and wisdom and rest, in the life of a soldier; and it was commissioned by the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble; and recently was performed at the International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven.  The musical variety is quite diverse but subtle, drawing on the resources of classical, experimental, and popular music.  The self-consciousness of parts of the narrative—comparing real world action to cinema, for instance—is an aspect of both drama and knowledge: as in the desire and the inability to edit out unpleasantness from reality.  Soldier Songs makes possible an enriched sense of history, describing how war occurs in different times and ways—with reference to society’s lasting hostility to strangers (medieval walled cities threw hot oil from “murder holes” on people outside their walls that citizens wanted to repel).  New experience inspires new language: incoming ordnance (missiles and bombs) are referred to as steel rain.  The damage to the human body made by modern weaponry is nearly unbelievable, driving mind, perception, and morality to the limits of comprehension.

Soldier Songs begins and ends with gong-like sounds, which could be large mortar explosions.  There are quotes from soldiers about the life-or-death circumstances of war as killing; and making oneself available to die upon orders; and the (usually forbidden) permission to kill.  An experimental classical sound supports the ordinary conversation of the soldiers’ testimonies: piano, drone, and pulsing rhythm accompany the voices.  “I want to be a real American hero,” a high-voiced male singer declares.  Another male voice, deeper, talks of killing all the bad guys with funny names.  The recitation about black metal bombs and explosions has weight.  “Someone yell, Cut…Where’s the director?” a participant says, followed by the sound of sirens and the steel rain.  The rhythm sounds and resounds.  “They say we’ve got to catch him—the man who can’t be caught,” another says.

With David Little music as accompaniment, accent, and effect, dramatic and spare, Soldier Songs presents the other side—the human complexity, loss, and sorrow—that a film like Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty does not; a story of adventure, insult and retaliation, of thin intelligence and amoral torture and long-sought triumph, the thrilling film, about the attack on the World Trade Center and the determination to find the plotting religious zealot Usama bin Laden (often spelled Osama), exploits rather than explores tragedy.  In presenting the realities of war that soldiers rarely discuss with civilians, we as listeners of Soldier Songs and citizens of America and the world are compelled to consider the barbarity of politics, of the conflicts of force and ideas and values among people.  The descriptions defy civilization, humanity; and threaten to obliterate all meaning.  Who can be prepared for the craziness, killing, easy death, and bloody mess, the different and devastating aspects of war?

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House and ABC No Rio, is a writer whose work has appeared in print and online, in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Identity Theory, Illuminations, Option, Pop Matters, Rain Taxi, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics, as well as The Compulsive Reader.  Daniel Garrett edited poetry for the male feminist Changing Men magazine, wrote about the African-American artists Henry Tanner, Edward Bannister, and Reginald Madison for Art & Antiques, reported on environmental issues and organized the first interdepartmental meeting on environmental justice for National Audubon (The Audubon Activist), reviewed books for World Literature Today, and essayed international film for Offscreen.  Daniel Garrett has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth, which features stories of friendship and love, ignorance and knowledge, and art and mundane work, in the lives of a woman artist and her associates.