And the Band Played On…

Why does the Army Materiel Command have a band, and why was it building a $4.4 million headquarters to house it in Huntsville, Ala.?

There is a man at The Washington Post who is asking a lot of questions about the musical units across the services.

Walter Pincus says enough already with this outdated and overbudgeted convention. He wants to put musicians out of work and has written a series of columns on the military musical units to highlight this waste.

His evidence is strong.

Pincus recently spoke on NPR about his series. While millions are spent on the bands each year, he said only the Marine Corps could give him an annual cost figure for its musical units – about $50 million. (I question the Corps’ tally here.) The Army eventually guessed $198 million, but really wasn’t sure, which seems the more honest of the two responses. Bands are assigned by command, so an accurate accounting for musical units within a service might prove difficult.

Funding aside, there is the issue of personnel. Pincus says there are more military musicians than diplomats at the overtaxed State Department. (I did not check this.) If accurate, it is a sobering statistic.

On the up side, if I recall, most of the PhDs in the Marine Corps are, you guessed it, musicians.
A band’s mission “to instill in our forces the will, to fight and win, foster the support of citizens, and promote America’s interests at home and abroad,” seems antiquated (think iPod), but units have traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan to entertain those fighting current conflicts. The bands also serve a recruiting and awareness function for the services, without which, well, the services could probably still achieve their goals.

A gander at service websites further supports Picus’ position. The Army’s active component has 35 bands worldwide.  But what commander (dare we say four-star) is going to give up his or her musical unit? These things are like gold. A band means power and influence. Communities have come to depend on them like their own. (The Marine Forces Reserve band practically belongs to New Orleans during Mardi Gras.) Deny a community band request, and calls from the highest levels of defense vector to the commander ordering support.

Pincus may be correct. The plethora of bands in today’s world seems wasteful. Cut a ship, no one thinks twice, but deactivate a band …Years ago, the number of musical units was reduced across the services. There is no reason not to cull the herd again.

What do you think on the topic of military bands?

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