The Songs of War

Jason Sagebiel in his office in Iraq.

Jason Sagebiel in his office in Iraq.

In the first years of the Iraq War, what distinguished Maj. Gen. David Petraeus’s success in the north from his fellow commanders’ difficulty in the south was his correct assessment of the “center of gravity.” The term, coined by Clausewitz, refers to the enemy’s source of strength. Petraeus understood that insurgents depend heavily on civilians—for shelter, supplies, information, and recruiting. The center of gravity was the people. Win their good will, and the insurgency would wither.

Jason Sagebiel, a Marine scout-sniper, understood this too. Stationed 100 miles southeast of Baghdad in Kut, in 2003, he used several different tools in his unit’s counter-insurgency effort—a sniper rifle, a fighting knife, and a stout, guitar-like instrument called an oud. For him, music was a passion, a coping mechanism, and a tactic.

“We had a twofold mission,” he said. “Kill the bad guys, make friends with the good guys.”

Jason was in midtown Manhattan last Wednesday at CUNY’s Elebash Recital Hall to perform some of the music he composed during his tour in Iraq. His first piece was a frantic, rollicking melody for the oud that sounded like the twangy movie soundtrack you’d expect to hear while an old jalopy darts through a dust-choked Middle Eastern medina. Each measure had seven-and-a-half beats, which gave the melody a sense of hiccuping and doubling over onto itself in organized layers.

Jason learned the instrument from a man named Ali, one of the most famous oud players in southern Iraq. A lover of western culture, Ali’s favorite composers were Hayden and Mozart, and he could recite from memory more English poetry than Jason had ever read. Whenever Jason was off duty, he would go to Ali for oud lessons.

It was remarkably difficult. In Western music, our scales are composed of half steps and full steps—C to C#, D to E. In Iraq, there are also three-quarter tones—a melody might start on a C and rise to a note directly between C# and D. With all of these extra notes, there are dozens more scales. The rhythms, too, are more varied and complex. “You have to be Iraqi to understand,” Ali would tell Jason. Every region of the country had its own rhythmical patterns and its own popular scales, as natural to the locals as Springsteen’s beat is to New Jersey. You can tell where an oud player is from by how he plays—or even by how his instrument is tuned.

Back at base, Jason composed on Saddam Hussein’s presidential letterhead. Using the side of a desk as a straight-edge, he drew sets of five parallel, horizontal lines down the page, and experimented with the scales Ali had taught him. He also wrote poetry.

From these efforts came a piece called “Rosary,” a wistful duet for sopranos accompanied by a spare, slow-plucked classical guitar. It’s a meditation on Mary, a revered figure in both Christianity and Islam. “And to her we pray with beads as our fingers dance around,” the sopranos sing, “and men in circles dance around with beads above their heads.” The sopranos harmonize a dissonant quarter-tone away from the familiar resonance of a major chord.

I confess I was disappointed when I read the short libretto in the evening’s program. As poetry, the lyrics struck me as agreeable yet obvious: “The traditions apparently seem so same. / But we’ve instead put up walls and split apart our home.” Yet, watching this Marine and these Western instruments—guitar, classically trained voices—play the scales of Iraq, the effect was both beautiful and plaintive. The song transcended its lyrics.

In their efforts to quell two insurgencies, American commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan have learned lessons from Gen. Petraeus, who now oversees all U.S. military operations in the region. They have begun to weigh the short-term benefits of  overwhelming force—nighttime raids, air strikes, demolitions of enemy positions—against the way such tactics degrade the good will of civilians in the long term. They are, euphemistically speaking, becoming “culturally sensitive.”

But are they stewards of Iraqi culture?

After the Second World War, by contrast, the governor of American-occupied territories in Germany, Lucius Clay, gave intense concern to the question of German culture. He ensured the preservation of the national art collections and the continuation of music festivals. “We are trying to free the German mind,” he said, “and to make his heart value that freedom so greatly that it will beat and die for that freedom and for no other purpose.” Using art and history, he would transform “German chauvinism” into an “international chauvinism of the spirit,” so that Germans would use the horrors of Hitler to become the conscience of the world.

Such a project requires near-delusional optimism—and a genuine interest not only in a country’s geostrategic importance but in its cultural identity as well.

“I don’t think the curiosity was ordered,” Jason said, when asked whether his commanders instructed him to take an interest in Iraqi culture. “You can’t order such a thing.”

Ben Van Heuvelen is the managing editor of Iraq Oil Report. He has contributed to The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, Salon, and Killing the Buddha, among others, and he blogs at