Are military bands a thing of the past?

Music in the military has a long history.

While marching toward the enemy, the armies of the ancient Greek city states would sing paeans to the God Apollo in unison. It was an homage to their god, inspired the Greek hoplites to fight, but also was intimidating to the enemy. It also helped the tight, packed formations typical of hoplite warfare keep time in their march.

In a similar way, music played a vital role after the musket was introduced to the battlefield in the 16th century. The weapons were relatively inaccurate and short-ranged, and the concept of massed coordinated volley fire was needed to make them effective in the open-field engagements of the time.

Drums, flutes, and bugles were all used to issue commands over the noise of battle, as well as helping large groups of soldiers keep their ranks as they marched and maneuvered. Young boys were often used for the role, and they could face dangers as great as any of the regular soldiers. More conventional bands were used to entertain troops during the Civil War, often even on the front lines.

Two weeks ago, the House passed legislation that would ban military bands from performing at social functions other than formal military ceremonies and funerals to help cut defense spending.

The Defense Department spent $437 million in Fiscal Year 2015 on “musicians, instruments, uniforms and travel expenses,” according to Stars & Stripes.

“For every dollar that is spent on our bands to entertain at social functions, that’s a dollar we’re not spending on national security and on our troops and our families,” said Rep. Martha McSally, R-Arizona, a retired Air Force colonel who sponsored the bill.

The Army currently has 99 bands, the Air Force has 15 bands, the Marine Corps has 12 bands, and the Navy has 11, according to Politico. The bill now heads to the Senate.

The history of military bands is long and storied.

Though bands had played varying roles since the Revolutionary War, it was Army Gen. John Pershing during World War I who set the stage for the military’s current band system after seeing the much more elaborate European army bands in action. He believed the bands to be essential to troop morale and set up a formal training system in place of what was previously fairly ad hoc, greatly expanding regimental bands.

Though by World War II such use of music on the battlefield had largely been abandoned, there were still some examples, if far more eccentric ones. The famed British commando ‘Mad’ Jack Churchill, who clearly had a taste for older styles of warfare, would go into action playing bagpipes to inspire his men while carrying a Scottish broadsword and a longbow. The Soviet Union was known to play patriotic music before it’s troops charged as well.

In modern warfare, however, military bands are seen more and more as an anachronism used for strictly ceremonial purposes, and are confined to the parade ground rather than the battlefield.

It’s been a long time since military bands performed in combat. In an era of tighter budgets and ever more modern warfare, it’s clear Congress is beginning to see military bands more as a frivolity than a necessity.

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