Martha McSally, a Republican Congresswoman from Arizona, made waves this week by attacking the Air Force's bands. "We have hundreds of people playing the tuba and clarinet," she said at a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee. "If we really had a manning crisis, from my perspective, we would really tell people to put down the tuba and pick up a wrench or gun."
An attack on the arts? From the point of view of military band leaders, it's more of the same.
"I've been doing this for 24 years," said Col. Larry H. Lang, the commander and conductor of the United States Air Force Band. "I can't remember a time when we weren't defending ourselves. It's nothing new. It's like in the civilian sector, arts and music in schools are always under attack by people who think they're extracurricular when you and I would think they're primary. It's the same in the military. We believe we bring an important role, and keep defending ourselves. The detractors will never go away."
Lang made these comments to me, by telephone, in 2014, when I was writing an article on military bands. McSally's sally only demonstrates his point.
The military bands are one of the largest employers of musicians in the country. On the elite level, particularly, they do employ musicians. That tuba player that McSally has in her sights has trained as a tuba player for most of his or her life, and probably went to conservatory -- and might be a lot more dangerous, and a lot less useful to our country, wielding a wrench or gun that he or she doesn't know how to use properly. Most of the service bands, to be sure, do require musicians to go through basic training, but the musicians don't necessarily stay in fighting trim or expand their military skill sets. They're too busy playing.
As for those performances - which in 2014, for the Air Force bands, amounted to some 1,600 a year - some of them are concerts. Some of them are outreach programs. "It's important for the military not to be some remote organization, but an organization that's integral to the community with which we serve," Lang said in 2014. "Bands are an important way to make that connection."
And the bulk of them are official functions - including, for every service, the important responsibility of playing music for the funerals of deceased service members and veterans at Arlington Cemetery.
In 2014, Col. Thomas Palmatier, who retired later that year as commander and leader of the Army Band, told me that getting rid of musicians was not a cost-effective way to reduce military spending. "Unless you reduce the strength of the army by that amount, you haven't saved any money; you just turn them into something else, and end up contracting what they did," he said. "And you find out they did a lot." He adds, "9,000 of those (services) are funeral honors. You can wave your hands and say you don't care, but suddenly, no more 'Taps.' "
That's hardly what McSally wants. Nonetheless, her statement shows that elected officials will continue to seize on music as an obvious extra frill - without fully realizing the essential role it actually plays in the society they're talking about.