PJ Harvey and the War
My brother and I spent his 2013 tour of Afghanistan obsessively listening to the same album – PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake (full album), a concept album about wars, including, to a degree, the one he was fighting. We didn’t talk about it. We rarely talk about serious things. So it surprised me, when I asked him about it, how much he was willing to say about the war, identity, and being part of someone else’s narrative.
So, you went to war? How’d that go for you?
I guess, there was a lot of strangeness that went on, a lot of stuff I didn’t expect. The area of Afghanistan where I was was just gorgeous. Just absolutely beautiful. It had like almost American-like majestic purple mountains.
Literally purple or figuratively purple?
Literally purple. Mountains get all purple-y in the distance. It’s a side effect of mountains.
The base was a reconstituted Soviet nonsense from the 80’s. The scenery was beautiful. The whole vibe was very strange. I spent an entire year in a foreign country and didn’t see a single female citizen of that country. Which contextually, I understand, but it was just a weird thing.
There was a real heightened sense of community, “we’re all going through this,” almost like this weird orphanage where nobody was the adult. Being over there really just felt like you were being a highly motivated lost boy. The kind of cartoony-ness of it felt like you were taking out Hook’s pirates.
So, the main takeaway is the strange juxtaposition of the environment physically and the environment ethereally — the mission set, and what we were doing over there. And it was also strange to be part of such a tightly knit group that I didn’t necessarily feel a part of. As you well know, I’ve never really fully jived with the army guys.
The album is about falling empires and wars, some in Afghanistan. Now when you were listening to the album, were you thinking about that? Did that even cross your mind?
I didn’t specifically put it together with the Afghanistan wars stuff. But it was one of the few albums that I already enjoyed that was available to me at work.
Do you ever wonder about whoever decided that they should put this very anti-war album on the war drive?
Uh, no? It takes all kinds? There’s all kinds of people in the army, and the person who put it there was probably not even that aware of it. It was probably just all the music off their iPod, and I would probably bet that they put it on there because of some girl.
Are you saying that dudes in the army don’t love PJ Harvey?
I’m saying that we are, in my experience, about 3-4 days away from having a general issue straight out of basic training of the entire discography of the band Five Finger Death Punch.
Is that really a band?
It is a band. They’re terrible. And everyone I’ve met in the army enjoys them.
I would have thought that maybe they’d enjoy bad country music?
Lot of that.
And white rappers, a lot of Eminem fans.
A fair amount of that.
You’re not really allowed to tell me what your job is, except that it’s on computers.
There’s lines in the song “Words that Maketh Murder”—“soldiers fell like lumps of meat,” “I’ve seen a corporal whose legs were shot.” To a degree, I was dealing with that type of imagery.
You don’t fight people with your hands or guns. How many dead bodies did you see every day? Did you see body piles?
No. In term of my experience with it, it was very indirect, but the whole mentality over there is just understanding that that is, essentially, where a lot of things end up. You can’t ignore the fact that it’s out there.
But how much do you see versus how much do you know? As a person who’s never been in a war, or somehow, despite my terrible countenance, in a fight, it’s very easy for me to imagine action movie sequences, but I’ve never seen a human body, dead.
Nor have I.
No? You never saw a dead human at war?
Over there, when a soldier is lost in the field there is what’s known as a “Ramp Ceremony.” It’s a very somber situation where they load the casket onto the plane to fly back to America. I had been to one, to show my respects, and to understand what that situation was about. It’s a heavy situation. It was somber, and it wasn’t about what my situation was, what wooden shack I was living in.
I was asked to go to another one with very little information, and I showed up at the time I was given, and I was informed that I was going to be a pallbearer. I was more or less tricked into being a pallbearer.
Did they talk about it like it was a noble death?
Everybody that goes on that plane was a hero.
We joke a lot about how you’re a hero, but do you actually feel like one?
Me personally? No, not even a little bit.
In terms of the heroic pursuits over there, it’s a very fine line, in that you can’t just assume that everyone willing to put down their life for a nobler cause is a hero because at the other end the spectrum is the notion of what the jihadists do.
There’s a very important sentiment in the US Army that we are dealing with violent extremists and not “Muslims” at this point.
Do you think that might be in reaction to the fact that during the beginning of the Iraq War, it was not domestically handled in a way that was very generous to Muslims?
I think there have been a lot of mistakes in a lot of situations, but I think that, at the end of the day, regardless of the reason of a learned lesson, a lesson learned is probably a good idea.
To get back to my, usually meandering, point, the imagery, especially in “The Words that Maketh Murder,” resonates with the — I won’t say lighthearted — but the casual-ness used to describe a casualty. It’s very matter of fact, it’s very detached, it’s a reality, and it needs to be addressed, and you can’t bemoan or belabor a point that needs to be addressed immediately. It’s about addressing the problem, rather than worrying about it too much. And that very matter of fact “x happened, now y needs to occur” was not dissimilar from the mindset I had, and had to adopt, and similarly not dissimilar from the lyrics and imagery within Let England Shake.
You get these stark visual images of what is going on. It tells the story of people that die, and it doesn’t matter what the reasons are or even that the people were alive at some point. The whole point of the fall of an empire is that people die for it and it doesn’t always make sense. I was there and it was around me on both sides of the coin, and it resonated.
Now a lot of the album was also discussing WWI; did you, at any point, wish that you had some kind of “Great War”?
The heroism of going at it? Mixing it up?
Yes and no. When you’re as close to actual danger as I was, and yet so removed from it, it feels almost like cheating. There are people that went out there and did missions and ran into trouble days at a time, weeks at a time, doing things that I could never dream of doing. I won’t say that I wished that it was me, but it feels more genuine than what I did. It feels more like a full measure.
That being said, I had an indirect fire, a rocket, explode 72 meters from my head when I was over there. I was coming back from dinner and I was walking with 3 of my friends, two a little bit older, former military current contractors: the guy who I referred to as my Deployment Dad and the guy we then referred to as our Deployment Aunt. And then, in this strange family that we had created, what had essentially been my Deployment Brother. We were walking along the side of the road on base, there was a ditch to the left of me, and to the left of me was Deployment Aunt, Deployment Dad was front and to the left, and my Deployment Brother was in front me. The whistle hit and [Brother] took off running. He was halfway to the bunker before he even shouted “run” back at us. And then [Dad] almost dove into the ditch next to us. [Aunt] was carrying an iced tea back from the chow hall, and threw it on my leg and then started running. It was an accident, she just dropped it.
This is funny, because I can imagine you being like, “Really? Iced tea on my leg?” I imagine you as not having survival instincts.
I won’t say that I didn’t have survival instincts. But I didn’t break stride.
Before I went out there, they kept talking about indirect fire on base, “Well, you know, you’re not gonna hear the one that gets you.” So, as soon as I heard the whistle, I just assumed I was safe and continued walking at a leisurely pace, now somewhat frustrated that I had iced tea down my leg.
Once I got to the bunker I did actually say, “Hey [Aunt], thanks for throwing iced tea on my leg.” Because now I gotta crouch here in a concrete bunker for 15 – 20 – 30 – however long it takes them to clear the area. I gotta just crouch here with a wet leg.
This is my fault. I’m the one who taught you that. No one will ever kill you if you just keep going, if you just have the confidence.
Having that happen to me was probably my favorite moment of being over there, because it was the only time I felt like it was real, in a sense. That really kind of solidified it for me. I felt an incredible self-pride that I didn’t break stride and I wasn’t scared. It didn’t scare me at all.
Were you ever scared?
Mildly, once. The rockets and whatnot happened about once a month, and most of them would just go over the base, or hit the flight line or whatever. I woke up, and there was one I heard hit, and it sounded close, and then the people in the guard tower started firing machine guns at people trying to reach the wall. I was scared enough that I thought about getting out of bed and getting my rifle, but not scared enough to actually get out of bed.
It’s strange to be able to look at a story that’s about where you are. That’s about the people you’re dealing with, and it’s the complete polar opposite of where you are in the story. One of my indirect fire attacks came as I was watching Rambo 3, where he’s in Afghanistan, and it came directly at the end of the movie, when the credits showed that the film was dedicated to “the gallant people of Afghanistan.” The gallant people that were currently sending rockets and mortars in my general direction.
One of the things that I always kind of fall back on in the army, ever since I was in Texas, right out of basic training, is that nobody in the army listens to the music I listen to.
Whenever I listen to music, I get to be in a world that nobody else inhabits. It’s nice to decide to be in that world, rather than to be forced into it as I usually am. The people I deal with on a regular basis, the, people in the army, the people I work with, a lot of them are fundamentally decent humans with the flaws inherent in people as a whole. A person is really the worst thing you can call anyone. Humanity is probably the worst thing a person can be accused of.
Being able to listen to music that I actually like allows me to decide to make a decisive move to be set apart from them, rather than to just exist set apart from them. It makes the inevitable a conscious decision on my part. Much like me enlisting is what sent me to Afghanistan, it allows me to take an ownership of things I can’t control.
PJ Harvey, and Mark Lanegan — especially the album Bubblegum, and Nick Cave’s Push the Sky Away, and Man Man’s On Oni Pond, so many of the songs that I listened to until they were burned in my brain, every single night as I was going to sleep, just trying to be myself for 30 minutes, and hour, before I had to go be someone else. You know, go be “Army Blaise,” instead of being Blaise from Philly. Every single time, it was just like breathing again after holding your breath for like 23 hours. It was just so necessary at that point that it wasn’t listening to music, it was just like being alive again.
I’ve always yearned for an ownership of something. Being continuously put into situations where I am existing without owning something, where I’m living somewhere instead of being at home, you build your home with these ethereal understandings of things. I got to listen to PJ Harvey. I got to exist as myself for a half-hour every day.
It’s a different version of myself in the army, and an even more different version of myself over there.
There’s a lot more to me than what is marketable to this audience, and so I have the Blaise that they see and the Blaise that I am.
For all the arguments surrounding the entire Afghan situation, and for everything you want to say about the military, and about America’s role, at the end of the day, this is something I’m really proud of. Keeping my stride, going through it, and doing something that the Blaise that in 2005 got winded going up a flight of stairs was never gonna do. It’s not something that most people have done, and it’s not something that I ever thought I would do It gives me a sense of pride to come out of it on the other side as the same person that went over there.
At this point, being in Afghanistan, you’re in their narrative now. You’re part of the US narrative, of course, but not directly, not in the same way that you are now part of the Afghani narrative. And I’m here, continuing to try to make it part of my narrative, the life I built for myself, and it’s forever going to be changed by the fact that I know that I can stay cool under rocket fire.
That was a full year of my life. That’s just never gonna leave me.