Vast number of military bands may not be music to Gates's ears

By Walter Pincus
Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates frequently makes the point that Congress funds Defense Department personnel far more easily than it does State Department employees.

"There are about 6,000 FSOs," or Foreign Service officers, he told an audience in San Francisco this month. He drew laughter when he added that former secretary of state "Condi Rice used to say, 'We have more people in military bands than they have in the Foreign Service.' She was not far wrong."

Well, maybe Gates should take a closer look at those military bands during his campaign to trim defense spending. My interest was triggered by a new field manual for Army bands, released last month, that Steven Aftergood first noted on his Secrecy News Web site.

You may be aware of the Army Band, known as "Pershing's Own" -- based in the Washington area -- which, according to the manual, is authorized to have 250 officers and enlisted men. Then there is the Army's Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, West Point's Military Academy Band, and the Army Field Band, located at nearby Fort Meade, Md. These are known as the Army's "special bands."

But there are also three large Army bands: the Army Training and Doctrine Command Band, at Fort Monroe, Va.; the Army Ground Forces Band, at Fort McPherson, Ga.; and the U.S. Army Europe Band and Chorus, stationed at Heidelberg, Germany.

In addition, there are 28 other regular Army bands in this country and abroad, 18 Army Reserve bands and 53 Army National Guard bands. Beyond that, almost every regular Army band has "music performance teams" (or MPTs) that can be "employed separately from the band headquarters in support of specific musical missions," according to the manual. The Army Band, for example, has a ceremonial trumpet group, the Herald Trumpets; the Army Chorus; the Army Blues, a large, popular music group; a smaller pop group, Downrange; and a string element, the Army Strings.

Other bands also have smaller groups.

The purpose of Army bands, and others run by all the military services, as described in the field manual, is to "provide music throughout the entire spectrum of operations to instill in our forces the will to fight and win, foster the support of our citizens, and promote America's interests at home and abroad."

Solid and reasonable aims, but how many do we need to accomplish those missions, because, of course, the Navy, Marines and Air Force cannot be outdone by the Army?

The Washington-based Navy Band, with 105 members and a 24-person support staff, has eight chamber music ensembles, plus the Commodores, a 19-person jazz ensemble; the Sea Chanters, a chorus of 23; the seven-person country bluegrass group Country Current; and a pop entertainment ensemble, the Cruisers, with two vocalists and six instrumentalists.

In addition, there are two Navy bands in Japan and Italy, one in Hawaii and eight across the U.S. mainland. For example, there is the Navy Band New Orleans, which has not only a ceremonial/marching unit but also the Express (top 40/variety); Navy Showband South (show/dance); and the Crescent City Brass Quintet Brass Band (traditional New Orleans), according to its Web site.

Located in Washington, the Air Force Band has 180 musicians along with it own "staff of music arrangers, composers and copyists who create many of the works performed by the band," according to its Web site. It, too, has a number of ensembles, including the Singing Sergeants and its newest group, Max Impact, "four of the Air Force's most dynamic vocalists and supported by a hard-hitting five-piece rhythm section," its Web site says.

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