Deploying the Air Force band? It makes more sense than you think.

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Christian Conrad
  • 60th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – When you think of “American power,” what comes to mind? The “BRRRTT” of an A-10 Thunderbolt II, razing enemy hideouts beneath it? What about a C-17 Globemaster III aircraft offloading pallets of supplies and munitions to ground forces? For many infantry, it could look like a battalion of Soldiers with M4s clearing a battlefield of insurgents. But the Air Force band? What’s so “powerful” about them?

Well, a lot.

Coined by Joseph Nye, the American political scientist, in 1990, the concept of “soft power” has long been evoked in foreign policy debates. Soft power, Nye said, was a country’s ability to persuade and co-opt rather than coerce and control, as in the case of “hard power.” In this way, it was argued that a country needed to balance these two pillars of power in order to guarantee a lasting and meaningful peace within a given environment. It was in this way that the Air Force band and other non-combatant units gained a new purpose.

Fast forward to today. Radicalization, or the process by which an individual or group is driven into extreme ideologies, is a problem faced by U.S. Central Command particularly in regions such as Egypt where Gen. Joseph Votel, USCENTCOM commander, described it as being “challenged by a weak economy and widespread unemployment or under-employment, as well as an aggressive approach to countering internal threats which makes its population highly susceptible to radicalization by extremist elements.”

For ground forces hoping to secure a region, the threat of a populace on the cusp of being radicalized means walking a tightrope between quickly and effectively eliminating an enemy’s presence and also appearing as “the good guy” to civilians.

“It’s definitely a challenge—coming into an area with guns drawn, knocking down doors, taking out enemy combatants, then turning around and trying to shake hands with civilians,” said Master Sgt. Andrew Benton, NCO in charge and music director of Mobility, a pop and rock ensemble of the Air Force’s Band of the Golden West. “Thankfully, convincing civilians we’re here to help isn’t something they have to do alone.”

Benton, along with the six other members of Mobility, will be deploying to Qatar during which they’ll be sent to various countries in the Middle East to play for embassies, foreign dignitaries, U.S. and foreign service members and local populaces.

“The point of our deployment isn’t to take the fight to (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria),” said Benton. “It’s to use our music to create a common thread with those in the region who could help to make that fight easier. We forge new relationships while reinforcing existing ones, and we bring the part of our culture that exists in music and the possibility that is represented in it not as a means of entertainment, per se, but more so as a means of providing locals a culture to aspire to and be receptive of.”

The official mission tenets of the Band of the Golden West is to connect, inspire and honor. While those words are often in reference to the American public, excellence in the Air Force and servicemembers, respectively, they have the power to take on a different meaning while deployed.

“In Afghanistan, there’s an entire youth orchestra we once visited,” said Benton. “When they saw females playing in our band, it was a surprise to them. Females playing instruments is a relatively alien concept in the Middle East because it was only 15 years ago that there’d likely have been attempts made on their lives for doing exactly that. And here we are saying, ‘Yes, females can play instruments. We think everyone should have the freedom and ability to play instruments. This is why we’re here.’ It goes a long way.”

Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis once said, “If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition.” The State Department, along with agencies like the Peace Corps and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, fund U.S. development projects around the world in an effort to project America’s soft power and prevent situations that would put American lives in danger.

Despite their efforts, though, deployed Airmen must stay ready for all possibilities, including the band.

“We’re required to do a 12-day field training course before we deploy,” said Benton. “It’s not really in the job description, but when there are bullets whizzing above your head, a guitar isn’t the most useful weapon to defend yourself with. So a lot of the training is contingency-based. Like, ‘you probably won’t get shot at, but if you do, at least know what to do.’”

Being prepared for contingencies is a hallmark of the U.S. military. Just like the band needs to stay ready for combat, so, too, must front-line forces make way for the possible necessity of a soft touch.

The band’s upcoming deployment will be the first for Airman 1st Class Kayla Highsmith, Mobility vocalist. For her, the band, as well as other soft power units and organizations, doesn’t represent a folly of American diplomacy, but an evolution of it.

“I believe the projection of the American image and the traditional way of doing things doesn’t make the sort of impact today as it used to,” she said. “Warfare today seems a lot more nebulous and nuanced than how it was when we were fighting Nazis, and I think in acknowledging that difference and that shift from what has always been seen as a traditional way of doing things, we need to also be open to non-traditional forms of diplomacy and achieving peace.”

One of those forms is in our investing of soft power projection, she said.

“Music is a universal language,” she continued. “It doesn’t need translators or wild gesticulation to get its point across. Neither does rebuilding a village ravaged by enemy fighters or offering medical aid to injured locals. We need to continue to explore other means of diplomacy and other ways of leveraging American influence and culture to keep making impactful improvements and headway in different parts of the world.”

Highsmith went on to underscore the importance of projecting American power beyond what we imagine to be quantifiable strength—boots on the ground, number of aircraft flying, confirmed kills—and further into what makes our culture worth wanting to follow.

“I remember on one of my past deployments, we were tasked with facilitating a radio broadcast set up by Afghan locals and one of the core messages of the broadcast was a plea of sorts,” said Benton. “The crux of it was an address to the ISIS fighters in the area saying, ‘You’ve already killed our families, and you’ve already taken everything we have. Why don’t you just leave us alone now?’ And we played for them and, for a moment, they were able to enjoy something and forget about the violence that had swallowed their lives.

“The band and programs like it, will always be necessary not for what damage we can do, but for what damage we can undo.”