Military Marching Bands: Your Tax Dollars At Work

Marine Band i i

hide captionThe Marine Band performs on the Fourth of July in front of the White House.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
Marine Band

The Marine Band performs on the Fourth of July in front of the White House.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year on dozens of military marching bands, rock groups, jazz ensembles, choruses and country music performance teams. In light of the current economic climate, some are wondering if this is excessive and unnecessary spending. Walter Pincus of the Washington Post has written a series of columns on the cost of military music, and says he was prompted to looking into the matter after hearing Defense Secretary Gates discuss budget priorities.

"Gates has made a point in talking about the way the government looks at priorities," Pincus tells NPR's Robert Siegel. "He has more military band musicians in the Defense Department than the State Department has Foreign Service officers."

This metaphor intrigued Pincus, and he decided to see how many musicians the U.S. government was really employing. He says no one was able to provide concrete figures on how much is spent on military bands in total.

"The only service that came up with a number was the Marines," he says. "And the Marines came back and told me factually that they spend $50 million on their bands. The Army couldn't give me a good figure and they finally estimated $198 million, but they pride themselves on being the biggest employer of musicians in the country — between four and five thousand of them."

According to Pincus' findings, the purpose of Army bands, and those of other branches, 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." But he says this mission has on taken a life of its own.

"They do perform at ceremonies, which of course is understandable, but it's gone way beyond that," he says. "They provide entertainment most often for civilian audiences supposedly to help recruitment."

Pincus' reporting about the cost-effectiveness of military bands has drawn criticism from the military and civilians alike. Col. Michael J. Colburn, director of "The President's Own" United States Marine Band, the oldest military band in the U.S., says Pincus' columns have created a fair amount of discussion within the musicians' community.

"We're not really defensive," Col. Colburn says, "because we don't really feel like we have anything to defend. We consider ourselves to be very careful with the taxpayer's dollar and spend it as wisely as we can."

Col. Colburn recognizes that if belts need to be tightened, military musicians — as part of the Department of Defense — need to be part of that process. However, he says he doesn't think the bands should be up first on the budgetary chopping block.

"[W]e don't really see that military musical expenditures are necessarily in and of themselves wasteful, which is something Mr. Pincus is suggesting in his articles."

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