Military Marching Bands: Your Tax Dollars At Work : The Record The U.S. government spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year employing musicians.
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Military Marching Bands: Your Tax Dollars At Work

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Military Marching Bands: Your Tax Dollars At Work

Military Marching Bands: Your Tax Dollars At Work

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

We can evidently thank the Ottoman Empire for the institution of the military band.

(Soundbite of marching band music)

SIEGEL: The Turks started marching to music in the 16th century, and it seems the idea has daunting staying power. Walter Pincus, of the Washington Post, has encountered that staying power. He wrote a series of columns criticizing the cost of military music, and he's heard quite a bit of criticism from his readers. The U.S. spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year on dozens of military marching bands, rock groups, jazz ensembles, choruses and country bluegrass performance teams - like this one, the Navy's Country Current.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: Walter Pincus joins us now from his home in Washington. Welcome to the program once again.

Mr. WALTER PINCUS (Columnist, Washington Post): Nice to be here.

SIEGEL: And you write that you were prompted to look into the world of military musicianship by a new field manual for military bands. How did that happen?

Mr. PINCUS: Well, there are two things involved. One is, there was a new Army field manual but also Secretary Gates - Defense Secretary Gates has made his point in talking about - sort of the way the government looks at priorities. He has more military musicians than the State Department has Foreign Service officers. So that metaphor intrigued me, and I decided to see just how many there were.

SIEGEL: Well, how much money do you figure the U.S. spends on military musicians?

Mr. PINCUS: Well, one of the oddities is nobody can tell me for sure. The only service that came up with a number was the Marines, and the Marines came back and told me that they spend $50 million on their bands. The Army couldn't give me a good figure. They finally estimated it about $198 million. But they pride themselves on being the biggest employer of musicians in the country - between 4,000 and 5,000 of them. And the Navy and the Air Force have a series of bands all over the place.

SIEGEL: Now, the stated purpose of Army bands - and those of the other branches, you say, 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. You're arguing with that?

Mr. PINCUS: Well, I think what's happened is, that's taken on a whole life of its own. And so there are just bands at every level, the Army in particular. And they do sort of perform at ceremonies - which, of course, is understandable. But it's gone way beyond that. And they now provide entertainment, most often for civilian audiences, supposedly to help recruitment, but also - more and more, I'm told by people within the military, that it's a prestige item for commanders at various levels to have their own band.

SIEGEL: Well, Walter Pincus, stay with us. We're going to turn now to someone affiliated with a group that no one's talking about disbanding, the president's own United States Marine Band.

(Soundbite of music, "Hail to the Chief")

SIEGEL: This is the band that you see performing at White House functions. It's the oldest military band in the U.S., founded by John Adams. It opened for Lincoln at Gettysburg, and it was led for years by John Philip Sousa. And joining us from the Marine Barracks Annex in Washington, D.C., is Colonel Michael Colburn, director of the U.S. Marine Band. Thanks for joining us.

Colonel MICHAEL COLBURN (Director, U.S. Marine Band): Thank you, Mr. Siegel.

SIEGEL: And I know that you can't speak for all of the bands that Walter Pincus has alluded to, but when there are rounds of base closures, or when Secretary Gates starts talking about canceling wasteful weapons programs, do you ever start to worry that the budget for the bands is about to get trimmed?

Col. COLBURN: Well, we certainly understand that as part of the Department of Defense, and for us as part of the Marine Corps, that if belts need to be tightened, we need to be part of that process. But we don't really see that military musical expenditures are necessarily in and of themselves wasteful - which is something that Mr. Pincus seems to be suggesting in his articles.

SIEGEL: Well, do they actually succeed in recruiting people, in encouraging people to become Marines?

Col. COLBURN: Well, it certainly has been our experience, and our experience goes back quite a ways. The Marine Band was founded in 1798 by an act of Congress. And almost from the very beginning of the Marine Band, in addition to the recruiting we've done, we have done a number of public performances. So, this idea that Mr. Pincus suggests, about military musicians playing for civilian audiences as being something that new, really sounds rather strange to me because it's been part of our existence almost since the very beginning of the Marine Band.

SIEGEL: Walter Pincus, if the U.S. Marine Band should not be disbanded, or if you don't feel so, what are some ensembles that ought to get a harder look than Colonel Colburn's group?

Mr. PINCUS: Well, there are two things that got me going after I wrote the first piece. The first was to find out that there are so many bands all over the country, and they were looking for other things to do, so they actually have gotten into the CD business. And in fact, one of the Army bands has actually begun putting out a series of DVDs to teach people how to play instruments.

But the final, turning point for me, and the final column I wrote - or the last one - came from a piece of information given to me by a Defense Department official, who pointed out that the Army Materiel command, which sort of supervises taking care of buying material and contracting out, things like that - they have their own band. And this Pentagon official pointed out that the Army was building a $4.4 million headquarters building for this 40-member Army Materiel command band in Huntsville, Alabama - that had their own rehearsal hall, their own dressing rooms. It was something that even the Pentagon official thought was out of line.

SIEGEL: Colonel Colburn, I shouldn't really be asking a Marine to defend the U.S. Army in these matters, but is there some point at which this strikes you as excessive?

Col. COLBURN: Well, I can't really speak about this facility in Alabama because it's really out of my area of expertise, and I really just frankly don't know much about that particular issue. But as far as Mr. Pincus' first point, about the military bands looking for something to do - and that's why we put out these educational CDs and DVDs - it's a matter of us trying to provide a good return on the taxpayers' dollar.

We have these organizations of very fine musicians. We feel a responsibility to provide as much worth to the American public as we can. This is the reason that we play national concert tours. And we don't really feel that we belong to the Marine Corps or the White House any more than we belong to the American public. We are funded by American taxpayer dollars, and we feel like we owe it to them to provide the best return for that investment that we can.

SIEGEL: Well, Colonel Michael Colburn, a director of the U.S. Marine Band, the president's own; and Walter Pincus of the Washington Post, thanks to both of you.

Col. COLBURN: Thank you very much.

Mr. PINCUS: Thank you.

IEGEL: And we'll leave you with one thing you both have in common, which is what John Philip Sousa wrote for the Washington Post.

(Soundbite of music, "Stars and Stripes Forever")

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