Published January 14, 2015
Two years ago, Saddam Hussein (search) could not have imagined in his wildest nightmares that on New Year's Eve 2004 he would be sitting in a jail cell and a punk band known for albums titled "Hitler Bad, Vandals Good" and "Look What I Almost Stepped In" would be playing in the heart of his former empire.
But so it was that the Army's 1st Cavalry Division, 3rd Brigade, got a one-hour show by Southern California punk perennials The Vandals (search), who delighted a small mosh pit in the Green Zone with favorites including "Oi to the World" and "Anarchy Burger," the ditty that earned them brief worldwide fame (and $22,000) when it was quoted in the 2002 Vin Diesel (search) movie "XXX."
The show was one of the few entertainments provided for U.S. troops in Iraq on New Year's Eve, a day marked chiefly by a relative lull in violence. There were no fireworks, though a few offices on bases were still spruced up with holiday decorations. A nighttime curfew kept Iraqis off the street and Baghdad echoed mostly with the sound of helicopters running frequent patrols over downtown.
"It's pretty cool to be asked to come out and go right in the middle of it — it's like we stepped inside our television," Vandals bassist Joe Escalante, wearing the flak jacket he borrowed from the Army for the tour, said before the show.
While many soldiers sat in the dusty, darkened theater staring in bemusement as The Vandals played their extremely loud set, a handful of die-hards reverted to their happier American ways and jostled each other in true slam style in the impromptu mosh pit.
"This is straight up one of the few times I get to go out and beat people up, but it's a friendly atmosphere so were not getting beat up too bad," said Pfc. Russell Holt, 20, a medic from Tampa, Florida. "These guys are up there with Superchunk."
The Vandals, who gained popularity in the 1990s for blending a sharp sense of humor with their punk riffs, mixed it up with a few three-chord ditties, speed versions of Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now" and "Summer Nights" from the musical Grease, and the theme song of "Team America: World Police," "America, (Expletive) Yeah!"
The set earned the praise of Matthew Linus Byars, a 31-year-old medic from Nashville, Tenn., and self-proclaimed punk rocker for 18 years. He stomped through the mosh pit and stood before lead Vandals singer Dave Quackenbush, bobbing his head in rapture.
"There aren't many real punk rockers in the Army," Byars said. "I just kind of blew off Christmas as another day of work but this was really special to me. It was one of those if I'm on duty I'll trade anybody to be here this afternoon."
The Vandals are on a two-week tour in which they've played eight shows at several bases and will go to Kuwait on Saturday for one more show before heading back to the states.
Celebrity visitors for every taste have touched foot in Iraq since the war began. Troops have chuckled to Robin Williams and Rob Schneider of Saturday Night Live. Pro wrestler Diamond Dallas Page taught soldiers a few moves, while pro fisherman Ray Scott, affectionately known as the "Bass Boss," has cast lines into the Tigris River.
The Vandals admitted they don't have the drawing power of Iraq visitors like Toby Keith, Cincinnati baseball legend Rob Dibble or the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders. But they said they were pleased with the crowds they got from an entertainment-starved military.
"You rock out to the band you have, not the band you wish you had," guitarist Warren Fitzgerald said, riffing off of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's comments to troops in Kuwait who had complained the Army isn't getting enough armor.
Otherwise, there were few major events planned for New Year's Eve. Chow halls served a special menu and troops were allowed nonalcoholic beer at a few bases. But there were no big-ticket visitors as there were for Christmas Eve, when Rumsfeld stopped at Fallujah and comedian David Letterman filmed "The Late Show" from Camp Taqaddum.
"It's work today, work tomorrow. We're here to work," said Specialist Joe Killo, 22, a military policeman from Columbia, Md. "Iraqis don't celebrate our holidays, so we can't put the war on holiday."