CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. -- War and poetry have long been comrades, and for the war in Iraq, much of the verse is rap.
For Marine Cpl. Michael Watts Jr., whose rapper name is Pyro, the creative muse struck while he was riding an assault vehicle back to a base camp after an exhausting 72-hour combat operation in Najaf.
For the 21-year-old from Benham, Texas, it was an experience unlike any other - one that cried out to be captured in a rap.
"There's a big difference between staying up for three days making music and being in Iraq for three days straight getting shot at," said Watts.
From those kinds of experiences in Iraq, Watts and eight other Marines and soldiers have created "Voices From the Frontline," a rap CD released last week in which troops explain the death, boredom, joy, fear and brotherhood of the war in Iraq.
The compilation is the brainchild of Joel Spielman, 33, president of the punk label Crosscheck Records. He put out a call on Internet chat rooms frequented by military rappers and picked the best submissions for re-recording in a Hollywood studio. The performers - some of whom have already returned to Iraq - will share in the royalties, and 5 percent will go to Operation AC, a nonprofit group supporting troops in Iraq with CARE-style packages.
Spielman calls the CD "an audio documentary" of real, uncensored voices. "It was important for them to share their experiences and important for the public to hear what it's really like there," he said.
The language is direct but, by rap standards, not particularly shocking. The f-word, the patois of rap and military life, is present but not in overabundance. The media take a beating for misunderstanding the war, but the songs are not anti-military.
Sometimes poignant, sometimes laced with bravado, the lyrics capture the apprehension and tension of the ongoing violence directed at American troops and Iraqis alike.
For Cpl. Kisha Pollard (Miss Flame), rapping about her experiences in Fallujah was only natural. Iraq is the perfect place to rap, said the 21-year-old Nashville, Tenn., resident. "The reason people freestyle in Iraq or a war zone is to take their mind off a lot of things," she said. "Any chance I got, on patrol, or with other Marines, or by myself, I'm free-styling, I'm hooking and jabbing."
In "Girl at War," she raps about the daily dread of convoys through streets infested with improvised explosive devices, called IEDs, and insurgents armed with rocket-propelled grenades, called RPGs:
"Step one, set up for the convoy
Get the brief
Float up in the Humvee now
We're rolling on the streets
And now hopefully it won't end in a beef
Cause if we do, it could possible be a IED
Things are getting hasty, my body feeling nervous
Iraq is shooting at us
RPGs is what they serve us
Stay cool and confident, air support is right above us.
And now we're shooting back
that's what you get for ... with us."
If there is anger and fear in many of the songs, there is also sorrow, at the injuries inflicted on innocent Iraqis in fighting between insurgents and U.S. forces.
Witness Cpl. Anthony Alvin Hodge (Amp) in "Condolence":
"I see the light in this war
nobody wins ....
I've committed many sins
And Im far from perfect.
I cant word it any better
But to tell you this
If it was up to me
It never would have came to this
But it aint so I gotta keep my
Feet in the paint. If I had
A wish I wish I had never seen
And they say a bullet dont got a name on it.
When the bullets hit the kids, who
They gonna blame for it?
There is a kind of desperation among the rappers that unless they tell their story the truth will never be known.
I just want the message out, not the way TV has it, the real way, said Watts.
Army Staff Sgt. Devon Perrymon, a.k.a. Deacon, whos been writing poetry since his teen years, wants the public to know the reality of Iraq from the perspective of the soldiers, not the generals in Washington or the reporters.
Were putting it out there for everyone in a way they can relate to, said Perrymon, 25. When it's in rhyme, they remember it.
Tony Perry writes for the Los Angeles Times.