‘June 67 taught them respect’: Heavy-metal Swedes hail the IDF

Hard rockers Sabaton spend their only free day on tour in Israel visiting Ammunition Hill and army base in West Bank

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Sabaton band members with IDF soldiers at Ammunition Hill (Photo credit: Avihai Levy)
Sabaton band members with IDF soldiers at Ammunition Hill (Photo credit: Avihai Levy)

The National Memorial Site and Museum for the Heritage of the Battle and Reunification of Jerusalem during the Six Day War – which is to say Ammunition Hill – had some unexpected visitors Thursday: In mohawks and goatees, ripped jeans and tattooed torsos, the five members of the Swedish heavy metal band Sabaton climbed onto the scarred hulks of the tanks, peered into the shaded trenches and watched a movie about the battle for Jerusalem in June, 1967.

They listened in perfect and respectful silence, craning their heads to see the depiction of the troop movements on the three-dimensional map of the city.

Their wild-man appearance notwithstanding, this should have come as no surprise.

Sabaton, one of the most popular heavy metal bands in Europe, is enamored of soldiers and with Israel. On this, the band’s third visit to Israel — and in the midst of a world tour — Sabaton decided to devote its only full day in the country to a tour of Ammunition Hill, followed by a visit to an IDF forward base on the Palestinian side of the Green Line.

From left: Chris Rörland, Robban Bäck, Joakim Brodén, Pär Sundström, Thobbe Englund (Photo credit: Avihai Levy)
From left: Chris Rörland, Robban Bäck, Joakim Brodén, Pär Sundström, Thobbe Englund (Photo credit: Avihai Levy)

The band’s first album, “Metalizer,” featured typical head-smashing lyrics: “While hell bends for leather we stand strong / A rocker can party all night long.”

But neither Pär Sundström, the band’s bassist and lyricist, nor Joakim Brodén, the vocalist and keyboardist, are actually much into partying. “I’m a history nerd,” the mohawk-ed Brodén said. “Maybe my teachers would not say that, but I read a lot more history than fiction.”

Chris Rorländ, a guitarist for the band, confirmed that the “only time we drink is on the road, on the way back from the show.”

In 2000, Brodén wrote a powerful score that needed what Sundström called a “big song, with a big theme.”

The two had just watched Steven Spielberg’s World War II epic “Saving Private Ryan.” The result was “Primo Victoria,” a song about the allied invasion of Normandy. “In the dawn they will pay / With their lives as the price / History’s written today / In this burning inferno / Know that nothing remains / As our forces advance on the beach.”

The two, founding members of the band, said that although Sweden has not been to war in hundreds of years and despite the fact that much of the Scandinavian metal scene revolves around Norse mythology, they felt that by focusing on modern war they had tapped into something “truly meaningful.”

The album “Primo Victoria” features songs about D-Day, Operation Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom, the battle of Stalingrad, the Battle of the Atlantic and the Vietnam War. The one that has drawn the most amount of notice, however, is track five.

In “Counterstrike”, a song that has become legendary to the roughly 10,000 hardcore metal fans in Israel, the band glorifies Israel’s victory in 1967: “Drive back surprise attack / Take the Western Wall / Next day make them pay/ Over river Jordan…6 days of fire 1 day of rest / June 67 taught them respect / Control Jerusalem.”

Sundström came to Israel in 1999 to visit his sister on a kibbutz. Back in Sweden he thought of the stories he had heard about the Six Day War and composed the lyrics. “We don’t focus on politics. Rather on soldiers and how war can bring out the best and the worst in people,” he said.

Yishai Sweartz – he says it’s the heavy metal spelling of Schwartz – the pony-tailed godfather of metal in Israel, who owns a record label here and arranged the band’s visit, said that as soon as he heard the band, back in 2000, he said to himself, “I’ll make them monsters in Israel.”

The band’s entry to the army base, however, was hardly reminiscent of the Beatles’ entry to Shea Stadium in 1965; a few soldiers peered out from beneath the camouflage shade netting strung between their primitive living quarters, and looked at the long-haired visitors as just another one of the strange things you are liable to see while in uniform.

Still, in the mess hall, an air-conditioned caravan, the cooks went all-out: sesame chicken, fried eggplant and majadra, potatoes, pasta, humus and sliced red peppers in vinegar. Even ice water. The Swedes, shown around by Adam Shay of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, were pleased. Thobbe Englund, one of the guitarists, said his father had served in the Swedish army and had eaten the same pea soup every day. “Looked like what’s in a baby’s diaper,” he said.

Then the five band members, the older ones clutching their waters and their sunscreen tubes, assembled under desert camouflage netting for a security briefing.

“What do you worry about when you get on a bus in Sweden?” Captain Barak Raz of the Judea and Samaria Division asked the band.

“Finding a seat, making sure the driver is sober and worrying if it will get in on time,” Brodén said.

“Here people worry if it will get in at all,” Raz said.

After hearing about the decline in suicide bombings and the relative calm in Israel and in the West Bank today, the band members assembled on a Merkava tank. A group of female soldiers from an intelligence unit gathered around them. “They’re the guys who love Israel, aren’t they?” one of the female soldiers asked.

Her friend, in tortoiseshell glasses and clearly not a metal aficionado, said “I think so.” Then she shrugged and got on line for an autograph.

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