It was during the recent “war on terror’ that it came to pass that one enhanced torture technique enlisted by the United States at Guantanamo Bay included blasting enemy with rock music, using repetition and volume as a weapon. It was the epitome of sensory overload and “no touch torture,’ designed to damage psychologically but to not leave a mark. Lead singer of Metallica James Hetfield quickly came out after learning it was his music being used and offered, â€œif the Iraqi’ aren’ used to freedom then I’m happy to be part of their exposure.â€ Even the creator of the song I Love You from the kids show Barney, music from which was also used, felt it patently ridiculous that music designed to be inclusive for children could be effectively used as a torture device.
French journalist Juliette Volcer uses the above examples to highlight the nexus between war, entertainment culture and gaming. It’s here that somehow torture becomes the butt of jokes, where the song selection is almost designed with public relations in mind. After all how bad could the torture be if they’re playing kids music? Those with children could probably answer this, and the public debate on these issues she suggests reflects such flippancy, as a result it’s â€œalmost in a state of suspension.â€
Volcer’ exploration of sonic warfare is nothing if not exhaustive. She traces the use of speakers in 1940′ battlefields as weapons of deception and psychological abuse, to speakers strapped to gunships in Vietnam, later immortalised in Apocalypse Now. Then of course there’ the Panama invasion where US troops pounded General Noriega holed up in the Vatican embassy with AC/DC and Motley Crue. She speaks of psych ops and the 2004 battle of Fallujah where US marines strapped speakers to their roofs and played Eminem and Metallica at high volumes as a tool of intimidation.
It all stems from the human ear. Volcer begins her journey into weaponised sound by noting from a military perspective the ear is a vulnerable target, as not only can’ you close it, but what you hear â€œprofoundly alters your psychological state.â€ She then, through multiple sources attempts to chronicle the areas of sonic focus through the last five decades of research, as governments and private contractors tried and mostly failed to weaponise sound, from low frequencies to infrasound.
It’s a shady world brimming with misinformation and half-truths, of abandoned studies and military secrecy. In fact it’s almost science fiction, with countries supposedly building all manner of bizarre sonic death rays. And information on these is scant, though Volcer bravely attempts to piece together the material, her consensus being that despite numerous trials, very few sonic weapons have moved beyond a testing phase.
She also cites the use of repellent sound technologies not just in a military capacity, but in the public sphere. Increasingly military designed technology is finding its way into the hands of police as a mechanism for crowd control. The most common weapon comes from the LRAD Corporation, producing long-range acoustic devices that are supposedly non lethal, provided you don’ point it at someone at a close distance for too long. It reportedly offers an instant migraine and can push people off their feet. It’s been used in the US particularly on G20 protesters, though also in Georgia, Thailand, Iraq, Israel and China among other places. The beauty of LRAD is that it is classified as a device not a weapon, and as a result it’s its not subject to stringent regulations in most countries.
Volcer runs the gamut of sources in this compelling read. From journal articles to corporate propaganda to academics, philosophers to pulp and science fiction writers, Volcer casts her net wide and provides one of the most comprehensive assessments yet of the inroads over the last half a century to harness the sonic world in such a way that it can now be used as a tool of repression.
Ultimately it’s all quite harrowing, governments fearing the public outcry of blood on the streets are increasingly looking towards weapons and corporations that make the damage invisible, hiding behind terms like non lethal, to mask the truth that these weapons and techniques are anything but safe and can create lasting physiological and psychological suffering.