Alex Ross on Music, Torture, and War

by Chris Borgen

A year ago, Alex Ross, the New Yorker’s classical music critic and the author of the book The Rest is Noise, wote a post on the New Yorker Online about the use of music as a psychological weapon. Ross recently posted a short update on his own blog.

 The original essay began with a reference to the use of music in interrogations:

In Errol Morris’s documentary “Standard Operating Procedure. . .” an American soldier talks about employing music as a means of breaking down the resistance of enemy combatants during interrogations. They can withstand “Hip Hop Hooray” and “Enter Sandman. . .” he says, but not country music. Most audiences will laugh at the line, but may check themselves mid-chuckle, wondering what it means that Americans are deploying their favorite music as a way of tormenting people of another culture.

But his post went well beyond that, referencing tactics ranging from giving or withholding support from certain German composers during the occupation of Germany from 1945 to 1949, to the blaring of heavy metal at the Papal Nuncio’s residence where Manuel Noriega was holed-up during the 1989 invasion of Panama.

He closed his short essay this way:

Since the beginning of American operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, music has routinely been used during interrogations at Guantánamo and elsewhere. The playing of loud music, customarily hip-hop or heavy metal, is part of a standard procedure that the Department of the Army describes as “futility”: “[The] collector convinces the source that resistance to questioning is futile. This engenders a feeling of hopelessness and helplessness on the part of the source.” Suzanne Cusick, a musicologist who teaches a course on Soundscapes of Contemporary War at N.Y.U., has studied accounts of such interrogations and gathered her findings in an article for the Journal of the Society for American Music. When I asked Cusick whether she considered these tactics a new development in the evolution of music as a weapon of war, she answered that there are, in fact, some disturbing historical precedents, not least the forced musical rituals at Nazi concentration camps.

Ross’s recent update states:

Lara Pellegrinelli, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, delves at length into the issues raised by [Suzanne] Cusick and other authors. New from Indiana University Press is Jonathan Pieslak’s book Sound Targets: American Soldiers and Music in the Iraq War, which examines how soldiers have employed music both as an instrument of war and as a kind of defense mechanism. Pieslak discovers that some took to blasting “The Ride of Valkyries” on “thunder runs” through Baghdad, in imitation of the Wagner scene in Apocalypse Now. In a contrasting section, Pieslak interviews the composer-guitarist Jason Sagebiel, who wrote a gently sorrowing piece entitled Salvation while serving in Iraq and who also used his time there to study Arabic music. You can listen to Salvation here. It is, Sagebiel says, in passacaglia form; the recurring theme represents the fact that “violence and war have been the history of the world.”

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