Sonic Warfare

The opening scene of The Forever War by Dexter Filkins presents us with the sight of U.S. soldiers preparing for their invasion of Falluja. Filkins is there to witness the attack; amidst the growl of tanks and Humvees, and “by the light of airstrikes and rockets,” he writes, there is suddenly something sonically unexpected.

[Image: “An Advanced Individual Training Soldier in the Psychological Operations Specialist Course attaches a loud speaker on top of a High Mobility Multi-Wheeled Vehicle, or HUMVEE, at Forward Operating Base Freedom, Camp MacKall, N.C.” Courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School].

“And then, as if from the depths,” Filkins writes, “came a new sound: violent, menacing and dire.”

I looked back over my shoulder to where we had come from, into the vacant field at Falluja’s northern edge. A group of marines were standing at the foot of a gigantic loudspeaker, the kind used at rock concerts.

It was AC/DC, the Australian heavy metal band, pouring out its unbridled sounds. I recognized the song immediately: “Hells Bells,” the band’s celebration of satanic power, had come to us on the battlefield.

While by no means advocating the use of sonic warfare as a tool in U.S. military adventures or police operations, I nonetheless instantly thought of this scene—of armed soldiers holding aloft rock-blaring boom boxes, like some John Milius-directed remake of Say Anything—when I read, in a very different context, that bark beetles can be driven out of the pine forests they currently infest if you play digitally-altered sounds of their own chewing back at them through loud speakers. The high-volume sound of themselves drives them away.

A research assistant suggested using sounds to aggravate the beetles, much as police sometimes blare music in hostage situations. The researchers tried Queen and Guns N’ Roses and played snippets of radio talker Rush Limbaugh backward. None produced the desired results.

Then, the beetles were exposed to digitally altered recordings of their own calls, the sounds they make to attract or repel other beetles. The response was immediate. The beetles stopped mating or burrowing. Some fled, helter-skelter. Some violently attacked each other.

Most important, they stopped chewing away at the pine tree, suggesting that the scientists may have discovered a sort of sonic bullet that could help slow the beetles’ destructive march.

Again, I do not mean to imply that infestation metaphors are the most appropriate to use when discussing Operation Phantom Fury, or that military action in that city was analogous to clearing a forest of bark beetles; but the audio possibilities here, and the specifics of the set-up, seem amazing.

[Image: A ponderosa pine forest; within those trunks might be beetles].

More about the actual experiment, run at Northern Arizona University’s Forestry Lab:

They collected tree trunks infested with bark beetles… Working in the lab, [research assistant Reagan McGuire] piped in the music through tiny speakers, the sort you might find in a singing greeting card. He watched the reaction of the beetles using a microscope. The rock music didn’t seem to annoy the bugs, nor did Rush in reverse.

McGuire and [Northern Arizona University forest entomologist Richard Hofstetter] decided to try something different. They recorded the sounds of the beetles and played them back, manipulating them to test the response.

Suddenly, every little thing they did seemed to provoke the beetles.

“We could use a particular aggression call that would make the beetles move away from the sound as if they were avoiding another beetle,” Hofstetter said.

When they made the beetle sounds louder and stronger than a typical male mating call, he said, the female beetle rejected the male and moved toward the electronic sound.

These audio simulations, in other words, had demonstrable physical effects on another species; their own warped sonic portrait drove them crazy.

So could you reprogram your Marsona 1288A (“create a personalized sound environment“) with the digitally-altered ambient sounds of termites and thus clear your house of insectile pests? The USDA, after all, has published a paper—download the PDF—explaining how a “portable, low-frequency acoustic system was used to detect termite infestations in urban trees.” Indeed, “termite sounds could be detected easily underneath infested trees, despite the presence of high urban background noise.” So why not reverse this—drive them out of the city using weird MP3s specially produced for boom cars?

Perhaps we should petition Clear Channel or Sirius XM to premiere a new, insect-only broadcast hour, killing ants and roaches in every city where it’s played (or perhaps just driving them all out, streaming from the floorboards, in a moment of utter horror).

I’m reminded here of the famous example of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles, with its “dog whistle—which humans can’t hear—buried on the album’s second side.” Only, in our case, it would be a different kind of beetle-whistle, and one with anti-infestational effects.

(Bark beetle story found via @treestrategist).

16 thoughts on “Sonic Warfare”

  1. Perhaps I'm missing something, but I always wonder why the AC/DC – or whatever – doesn't also drive the US troops crazy. Can't they hear it just as well? Or do they wear earplugs? And if so, can't the enemy also wear earplugs?

  2. '…like some John Milius directed remake of Say Anything…'

    Another in a long list of reasons I love the internet.

  3. So Geoff, linking up Cell/The Signal and your modest proposal to Clear Channel, imagine they act on your recommendation, broadcast the anti-roach signal, and unleash Kafka's Metamorphosis on a city-wide scale – hundreds of thousands of Gregor Samsas who awake after anxious dreams to discover that they believe they have been turned into giant insects.

  4. Having had the corrupted roach-identity beamed into them, they set about reconfiguring the city … actually, forget I said anything. (Fires memory-ray, steals idea.)

  5. Not the same Will…

    The beetles story reminds me of Burroughs' attack on the first UK scientology office: film them, project the film onto their building, film them again. That worked.

  6. I sit in an apartment with floorboard cracks above a pizza shop with a tin ceiling on the corner of Canal Street, once the fireworks hub of NYC, car stereos are installed, and fake bags are sold amidst the cacophony of desperate hawkers … TOO-LOUD SOUND is familiar … and I'm tempted to insert a mic through the floor and connect an aggressive subwoofer (screwed to the floor) and in my absence train the people below through biofeedback. Bugs.

    On a wider scale perhaps apartment buildings could be wired this way. Tread lightly. Surely, as in Delicatessen, and implied by Brazil's ductwork, a clear connection to one's neighbors can have a tempering quality. In fact, a large hole in the floor would also allow the heat up to warm my apartment … with the added benefit of being able to dumb-waiter pizzas through the hole, if it were big enough and the pizzas were worthy (they aren't).

    I am reminded of living on tatami in Japan and listening to mice or more likely cockroaches chewing quietly somewhere within … reminded that it was quiet enough to hear such things, paper walls notwithstanding.

    On a slightly different note, termite mounds vs. office towers wherein bankers plot their conspiracies. Think 2001 where HAL reads lips … take a Laser-3000 Microphone Listening Device and point it to the tower windows and stream the conversations therein for public consumption. The economic shakedown equivalent of beetle feedback.

  7. I know this is barely related to the topic of discussion but a metalhead has to make the comment:

    lolz AC/DC is considered "heavy metal" by reporter.

  8. Geoff, I'm sure your aware of the use of LRAD systems. They essentially have the same effects of flash bangs and are used on a lot of ships at sea for protection from pirates. There's been a lot of development in the military with these technologies, and many police forces are starting to use them.

  9. Andrea, the Mosquito device is an excellent example – thanks for the reminder! I wish I had mentioned it myself.

    Derrick, Daniel Perlin gave a talk last autumn, at a conference organized by Ed Keller, that was all about noise weaponry and such like, including LRADs; it was a fascinating talk. The directed-weaponization of sound in LRADs is something that absolutely amazes me, from an acoustic as well as (fairly uneasy) political standpoint.

    Will, I like these ideas! The sonically subliminal Kafka signal that transforms a city's residents into roaches. A short story for the next issue of Icon, perhaps?

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