[Image: U.S. helicopter over Baghdad, via (scroll down)].
I’ve mentioned The Forever War by Dexter Filkins before, but I was struck again the other day by a passage in which Filkins catalogs the mechanically unprecedented sounds of the American siege of Falluja, a collection of noises so alien and overpowering that he describes it as “an entire ecosystem” with its own hidden predators and prey.
Filkins writes that “rocket-propelled grenades whizzed out of the darkness, striking the M-1s and exploding but doing no harm. Whoosh-bang, like a fireworks show. Whoosh-bang.” He quickly adds, however, that “the real weirdness was circling above.”
The night sky echoed with pops and pings, the invisible sounds of frantic action. Most were being made by the AC-130 gunships, whose propellers were putting out a reassuring hum. But over the droning came stranger sounds: the plane’s Gatling gun let out long, deep burps at volumes that were symphonic. Its 105mm cannon made a popping sound, the same as you would hear from a machine that served tennis balls. A pop! followed by a boom! Pop-boom. And then there was the insect buzz of the ScanEagle, the pilotless airplane that hovered above us and beamed images back to base. It was as if we were witnessing the violent struggles of an entire ecosystem, a clash of airborne nocturnal beasts we could not see.
Of course, the unnatural acoustic ecology of humans at war is surely something you could find throughout history, from the fibrous zing of crossbow strings and the thunderous lurch of the catapult to endlessly irritating scrapings of metal on metal as swords and shields collide. What ancient Roman warfare actually sounded like is something for the acoustic archaeologists.
But, while an acoustic history of war has yet to be written—though some have treated sound itself as war—it would be a fascinating study to pursue.
9 thoughts on “Warsound”
That link is already in the post, but thanks for the tip!
You might be interested in Charles D. Ross's work on the acoustics of the Civil War.
Shannon – funny, while I was writing this I found an article about "acoustic shadows" during the Civil War and put up a quick post about them here. I'd love to read more about this, though, so the Ross book seems like a good place to start. Thanks!
Gerd Heidemann – the eccentric journalist who played a pivotal role in the Hitler Diaries fiasco – liked to relax by listening to tapes of gun battles in the Congo. According to Robert Harris's book "Selling Hitler", anyway.
There is a rich vein of interest in this topic through the futurists, from Marinetti's Zang Tumb Tumb and then into Russolo's Art of Noise. Usually it's considered in light of the modernist revolution in music, but what Marinetti does is actually more interesting, in that he attempts to create on the page something like a space appropriate to this new modern soundscape–I don't think it's simply mimetic, distributing the sounds according to their origins; instead, it spatializes them according to their own intensities and, doubtless, some residual pictorial sense.
I was also struck by the "reassuring hum" of the helicopters–Schafer notes that the mechanical hum is one of the essential differences between the premodern and the modern soundscape.
I don't really understand why these sounds are described as 'unprecedented'. Unprecedented for Filkins perhaps, but surely not for the US military. Secondly, why should these be catalogued anymore than say a new fax machine operating alongside a Nespresso?
Adam, why shouldn't the sounds of a new fax machine operating alongside a Nespresso be catalogued?
There was a fantastic installation at the ICA in Boston this past year on a similar theme (disclosure: my dad did the sound editing).
It was called "Out of Here," and the premise is fairly straightforward. The viewer is in a nondescript room that could be a warehouse, the only windows being small and high above the ground. The entire tale (a peaceful day shattered by a checkpoint stop gone wrong) is told through the audio.
Here's the official site:
And the Boston Globe's take: