No Touch Torture

Music as torture / Music as weapon
By Suzanne G. Cusick
Mar 24, 2007, 06:41


One of the most startling aspects of musical culture in the post-Cold War United States is the systematic use of music as a weapon of war. First coming to mainstream attention in 1989, when US troops blared loud music in an effort to induce Panamanian president Manuel Norriega’s surrender, the use of “acoustic bombardment” has become standard practice on the battlefields of Iraq, and specifically musical bombardment has joined sensory deprivation and sexual humiliation as among the non-lethal means by which prisoners from Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo may be coerced to yield their secrets without violating US law.

The very idea that music could be an instrument of torture confronts us with a novel—and disturbing—perspective on contemporary musicality in the United States. What is it that we in the United States might know about ourselves by contemplating this perspective? What does our government’s use of music in the “war on terror” tell us (and our antagonists) about ourselves?

This paper is a first attempt to understand the military and cultural logics on which the contemporary use of music as a weapon in torture and war is based. After briefly tracing the development of acoustic weapons in the late 20th century, and their deployment at the second battle of Falluja in November, 2004, I summarize what can be known about the theory and practice of using music to torture detainees in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo. I contemplate some aspects of late 20th-century musical culture in the civilian US that resonate with the US security community’s conception of music as a weapon, and survey the way musical torture is discussed in the virtual world known as the blogosphere. Finally, I sketch some questions for further research and analysis.


This paper reports on the earliest stages of a project that began not in my musicological work but in a moment of my real life. In spring, 2003, I was reading Nuha al-Radi’s Baghdad Diaries, an account of her life before, during and after the first Gulf War. I read

After the war ended, the Allies spent all day and all night flying over our heads, breaking the sound barrier. Just like Panama when they blasted Noriega, holed up in the Vatican Embassy with music. For fifteen days, Bush deafened the poor ambassador and Noriega with hard rock. Our torture went on for months– 20 or 30 times, day or night… (al-Radi 1998: 58)

“So,” I thought, “perhaps it wasn’t just silliness, the actions of bored or excitable soldiers who’d seen Apocalypse Now too many times. Perhaps it was a policy.” As press reports conflating music’s use on the battlefield with its use in interrogations proliferated, I began desultory research on a phenomenon of the current “global war on terror” that particularly wounds me as a musician–wounds me in that part of my sensibility that remains residually invested in the notion that music is beautiful, even transcendent–is a practice whose contemplation would always lead me to contemplation of bodies and pleasures. Not bodies in pain.

It is not my intention here to engage the moral, ethical and political debates around torture, interesting as they are. Rather, I offer today a rough taxonomy of the complex subject denoted by my title–the US government’s use of sound and music as a battlefield weapon and its use of music during the interrogation of “detainees” in the current GWOT. It is a taxonomy peppered with questions and speculations about the ways that these uses of music interact with more familiar aspects of recent musical culture in the United States.

Read the rest here.

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