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A History of Using Sound as a Weapon

Inside the real Loudness War.
Image by Adam Kliczek/Wikimedia Commons

Last week, a collaborative research project known as AUDiNT (short for Audio Intelligence) released Martial Hauntology,a box set of vinyl and literature that explores the darker history of sound. It's a journey into the lesser known realms of sonic weaponry.

The project is the latest in-depth study from Glaswegian electronic artist Steve Goodman (perhaps best know as Hyperdub label owner Kode9) and Manchester University research fellow Toby Heys. Heys describes AUDiNT as a "research cell investigating how ultrasonic, sonic and infrasonic frequencies are used to demarcate territory in the soundscape and the ways in which their martial and civil deployments modulate psychological, physiological and architectural states."


The incorporation of sound into warfare may sound like a modern tactic, but the first reports have their roots in history. Back in 1944, as World War II slipped through Germany's fingertips, it was rumoured that Hitler's chief architect Albert Speer had set up research to explore his own theories of sonic warfare, with the intention of creating tools of death. An episode of the History Channel's Weird Weapons claimed that his device, dubbed an acoustic cannon, was intended to work by igniting a mixture of methane and oxygen in a resonant chamber, and could create a series of over 1,000 explosions per second.

This sent out a deafening and focused beam of sound which was magnified by huge parabolic reflector dishes. The idea, apparently, was that by repeatedly compressing and releasing particular organs in the human body, the cannon could potentially kill someone standing within a 100-yard radius in around thirty seconds. Fortunately, the weapon was never actually used in battle.

The actual volume of sound frequency isn't the only way sound has been used in war. In his 2009 book Sonic Warfare, a key body of research in the understanding of contemporary sonic thought, Goodman included a chapter titled "Project Jericho," which explored the US PSYOPS campaigns during the Vietnam War.

Goodman described a particular campaign known as Operation Wandering Soul. The Curdler, a helicopter-mounted sonic device, produced the "voodoo effects of Wandering Soul, in which haunting sounds said to represent the souls of the dead were played in order to perturb the superstitious snipers, who, while recognizing the artificial source of the wailing noises, could not help but dread what they were hearing was a premonition of their own postdeath dislocated soul."


It was these operations, Goodman wrote, that directly inspired the famous scene of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, in which a fleet of helicopters fly towards their target whilst blasting Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries."

And while Wagner might not exactly be a torturous sound, the use of popular music for non-lethal weaponry goes further than Apocalypse Now. In 2003, the BBC reported that US interrogators were using songs by Metallica, Skinny Puppy and, erm, Barney the Dinosaur, in a bid to break the will of Iraqi prisoners of war. As Sergeant Mark Hadsell told Newsweek at the time, "These people haven't heard heavy metal. They can't take it. If you play it for 24 hours, your brain and body functions start to slide, your train of thought slows down and your will is broken. That's when we come in and talk to them."

All this kicked off a bizarre discussion about whether music used during torture meant royalties were owed to the artists. Skinny Puppy jumped on this and filed a sizeable $666,000 royalties bill claim against the American defence department.

Jump forward to June 13, 2005, when the late Israeli president Ariel Sharon had just agreed to the disengagement from Gaza. That involved the displacement of settlers from the West Bank area, and stories soon started filtering in that the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) was trying out a new weapon on the streets. "The knees buckle, the brain aches, the stomach turns, and suddenly nobody feels like protesting anymore" reported the Toronto Star's Middle East Bureau.


"An Associated Press photographer at the scene said that even after he covered his ears, he continued to hear the sound ringing in the back of his head," wrote Amy Teibel for the Associated Press. This special vehicle-mounted weapon was an LRAD (long range acoustic device). They're mostly used at sea as a defence against pirates, and can fire beams of up to 150-decibel alarm sounds at crowds.

Its victims on the streets knew it by another name: "The Scream."

An LRAD on a ship. Image: Wikimedia Commons/Tucker M. Yates

Other sonic tactics against Palestinians were also reported, like jets breaking the sound barrier at low altitudes over settlements to cause what The Guardian described as "sound bombs."

And sonic weapons weren't limited to that part of the world, either. In 2004, the American Technology Corporation landed a nearly $5 million deal to supply LRADs to US troops in Iraq.

By 2011 and 2012, the use of LRADs began domestically in the US, when the government issued devices to various police forces, with their most publicised use coming during the Occupy Wall Street and G20 protests. Only seven months ago, the American-based LRAD Corporation also struck a $4 million deal with "a Middle Eastern country" for their most powerful hailing device yet: the LRAD 2000X, which gazumps previous models by beaming sound over 3,500 metres.

Despite domestic use elsewhere, the UK is yet to use an LRAD on its own civilians for crowd dispersal. How it feels about the accelerating industry, however, is confusing. When London mayor and water cannon enthusiast Boris Johnson was asked about LRADs in March, he denied knowing of their existence, responding, "Is this some sort of April fool?" Another politician pointed out that the devices were installed on the Thames during the 2012 Olympics.

In fact, London is home to one of the only non-military or police owners of LRADs in the world: Anschutz Entertainment Group, or as you probably know it, The O2. It was once left outside the venue and unattended, where it was photographed by a worried Twitter user (the O2 insisted it couldn't have been misused).

Can only conclude from @O2 refusing to publicly answer whether this LRAD could have been misused that the answer is yes
— esoteric affect (@piombo) November 13, 2012

The increased use of sonic weapons by armies and police forces around the world, and the growing stock market value of LRAD Corporation, reveal a continuing fascination with utilising sound as a weapon, and the release of ever more in-depth studies like Martial Hauntology offers an insight into how sonic warfare is entering an age of global amplification.