Iraq 'n' roll

Soldiers take on insurgents with a musical vengeance, cranking up the volume to distress the enemy. The choice of tunes might surprise.

Published November 21, 2004

As tanks geared up to trample Fallujah and American troops started circling the city, special operations officers rifled through their CD cases, searching for a sound track to spur the assault.

What would irk Iraqi insurgents more: Barking dogs or bluegrass? Screaming babies or shrieking feedback?

Heavy metal. The Army's latest weapon.

AC/DC. Loud. Louder!

Let's roll.

I won't take no prisoners, won't spare no lives

Nobody's putting up a fight

I got my bell, I'm gonna take you to hell

I'm gonna get you . . .

While the tanks flattened Fallujah this month, Hell's Bells bombarded the town. Speakers as big as footlockers blared from Humvees' gun turrets. Boom boxes blasted off soldiers' backpacks. As the troops stormed closer, the music got louder. The song changed; the message remained the same.

I'm gonna take you down - down, down, down

So don't you fool around

I'm gonna pull it, pull it, pull the trigger

Shoot to thrill, play to kill . . .

Louder. Turn it up. LOUDER!

Never mind that Iraqis didn't understand the words.

"It's not the music so much as the sound," said Ben Abel, spokesman for the Army's psychological operations command at Fort Bragg, N.C. "It's like throwing a smoke bomb. The aim is to disorient and confuse the enemy to gain a tactical advantage."

I'm like evil, I get under your skin

Just like a bomb that's ready to blow

'Cause I'm illegal, I got everything

That all you women might need to know

Hour after hour. For days on end.

"If you can bother the enemy through the night, it degrades their ability to fight," Abel explained. "Western music is not the Iraqis' thing. So our guys have been getting really creative in finding sounds they think would make the enemy upset.

"These harassment missions work especially well in urban settings like Fallujah," he said. "The sounds just keep reverberating off the walls."

Let there be noise

American Indians whooped war cries.

Fife and drum corps fired up troops during the Revolutionary War.

World War II had its bugle boys.

Whether to inspire soldiers, announce an attack or coerce surrender, music has been part of armies' arsenals for as long as battles have been waged.

God himself is rumored to have commanded the tactic.

"Joshua's army used horns to strike fear into the hearts of the people of Jericho," said retired Air Force Lt. Col. Dan Kuehl. "His men might not have been able to break down literal walls with their trumpets. But . . . the noise eroded the enemies' courage. Maybe those psychological walls were what really crumbled."

Kuehl teaches information operations at Fort McNair's National Defense University in Washington, D.C. His classes are part of the Army's psychological operations, or PSYOPS, programs. He shows soldiers how to exploit information to gain power, how to get inside the enemy's head, how mental manipulation helps win wars.

"Almost anything you do that demonstrates your omnipotence or lack of fear helps break the enemy down," Kuehl said. "You have to understand your target audience, what makes them tick. You have to know that the same message could be received differently by different audiences."

Sometimes that's good. Heavy metal that tortures Iraqis' ears also can help homesick Americans. For a 19-year-old Marine who has been coiled in a tent for weeks, ready to strike, Metallica's Enter Sandman might be more inspiring than any officer's pep talk.

Dreams of war, dreams of liars

Dreams of dragon's fire

and of things that will bite

Sleep with one eye open

Gripping your pillow tight . . .

"Our soldiers like this music," Kuehl said. "So that's what they're going to blast."

Sometimes, though, the songs might have an unintended effect. They might motivate the enemy instead of upsetting him.

You have to be sure, Kuehl said, that you know whose ears you're assaulting.

We are the world

World War II saw the first widespread use of radio broadcasts as PSYOPS missions. "The Japanese spread Tokyo Rose across the airwaves in an effort to demoralize U.S. troops in the Pacific," Kuehl said. "She would give this running commentary on how the Japanese were going to defeat America. Then she'd play American music.

"The soldiers would listen to the familiar songs, loving them, feeling better," the professor explained. "Then they'd laugh all the way through the PSYOPS part of the program."

The same sort of backfiring hurt the Germans, Kuehl said. Hitler's troops pumped propaganda between bursts of music. "Americans ignored the messages and enjoyed the music," Kuehl said.

Even on opposite sides of the war, soldiers sometimes sing the same songs.

Such irony might well be at work in Iraq.

"With the increasing globalization of the world, we know that some Iraqis do listen to American music, even heavy metal, on the Internet, the radio and TV," Kuehl said. "Even during the height of the Taliban, they could get Western music or videos."

Although some insurgents might have been reeling in horror at the Metallica attacks, or abandoning their fortresses to fight the frightful noise, others might have been fist-pumping at the familiar riffs, getting just as revved up as the Americans.

Hush little baby, don't say a word

Never mind that noise you heard

It's just the beasts under your bed

In your closet, in your head . . .

Accident or assault

Military experts agree about the historic use of music to pump up the troops. But stories differ about the origins of its use as a weapon.

In December 1989, while Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega was holed up in the Vatican Embassy in Panama City, U.S. soldiers shot heavy metal music at his compound 'round the clock. Some say the songs were set off to muffle negotiations between the general and his adversaries - a "music barrier" against eavesdropping reporters.

Others say the music was played to perk up the Marines. That it annoyed the general was at first a bonus. Then a breakthrough.

"I always heard that some soldier got tired of listening to the same stuff, so he popped in an AC/DC tape and turned it up loud," said Abel, the Army spokesman at Fort Bragg. "Then Noriega commented that the rock 'n' roll was bothering him. Once the guys found that out, they cranked it up even more."

Led Zeppelin. Jimi Hendrix. "Anything weird or kind of strange," Abel said. "Howling laughter. Cackling cries."

Aaah aaah aaaaah ah! Aaah aaah aaaaah ah!

Come We come from the land of the ice and snow,

From the midnight sun where the hot springs blow.

The hammer of the gods will drive our ships to new lands . . .

"Since the Noriega incident, you've been seeing an increased use of loudspeakers," Abel said. "The Army has invested a lot of money into getting speakers that are smaller and more durable, so the men can carry them on their backs."

Under pressure, Abel estimated that 30 loudspeakers swooped into Fallujah this month - bolted to gun turrets, strapped to soldiers. Speakers on the Humvees can pump Metallica's sledgehammer riffs across miles, he said.

Exit, light

Enter, night

Take my hand

We're off to never-never land . . .

The Army doesn't issue an official list of songs to play during an attack, Abel said. "These guys have their own mini disc players, with their own music, plus hundreds of downloaded sounds. It's kind of a personal preference how they choose the songs," he said.

"We've got very young guys making these decisions."

Even toddlers are contributing to the torture.

Child's play

It shouldn't have taken the Army this long to discover it. Anyone who's had a preschooler knows the pain: sing-songy, cotton-colored puppets crooning over and over again about happy, joyful things.

Dancing, smiling puppets. So pleased you tuned in. You can't tune them out. Then your little one joins in, even during commercials. Incessant. Mind-numbing. An agonizing infliction of unbearable assault.

Reruns were bad enough. Now with videos, the rewinds never stop.

Once Barney gets going, there is no escape.

"Uncooperative prisoners are being exposed for prolonged periods to tracks by rock group Metallica and music from children's TV programmes Sesame Street and Barney in the hope of making them talk," the BBC reported in May 2003. "However, Amnesty International said such tactics may constitute torture."

I love you

You love me

We're a happy family

With a great big hug and a kiss from me to you

Won't you say you love me too!

Repeated often enough, the melody has been known to make even burly, bearded men break.

"Trust me, it works," the BBC quoted an unidentified U.S. operative as attesting. "In training, they forced me to listen to the Barney I Love You song for 45 minutes. I never want to go through that again."

Metallica's music is as effective at making prisoners snap as it is at flushing out insurgents.

"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," Sgt. Mark Hadsell told Newsweek in May 2003. "That's when we come in and talk to them."

James Hetfield, who co-founded Metallica, said the military hadn't asked his permission or paid him royalties to blast his band's music in Iraq. But he's proud, he said, that his tunes are culturally offensive to the Iraqis. "For me, the lyrics are a form of expression, a freedom to express my insanity," Hetfield told radio host Terry Gross last week. "If the Iraqis aren't used to freedom, then I'm glad to be part of their exposure."

He laughed about the music being torture. "We've been punishing our parents, our wives, our loved ones with this music forever," he said on National Public Radio's Fresh Air. "Why should the Iraqis be any different?"

Then Hetfield grew serious. He paused for a moment, then said, "But I really know the reason. It's the relentlessness of the music. It's completely relentless. ... If I listened to a death metal band for 12 hours in a row, I'd go insane, too. I'd tell you anything you wanted to know."

* * *

So the priests blew the trumpets. As soon as the men heard it, they gave a loud shout, and the walls collapsed. Then all the army went straight up the hill into the city and captured it. With their swords, they killed everyone in the city, men and women, young and old. They also killed the cattle, sheep, and donkeys. - Joshua 6:20-21

- Lane DeGregory can be reached at 727 893-8825 or degregory@sptimes.com

Listen up

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