From trumpets at Jericho to Eminem at Fallujah, music and sound have been valuable weapons.
Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore leads his helicopter gunships in over the beach. Loudspeakers on the choppers blast Richard Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries” as the assault on a Viet Cong village begins, German opera mixing with gun and rocket fire. The music, explains Kilgore, “scares the hell out of the slopes.”
It’s an unforgettable scene from Apocalypse Now, the epic Francis Ford Coppola movie. Although fictitious, it draws from fact. For millennia, soldiers have sought an advantage in war through sound—whether music, voices, or simply loud noise. They use it not only to organize and gird themselves for battle, but also to undermine the courage of the enemy, knowing that while we may close our eyes to fear, we cannot close our ears.
Music, of course, has filled the routine of military life for centuries. On Egyptian monuments depicting the victories of the pharaoh Ramses III, illustrations show trumpeters blowing triumphantly from the rooftops of a captured fortress. The ancient Egyptians also used horns to marshal soldiers and signal an attack, halt, retreat, or turn.
Similarly, ancient Greek armies sounded trumpets to relay commands in engagements. They also beat drums to synchronize soldiers on the march and rowers aboard galleys. The Roman legion used music during garrison operations, including the mounting and relief of guards. Such traditions continue today. Consider the bugler playing reveille, tattoo, and taps on U.S. Army posts.
But music has been deployed for more than just military maneuvers and ceremony. Across the ages, as fighting men prepared for battle, they’ve sung lyric poems to recount sagas of their heroes and summon helpful spirits. Beowulf, the great Anglo-Saxon poem, was sung to warriors gathered in a lord’s great hall to hear tales of old wars, bond with their companions, and listen to those who had gained glory “in the rush of battle-slaughter,” according to scholar Seamus Heaney.
Similarly, Native American fighters would assemble on the eve of battle around a campfire and one by one stand and sing of the glorious victories of their ancestors—songs they hoped would earn them the backing of those ancestors in the battle to come.
Music played before battle varied, and it often reflected a preferred style of fighting. Martial songs from the era of Prussian ruler Frederick the Great, circa 1760, were stately and imposing, with flutes, strings, and an occasional horn. Listen, and you can picture the rigid, slow, and disciplined infantry tactics of that time.
The modern soldier often picks his own soundtrack for war. Today, virtually every American soldier, Marine, and airman deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan owns a CD player or iPod. According to music theorist Jonathan Pieslak, American soldiers in Iraq gravitate to gangsta rap and heavy metal when gearing up for battle. As one soldier put it, he needed “predator music” to help him and his buddies get “crunked” and “amped up” for action.
In his iconic and psychedelic memoir Dispatches, Vietnam war correspondent Michael Herr described how a Jimi Hendrix anthem made one soldier “shiver like frantic electric ecstasy was shooting up from the carpet through his spine straight to the old pleasure center in his cream-cheese brain, shaking his head so that his hair waved all around him.”
When it comes to combat itself, the noise of fighting is obviously horrifying and can at times be overwhelming. The Roman military historian Vegetius referred to the “intimidating din” that unnerved the ranks. When describing the clamor at Waterloo, John Keegan wrote of a “a weird harmonic vibration” caused by the sound of musket balls hitting swords; he quotes British ensign Rees Howell Gronow, who said that bullets striking the steel breastplates of cuirassiers sounded like “a violent hailstorm beating upon panes of glass.”
The advent of mechanized warfare only added to the aural nightmare of battle. In World War I the most prevalent and debilitating noise was that of artillery. It was “the terrifier,” as one historian put it. Baron Charles McMoran Wilson Moran, a doctor who served in the trenches, said simply: “High explosive put fear in a new frame.”
But long before the weapons of the Industrial Revolution became commonplace, military planners recognized that sound itself could be harnessed and deployed with a purpose. Indeed, the first record of sound used as a weapon comes from the Bible, when Joshua directed his priests to sound trumpets made of rams’ horns to bring down the walls of Jericho.
The most primitive of acoustic weapons may be the human voice itself. Military historian J. F. C. Fuller speculated that our prehistoric ancestors used grunts, shouts, and howls to ward off or threaten enemies. In ancient Greece, the phalanx as it charged into battle let loose with a war cry, called the paean, designed to embolden its warriors and frighten the enemy. Traditionally, hoplites would form ranks and beat their spears upon their shields; trumpets would then sound the charge, and the warriors would sing the paean, signaling the beginning of the attack.
The Romans encountered a similar war cry when battling the Celts, whose favorite tactic was a wild assault accompanied by what has been described as “horrible and diverse yelling.” The entire Celtic army would take up this chant, and a clamor arose so loud and terrifying that, as one Roman observer noted, “the very hills around seemed to be raising their voices in echo.”
Some argue that the Rebel yell of the American Civil War descended from this cry. Confederate soldiers, many of them Scots-Irish, employed a high-pitched shout—an eerie combination of a wolf howl and Indian war whoop. Federal veterans remembered the cry as a “terrible scream and barbarous howling.”
As military technology advanced, so did the means to use sound to intimidate and frighten the enemy. The German Ju-87 Stuka incorporated a high-pitched siren that sounded when the aircraft went into a dive to deliver its bombs. Termed “the trumpet of Jericho,” the siren was intended to “put the fear of God and the Last Judgment into the victims of the attack,” as Luftwaffe historian Harold Faber put it. Similarly, the unusual pulse jet engine of the Nazi V-1 cruise missile frightened anyone who heard it, especially when the noise ceased—which meant the engine had stopped and the missile was nearing the earth.
Sound has also been used to deceive. Under siege at Corinth, Mississippi, in 1862, Confederate general Pierre G. T. Beauregard directed his men to cheer whenever they heard a train whistle— a stunt to fool Union troops into thinking that Rebel reinforcements had arrived. At night, drummers and buglers would move to different areas to play tattoo and taps to suggest the Rebel camp was more extensive than it was. When Beauregard pulled his forces out, he had his musicians stay behind and play regular calls for reveille, fatigue details, and mess formations, which tricked the enemy into believing his men were still in camp. Similarly, to deceive the Union’s George McClellan in the Peninsula Campaign of 1862, Confederate major general John Magruder ordered bands to play continually and in different areas to give the impression of a larger force.
As early as 1950, the U.S. Army began experimenting with sonic weapons, or “noise guns.” By the Vietnam War, Americans sought to weaken the resolve of the Vietnamese guerrillas by pumping high-decibel sound into the jungle via an oscillator. This was part of the Urban Funk Campaign, a psyops scheme to harass the enemy with sound.
Sonic weapons continue to draw interest today. Some use low-frequency, or “infrasound,” waves that can rattle organs and lead to disorientation, nausea, vomiting, or even death. One such weapon, “the Curdler,” was used in Vietnam and by British riot-control forces in Northern Ireland. Other new varieties of sonic weapons generate a beam of high-frequency sound waves that are painful to the ear but nonlethal. In 2005, a cruise ship used a so-called sound cannon to repel pirates with a series of ear-splitting bangs. Pittsburgh police used a similar device against protestors at a G-20 summit in 2009.
During the 2004 fighting for Fallujah in Iraq, American psyop troops fixed loudspeakers on Humvee gun turrets and blasted Guns N’ Roses, AC/DC, Eminem, and other heavy metal and punk day and night. “It’s not so much the music as the sound,” said an American military spokesman. “It’s like throwing a smoke bomb. The aim is to disorient and confuse the enemy to gain a tactical advantage.”
“Western music,” he added, “is not the Iraqis’ thing.”
Not to be outdone, the insurgents set up loudspeakers of their own and countered with prayers, chants, and Arabic music. The result was days of deafening noise and a sonic battle that Apocalypse Now’s Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore surely would have loved.
Originally published in the Winter 2012 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.