Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 6#4 Lex Wouterloot 1 Jan 1992

Silent Killing

With the progress in fire control, the war machine is becoming ever noisier. Lex Wouterloot put his ear to the ground.


Silent Killing -

Not that it was ever really silent on and around the battlefield. Traditionally, the combatants sang, chanted and danced to easy-on-the-ear, repetitive music, to arouse the fighting spirit: hallucinating sounds which accompanied the march into the field of honour or added the indispensable lustre to the recruitment of infantry.

Until the gunpowder revolution locked European civilisation into new shackles of murderous dependence, the battlefields had only reverberated to the clang of metal striking metal. This rustic sound of killing settled into English idiom as the clash of arms. Nowadays, the military bands are still playing and orders are still being shouted, but these are the remnants of a vocal battle culture, persisting in the periphery of technological warfare.

Since the introduction of explosives for warfare purposes, the field of honour has gradually become an inferno of noise. The media landscape of Waterloo was dominated by the artillery. Muzzles of fire-arms spat out a thick cloud of smoke over the meadows and hid the enemy units; as near as they were from view. And the bombardments caused an terrible racket. Murray, a matter-of-fact cavalry man, described it simply as deafening; Gibney, assistant surgeon to the 15th Hussars, said that the noise was so loud and continuous ... that you could hardly hear what was said by the person next to you (he was speaking particularly of the opening cannonade); Mercer, at the end of the day, was almost deaf and we may take him quite literally.

During World War I, the blast of the grenades and the size of the armies was such that the thunder from the Western front could even be heard in England. ''They could literally hear the war, at least if they lived in Surrey, Sussex or Kent, where the artillery was not only audible but, with the wind in the right direction, quite plainly audible. When the mines went off at Messines, not merely was the blast heard in Kent: the light flashes were visible too. The guns were heard especially during preparation for a major assault, when they would fire unremittingly for a week or ten days, day and night. Thus, Edmund Blunden recalls that in late June, 1916, as the artillery strove to cut the German wire for the Somme attack, in Southdown villages the schoolchildren sat wondering at that incessant drumming and rattling of the windows.

For the soldiers in the trenches, the racket of the explosions was one of the most horrifying aspects of the war experience. Hardly a day or night went by without disruption from an infernal booming. Even poets were at a loss for words to communicate this sensation. In his novel Im Westen nichts neues (All quiet on the Western front), Remarque tried to put the cacophony into words. The thundering of the artillery grows into one dull roar and then disperses into the noise of battery shells hitting home. The dry bursts of the machine guns rattle over us; the air is filled with invisible outbursts, howling, whistling and hissing. These are lighter projectiles; but in between there is also the rumbling of the heavy coal-scuttles churning out their massive lumps into the night, landing far behind us. Their voice is booming, hoarse, distant, as that of a rutting deer; they follow their course high above the howling and whistling of the smaller shells.''

On the English side there is another attempt to describe the auditive violence caused by the various projectiles. Charles Carrington wrote: ''Every gun and every kind of projectile had its own personality... Sometimes a field-gun would leap jubilantly with the job of a Champagne cork from its muzzle, fly over with a steady buzzing crescendo, and burst with a fully expected bang; sometimes a shell would be released from a distant battery of heavies to roll across a huge arc of sky, gathering speed and noise like an approaching express train, ponderous and certain... Some shells whistled, others shrieked, others wobbled through space gurgling like water poured from a decanter.

Powerless in this chemical concert, the screams of victims joined in; the wailing of dying soldiers, the groaning of the badly wounded; the screams of the conscripts driven mad by fear. And because at the beginning of the century the armies were not yet fully mechanised: the grunts of the wounded and burned beasts of burden. Remarque: Never before had I heard a horse groan, and I can hardly believe it. It is the wail of the world, it is the tortured creature, a wild, gruesome agony which is groaning there. Our faces are pale. Detering straightens himself. Brutes, fiends! For Gods sake, shoot the poor animals! We sit down, our hands over our ears. But this terrible rattling, groaning and wailing gets through, it penetrates everything. We can all stand some rough handling, but this makes us break out in a sweat. You would like to get up and run away, no matter where, just to get away from that groaning. And they are not even people, they are only horses. They must be in a panic. Horses usually die in silence.

The nuclear weapon was heralded as a revolutionary weapon. Convinced of its military and strategic potential, the armed forces have been working on its perfection for nearly 50 years now. First there was the clean bomb, later came the neutron shell, which apparently only derives it destructive effect from the intensive radiation it would spread. It is seldom mentioned that the explosion of an atom bomb also causes noise, an unimaginable thunder. Dutch prisoner of war René Schäfer was one of the witnesses at the dropping of the atom bomb on Nagasaki. At the same moment that Wim entered the kitchen, a Japanese guard, who had come with us and was standing behind me, shouted: Hikoki! Hikoki! It gave me a fright and when I heard the aircraft engines, I instinctively let myself roll into the ditch. As I was lying flat on my stomach, there was suddenly a bright glare flashing above me. I felt the heat of the flash skimming across my back, never touching me because I pushed myself forcefully against the bottom of the ditch. Then there was a clap of thunder which seemed to rumble on ten times as heavily in the ground. It went pitch dark in the ditch and I heard someone scream: ''I am blind! I am blind!

Specific Sound Weapons

The inconceivable impact of war is partly the effect of the extreme extent to which a sense organ such as the ear is stimulated. Infernal noise and absolute silence. During his active military life, a now retired Vietnamese general witnessed several b-52 bombings on the Ho Chi Minh route. ''When we heard the bombers, we would often start to sing. In this way we tried to sing away the sound of the bombers and the explosions. Some of us would start ranting and raving at the top of their voices at the American pilots. The worst moments were those after the first bombardment. Every one would go completely silent, because from experience we knew that, usually rather soon after the first, a second, even more terrible raid would follow. And of course, you had no way of knowing whether you would survive the second one too. After such bombings, not only the people were silent, but nature fell still as well. Birds did not move anymore. Even the wind seemed to have been swept away. A terrifying, almost stifling silence had us in its grip.

''From experience gained at the front, the arms industry has applied itself to the development of specific sound weapons. American research during World War ii had proved, for example, that soldiers experienced auditive violence as equally terrifying as the accuracy and rate of fire of the weapons they were faced with. The knowledge that the racket produced by a weapon is not lethal cannot take away the frightening effect of it. Noise production is therefore typically an element of psychological warfare. The Germans made use of this insight in the design of their Stukas. The wings of these dive bombers were equipped with sirens, which were activated at the beginning of a nose dive towards a target. The sirens produced an obnoxious howling, due to which the psychological effect of an attack became many times greater than the destructive effect of the modest bomb load they were carrying. A recent study shows that these Stukas were the most feared weapons. Moreover, if we take into account that most shells fired miss their target and only produce a roar, then, from an audio-perspective, artillery functions mainly as a psychological weapon.

The sound weapon is so effective because it does not produce its effect through the ear alone. Loud sounds are not only heard through the auditory duct, but also the skull itself functions as a resonance body and in turn transfers the air vibrations to the eardrum. Even higher sound levels and specific frequencies turn the body, with all its membranes around and between the organs, into a sound box. The somatic effect of sound is now also being used in pop music. In this context, Throbbing Gristle observes: If we look into the effects of low-level infra-sound, we find that 7 hz is an unpleasant experience, which leads to nausea and vomiting, that 9 hz can cause epileptic fits and 12 hz spontaneous intestinal movements, that 39-40 causes the pleasant buzz we feel tingling through the body when we listen to good music. With very low levels and long periods of exposure, 3 hz leads to depression, resentment and irritation. The experiment of the French professor Vladimir Gavreau, which was meant to prove that very low, inaudible tones, produced by a super whistle driven by a jet engine, could destroy human organs by vibration, is an operationalistic product of this scientific insight.

Neither the purely psychological, nor the purely somatic sound weapons will be able to replace the explosive in the near future. The explosive itself is a perfect multi-destructive weapon. The modern shields, such as armoured cars, bunkers and aircraft carriers, which are supposed to protect the mechanised warriors, enhance the terrorising effect of the noise caused by an explosion. The disorientation increases even more when the soldiers cannot identify the source of the noise. Richard Holmes: The garrison of the French Forts at Verdun in 1916 were safer from shellfire than their comrades who endured the bombardments lying out in the shell holes above ground, but the sheer din of shells smashing into the forts it was, said one survivor, like being in an immense drum'' and the agony of waiting for the arrival of the next shell drove men stark mad.

''Several Falklands veterans remarked on the fact that the worst place to be during an air attack on the fleet was below-decks. Not only was the noise amplified, but there was no way of knowing what threat it portended. It was infinitely preferable – albeit actually more dangerous – to be up-deck, watching the Skyhawks as they ran the gauntlet of gun and missile fire. Because of this it is not to be expected that in the near future the battlefield will become silent. The trans-auditive era of the silent killing has not yet dawned.

translation olivier/wylie