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The Sound of Violence: Music as a military weapon

By George Pelletier | Mar 15, 2019

In military jargon, “heavy metal” has usually referred to armored tanks and loaded Uzis. But over the years, in critical standoffs, the authorities have discovered the power of a screaming guitar solo. Music is often – and historically – used as an essential component of psychological warfare.

Most recently, on the hit CBS reboot of “MacGyver,” the eponymous hero and another character got a full-blown earful of the grindcore band, Pig Destroyer’s song, “The Bug,” during a torture scene.

So like angst-ridden teenagers cranking up the heavy meatal to bug their disapproving parents, law enforcement officials have dropped the needle, hoping to encourage surrender with a public address system and whatever songs will annoy their adversary. Ironically, Cheap Trick’s “Surrender,” is not one of those songs.

Also, military DJs presumably rarely take requests.

One of the most famous instances of musical weaponry being deployed occurred during the American occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan in the 2000s. Looping certain songs at absurdly high volumes, the U.S.Army would blast tracks until those under siege would eventually cave and surrender, a la “Apocalypse Now,” where in the film, helicopters blasted Wagner’s, “Ride of the Valkyries,” into the Vietnamese landscape. Reportedly, death metal band Deicide’s music, song titles unprintable here in a family newspaper, was played most often, but tracks like Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long,” Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” and Alice Cooper’s “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” were also on the playlist.

During the invasion plot to capture and/or assassinate Osama Bin Laden, Metallica’s Hetfield was vocal about his disapproval of the government’s use of his songs as psychological warfare.

In an Esquire magazine story featuring the anonymous shooter in the Bin Laden mission, the Navy Seal is quoted as saying, “Metallica got wind of this and said, ‘Please don’t use our music, because we don’t want to promote violence.'”

In another ironic twist, Metallica has an album titled, “Kill ‘Em All.”

During the Seal Team 6 invasion, another metal outfit, called Demon Hunter, expressed that they would like their music used, saying, “We’re all about promoting what you do.”

In cases like this, it’s not just metal bands that are used. Children’s television series “Sesame Street” and “Barney & Friends” theme songs are used frequently. Jon Roncon, author of the book, “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” wrote that he has seen people subjected to the likes of the “Barney & Friends” theme, “screaming so hard it looks as if it’s laughing.”

Somalian pirates are a major threat to naval officers at sea. The Coast Guard’s weapon of choice? Britney Spears’ “Oops, I did It Again,” and “Baby Hit Me One More Time.” One insider said the music is so effective, ship security rarely needs to fire guns.

In 1993, it was police forces and the DEA that used music to achieve some margin of victory during the 51-day siege with David Koresh, the self-proclaimed, “Lamb of God,” and his cult of Branch Davidian members cornered in a compound. Records used included Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin,'” Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Achy Breaky Heart” and miscellaneous songs by Andy Williams, Mitch Miller & The Sing Along Gang and Tibetan chants. Consider this lyrical ammo from Williams’ “Moon River:” “We’re after the same rainbow’s end/waiting ’round the bend/My Huckleberry friend.” Eighty-six Branch Davidians perished in a blaze on April 19, 1993.

On Christmas Day in 1989, U.S. psych-op units tried to force Panama’s dictator Manuel Noriega (a.k.a. Pineapple Face), out of his sanctuary in Panama’s Vatican Embassy using similar tactics. Tracks included Glenn Frey’s “Smuggler’s Blues,” Martha and the Vandellas “Nowhere to Run,” Linda Rondstadt’s “You’re No Good,” Bobby Fuller’s “I Fought the Law,” The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile.” Guns ‘n Roses and Bruce Springsteen tracks also were used. And their secret weapon? Rick Asley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up.” Lyrical ammo from Frey: “It’s propping up the governments of Columbia and Peru/Ask any DEA man, he’ll say there’s nothing’ we can do.”

The stand-off lasted 10 days; Noriega receive 40 years in prison for drug trafficking and racketeering. He died in 2017.

Finally, the most notorious and disturbing (to some) use of music as a weapon has occurred in Guantanamo Bay, Camp Cropper and Abu Ghraib prison. If sleep deprivation and water boarding weren’t enough to throw a person over the edge, Guantanamo exercised a vicious “sonic torture,” with music by Skinny Puppy, Christina Aguilera, Dr. Dre, The Bee Gees, Meatloaf, Marilyn Manson and a bevy of metal songs.

If you thought your college roommate drove you crazy, think again.


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