Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Music: Torture tunes.

The Wall Street Journal has a short article on some of the songs and musicians that the U.S. military has used to "enhance" their interrogations in Afghanistan and Iraq. The number one tune on the WSJ's short list is disheartening.

1. Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA"
It should stand as no surprise that a large majority of the songs used in Guantanamo Bay consisted of seemingly patriotic ditties like Springsteen's most famous American anthem. One Spanish citizen accused of being linked to the terrorist network Al-Qaida claimed his interrogators played this song the majority of the time during his entire two year stay in the Cuban prison. However, Clive Stafford Smith, the legal director of the UK human rights charity Reprieve, noted that it may not have been the most patriotic choice since "the message of the song is harshly critical of American policy, condemning the war in Vietnam and describing a veteran's effort to find work."

Is there any modern pop song with a weirder political life than the Boss's anti-heroic, bitterly pointed tune? When Springsteen originally conceived the tune, it was low-fi, minimalist number that could have easily found it way on Nebraska or Darkness on the Edge of Town. Eventually, Springsteen decided to go for a cognitively dissonant epic feel that would, at once, be both an ironic take on bombastic American triumphalism and a sonic statement that elevated the size of the story to the point it could not be ignored.

At least, he thought it couldn't. The protest tune quickly became a hit and then, with greater irony than Springsteen could conceive, it became the campaign theme song for Ronald Reagan. Springsteen demanded the Reagan campaign stop using his tune, but the damage was done. It's virtually impossible not to hear this clear non-celebratory song and not catch a disagreeable whiff of (thoroughly undeserved) Reagan Era jingoism.

Though even that doesn't beat the irony of the fact that a song about a forgotten veteran of the archetypal American military quagmire has been refashioned for use as a weapon in our latest foreign adventures.

I wonder if the soldiers blasting this music at prisoners ever listen to the lyrics and ponder how they'll be treated when they come back home. Like the vet in the song, they'll be returning from a massively unpopular conflict into an economy that most likely can't reabsorb them. It must be odd, doing this nation's dirtiest work, all to a soundtrack that serves to remind them of how disposable they are.

The article doesn't discuss the efficacy of blasting loud noise at prisoners, but a discussion of prolonged and repetitious exposure to loud noise appears in John Conroy's Ordinary People, Unspeakable Acts: The Dynamics of Torture. In 1971, twelve Irish prisoners were rounded up by the British government as part of an anti-terrorism push called Operation Demetrius. The prisoners formed the test case for the application of the Five Techniques: a torture regimen devised by the British and Irish governments that included wall-standing (rigid standing positions that prisoners kept until their muscles gave out), hooding, subjection to noise, deprivation of sleep, deprivation of food and drink. The combined affect of these techniques is horrific and potentially deadly. Notably, one of the prisoners interviewed stated that, of all the things that were done to him, he could only remember one of techniques clearly: Years, later he still vividly recalled the noises he was exposed to.


jm_kaye said...

Not too surprising, considering this was the same audience that thought "Every Breath You Take" was a LOVE SONG. Sting could have warned Bruce about the dangers of overestimating the American public.

CRwM said...

How many prom couples do you think danced to that stalker anthem?

zoe said...

wow--i had always thought that the whole episode with reagan's campaign was so famous, no one would ever make that mistake again. but i guess that group is pretty fanatical about repeating their mistakes in general...

in the spanish civil war, they also used surrealist art to try and unhinge their captives :)..wouldn't it be fascinating if instead of making them panic, it opened their perspective (with the enhanced suggestibility caused by other torture techniques) so much they could disappear themselves from the cell? wouldn't that be cool??

the same could go for music, really. from what i've read, rhythm is a huge help for self-hypnosis, etc--so, if instead of being terrorized by the loud sound, you allowed yourself to be swayed by it, attached it to your own thought processes or prayers or something, let it completely overwhelm you, who knows? maybe you'd end up being "ridden" by a voodoo loa, and you could take your captors out?

Paul said...

Check out Alan Clarke's 1981 BBC Play for Today, Psy-Warriors, for a dramatisation of the kind of thing British Intelligence was doing to suspects in their Northern Irish jails. The film ( is almost impossible to track down, but might be one of the most powerful denunciations of modern hi-tech torture ever made, and should be ripe for a Guantanamo-era remake.

Antaeus Feldspar said...

"Not too surprising, considering this was the same audience that thought "Every Breath You Take" was a LOVE SONG."

You know, I used to think the same way about that song, and then at some point I realized, "Hey, wait - nearly every song which we wouldn't dream of describing as anything but a love song is full of hyperbole. People sing about how love will last forever, how their feeling of love is greater than any other love anyone else in human history ever felt, how it would be such a tragedy if that love went away that the stars themselves would fall from the sky - no wonder people think Every Breath is a love song! It reads like one!"

People hear 'every breath you take, I'll be watching you' and they don't read it as a literal threat of stalking, they read it as 'even the smallest things you do have my attention captured.' They've been accultured, when they hear grandiose or extreme declarations in love songs, to simply interpret them as signifiers of the sincerity or fervor with which the singer means what he/she says. It's not surprising that they would fail to realize that this time around, they really were meant to indicate obsessional behavior.