David Gray has lambasted American interrogators for allegedly using his
music to help extract information from internees in Iraq. Why might his
music be chosen and what effect on prisoners is music meant to achieve?
This is not the first we've heard of familiar recordings being used in
the "war on terror" - in 2003, Rick Hoffman, a veteran of US psy-ops -
"psychological operations" - talked to the BBC about the use of tunes
from Sesame Street and Barney The Dinosaur to break the will of Iraqi
And recent reports have added Eminem, the Bee Gees and Neil Diamond to
the roster reluctantly referred to by David Gray as "Guantanamo Greatest
Hits". But what is it that makes one song more likely than another to be
played on a maximum volume loop at terrorist suspects?
From Jericho to Waco
Music has long been used by armed forces, from the trumpets that brought
down the walls of Jericho in the Book Of Joshua through the fifes and
drums of Renaissance battlefields. Its role in interrogations is more
In his book on experimental intelligence practices, The Men Who Stare At
Goats, journalist Jon Ronson traces the technique's origins to a 1970s
military manual recommending loudspeakers playing "indigenous music and
words of peace" as a means of demotivating America's enemies - a
strategy which has since left behind its New Age roots for today's sonic
The most high-profile examples include 1989's Operation Just Cause when
American troops surrounded the Panama papal nunciature and tried to
encourage General Noriega to surrender by blasting music - including,
according to the Times, Rick Astley - and the 1993 armed siege at David
Koresh's compound near Waco, where the sped-up and distorted music
included Tibetan chants until the FBI received a letter of complaint
from the Dalai Lama.
More recently, American involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq has seen
former detainees describing music being used at closer quarters as an
By its very nature, the choice of music played during interrogations is
much more patchily documented. New York journalist Justine Sharrock has
interviewed returning US soldiers about their everyday experiences.
These accounts go against any assumption that the songs are chosen by
military top brass - the impression is one of individual recruits
choosing music from their own collections to play to detainees according
to a schedule of "environmental manipulation". This last, also described
as "environment down", "no touch torture" and "torture lite", describes
attempts to manipulate suspects without physical contact as it is
This fits with the apparent inconsistencies and incongruities, with much
of the hip-hop and metal reflecting the cultural background of young
Americans and patriotic tunes like Neil Diamond's America being
unsurprising favourites among soldiers. Others, like Christina Aguilera,
are in line with psy-ops' alleged concept of material that will be
"culturally offensive" to pious detainees. Some, like the Bee Gees'
Stayin' Alive reflect, Sharrock believes, a kind of black humour, and
the apparently anodyne numbers like Barney The Dinosaur singing I Love
You and the Miaow Mix advert theme are chosen as "futility music" -
noise which will rapidly become unbearable when looped.
MUSIC ALLEGEDLY USED
White America - Eminem
Barney The Dinosaur theme
Enter Sandman - Metallica
Meow Mix advert theme
Sesame Street theme
Babylon - David Gray
Stayin' Alive- The Bee Gees
American Pie - Don McLean
Dirrty - Christina Aguilera feat. Redman
Source: Mother Jones magazine
Bob Ayers, security expert at Chatham House, says the aim of these
techniques is to "destabilise and disorient the suspect in a way that
doesn't physically harm the organism. It's not like hearing a Bach
symphony, where you can flow along with the music. The idea is to have
no variation: the same sounds over and over again."
Dr Michael Peel of the Medical Foundation for Victims of Torture adds:
"Music is used to make the detainee aware that he has no control over
what's going on in any of his senses. Deprivation of normal sensory
stimulation and lack of control over one's environment is a
disempowerment that eventually dehumanises people."
Unusual - and cruel?
In this sense, the choice of any individual track quickly becomes
irrelevant: the desired effect is achieved through volume and repetition
and the normal connotations - from lyrics or cultural associations -
mean very little.
In the case of David Gray, detainee Haj Ali told the Daily Mirror in
2005 that it was not a whole song that he was played, but just the title
phrase: "Babylon... Babylon... Babylon... over and over again. It was so
loud I thought my head would burst. It went on for a day and a night."
And a Council Of Europe report on Afghanistan revealed that the music,
by this stage just noise in itself, is mixed with other sounds including
"thunder, planes taking off, cackling laughter and horror sounds that
amounted to a 'perpetual nightmare'."
Sleep deprivation victims
Those who are examining these practices, then, are not concerned with
any individual song - or with the use of music in itself. Bodies like
the Red Cross attempt to scrutinise individual cases to see whether
noise - in conjunction with other techniques - is causing sleep
deprivation or other forms of mental cruelty. The treatment may well be
unusual, but the question of whether it's cruel remains a vexed one.
'This is not about music'
The debate continues over where the techniques cross a line from making
a subject more likely to talk, to forms of abuse which are or could be
prohibited under international conventions.
"It's important to appreciate that this is not about 'music' in any
normal sense," says Amnesty International's Sara MacNeice, "but more
like an aural assault on a person designed to intimidate, disorientate
and eventually break down a prisoner. Whether it's the use of loud
music, extremes of heat or light, painful 'stress' positions or
simulations of drowning, these techniques are cruel and inhuman and
strictly forbidden under international law."
Ann Curry: US forces in Iraq are using what some are calling a cruel and
unusual tool to break the resistance of Iraqi POWs, and trust me, a lot
of parents would agree. Some prisoners are being forced to listen to
Barney, the purple dinosaur, sing the "I love you" song for 24 straight
hours... Four minutes past the hour. Katie, sing it with me.
Katie Couric: I'd rather go through water torture, actually, than listen
NBC News' Today, 19 May 2003
One perhaps odd effect of stories about well-known tunes being played in
Guantanamo, Afghanistan and Iraq is that this debate is at times given a
trivial spin. As technology and new thinking create new military
practices, the conventions of warfare evolve with them.
And so when a familiar ditty is reported as used in this context, it
becomes something that can prompt both a light-hearted news item (see
quotebox, above), and genuine questions about contraventions of