In a new film for Al-Jazeera, “Songs of War: Music as a Weapon,” the filmmaker Tristan Chytroschek follows “Sesame Street” composer Christopher Cerf on a journey to discover how his music came to be used as a weapon in the Bush administration’s “war on terror” — and also to investigate the history of music as torture.
As the production company, Java Films, explained:
[Christopher Cerf] always wanted his music to be fun and entertaining. But then he learned that his songs had been used to torture prisoners in Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib. He is stunned by this abuse of his work and wants to find out how this could happen. Cerf embarks on a journey to learn what makes music such a powerful stimulant. In the process, he speaks to soldiers, psychologists and prisoners tortured with his music at Guantánamo and find out how the military has been employing music as a potent weapon for hundreds of years.
The film is available on Al-Jazeera’s website here.
The story of how music by US military personnel was used to torture prisoners in the “war on terror” first emerged in Newsweek in May 2003, when, in a brief and slightly flippant article, Adam Piore noted, “Some US military units have taken to exposing uncooperative Iraqis to long doses of heavy-metal music or even popular children’s songs in an effort to convince them not to resist Coalition forces.” One soldier said, “Trust me, it works. In training, they forced me to listen to the Barney ‘I Love You’ song for 45 minutes. I never want to go through that again.”
Another soldier, Sgt. Mark Hadsell, said the intention was “to break down a subject’s resistance through sleep deprivation and annoyance with music that is as culturally offensive and terrifying as possible.” Mentioning “Bodies” by Drowning Pool (from the soundtrack of the 2002 film, “XXX”) and Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” he said, “These people haven’t heard heavy metal before. They can’t take it. If you play it for 24 hours, your brain and body functions start to slide, your train of thought slows down and your will is broken. That’s when we come in and talk to them.”
The BBC followed up on Newsweek‘s story, but the story then dropped out of sight, only reemerging in 2006, when Spin magazine’s David Peisner wrote an article entitled, “Music As Torture: War Is Loud,” in which he spoke to the former Guantánamo prisoner Shafiq Rasul (one of the “Tipton Three,” from the UK), and also ran through the recent history of music as torture, as used by US forces, the UK and Israel:
US psychological operations (PsyOp) units began experimenting with blasting music at enemies in Vietnam and infamously rocked a 1989 standoff with Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega … But it’s only been in the past few decades that music and other sounds began turning up during interrogations. The British blared white noise at Irish Republican Army suspects in the ’70s but swore off the practice after the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 1977 that it was “degrading and inhuman.” Israel’s military employed loud music until 1999, when an Israeli Supreme Court judged that this exposure “causes the suspect suffering. It does not fall within the scope of … a fair and effective interrogation.”
In searching for articles about music torture, I also stumbled across a fascinating article, “Sonic Torture at Dachau,” which provided another important — and chilling — precedent.
Peisner was unable to ascertain who had actually authorized the use of music as torture in the “war on terror” — and it remains unknown if anyone did actually authorize it, or if, as seems more likely, it arose out of decisions taken by interrogators, who had been freed from the strict limitations on interrogations in the Geneva Conventions. This change had taken place in a notorious memo issued by President Bush on February 7, 2002, in which the President decided that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to al-Qaeda or Taliban prisoners, who were to be held not as prisoners of war (or as criminals, if they had allegedly been involved in terrorism), but as “enemy combatants” without rights. Peisner also spoke to a former interrogator named Tom, who provided some fascinating insights into how the use of music as torture developed during the “war on terror”:
Tom makes an ethical distinction between blasting music for the purposes of interrogation and using it to disorient a recent capture. “If [the detainee] is accustomed to his surroundings and you force him to listen to Limp Bizkit, that’s clearly an interrogation tactic,” he says. “That would only be used in very rare situations, to annoy someone to the point where their only way out is you. To me, the only purpose of that is to drive somebody nuts, and that constitutes torture.
“When we use it at remote facilities, it’s to maintain what we call ‘the shock of capture,'” Tom continues. “The hardest cases to break are those guys that sit there and smugly smile because they know we’re not going to beat them up or rip their fingernails out. So we use music to keep them from knowing what time it is, from communicating with others or hearing sounds that would help orient them.”
For better or worse, these were distinctions Tom and others made on the fly. The agency had trained him in the use of white noise on prisoners. Switching to music was simply an innovation made on the ground.
Reisner’s excellent article was followed, in the March/April 2008 issue of Mother Jones by another excellent article, by Justine Sharrock, who later wrote a book entitled, Tortured: When Good Soldiers Do Bad Things. In her article, “Am I a Torturer?” Justine spoke at length to Ben Allbright, who had been required to torture prisoners — including by using music — at a prison in Iraq. Those rounded up as prisoners were initially held in containers, despite the blazing heat, and, as Justine explained:
Ben kept them blindfolded, their hands bound behind their backs with plastic zip ties, without food or sleep, for up to 48 hours at a time. He made them stand in awkward positions, so that they could not rest their heads against the wall. Sometimes he blared loud music, such as Ozzy or AC/DC, blew air horns, banged on the container, or shouted. “Whatever it took to make sure they’d stay awake,” he explains.
Ben was not a “bad apple,” and he didn’t make up these treatments. He was following standard operating procedure as ordered by military-intelligence officers. The MI guys didn’t make up the techniques either; they have a long international history as effective torture methods.
By June 2008, the Guardian had picked up on the story, via Clive Stafford Smith, the director of the legal action charity Reprieve, who wrote an article entitled, “Welcome to the ‘Disco.'” I was working for Reprieve at the time, and we were pushing the music torture issue via an initiative we called “Pull the Plug on Torture Music,” in which we encouraged artists to sign up to prevent the use of their music as part of the US military’s torture techniques, to insert a clause in their contracts preventing the misuse of their music, and, in general, to raise awareness of the issue by spreading the word and playing anti-torture gigs.
Initially, there was little interest from musicians, sadly. David Gray, whose song “Babylon,” was used, spoke out in July 2008, and his complaints were covered by the BBC (and on my website here). In December 2008, Reprieve relaunched the initiative as Zero dB, and I got a lot of attention for my article, “A History of Music Torture in the ‘War on Terror,’” in which I looked, in particular, at the case of Binyam Mohamed, the British resident whose extensive torture in Morocco, and in the “Dark Prison” in Afghanistan, included the use of music, and also at the case of Donald Vance, a US contractor imprisoned in Iraq after exposing illegal arms sales.
Vance, who has spent many years pursuing former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld through the US courts, explained that the music used on him, at Camp Cropper in Iraq, “was almost constant, mostly hard rock. There was a lot of Nine Inch Nails, including ‘March of the Pigs.’ I couldn’t tell you how many times I heard Queen’s ‘We Will Rock You.’” He added that the experience “sort of removes you from you. You can no longer formulate your own thoughts when you’re in an environment like that.”
Binyam Mohamed described his experiences in the CIA-run “Dark Prison” as follows:
It was pitch black, and no lights on in the rooms for most of the time … They hung me up for two days. My legs had swollen. My wrists and hands had gone numb … There was loud music, Slim Shady and Dr. Dre for 20 days. I heard this non-stop over and over, I memorized the music, all of it, when they changed the sounds to horrible ghost laughter and Halloween sounds. It got really spooky in this black hole … Interrogation was right from the start, and went on until the day I left there. The CIA worked on people, including me, day and night. Plenty lost their minds. I could hear people knocking their heads against the walls and the doors, screaming their heads off … Throughout my time I had all kinds of music, and irritating sounds, mentally disturbing. I call it brainwashing.
In October 2009, in an article entitled, “Musicians (Finally) Say No To Music Torture,” I was delighted to note that — eventually — groups and artists including Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and (who both were shocked to discover that their music was widely used for torture), as well as other artists including REM, Pearl Jam, Jackson Browne, Billy Bragg, Michelle Branch, T-Bone Burnett, David Byrne, Rosanne Cash, Marc Cohn, Steve Earle, the Entrance Band, Joe Henry, Bonnie Raitt, Rise Against and The Roots, “launched a formal protest against the use of music as torture.” As I also explained in my article:
In a statement, Tom Morello said, “Guantánamo is known around the world as one of the places where human beings have been tortured — from water boarding, to stripping, hooding and forcing detainees into humiliating sexual acts — playing music for 72 hours in a row at volumes just below that to shatter the eardrums. Guantánamo may be Dick Cheney’s idea of America, but it’s not mine. The fact that music I helped create was used as a tactic against humanity sickens me — we need to end torture and close Guantánamo now.”
REM added, “We signed onto the campaign in complete support of President Obama and the military leaders who have called for an end to torture and to close Guantánamo. As long as Guantánamo stays open, America’s legacy around the world will continue to be the torture that went on there. We have spent the past 30 years supporting causes related to peace and justice — to now learn that some of our friends’ music may have been used as part of the torture tactics without their consent or knowledge, is horrific. It’s anti-American, period.”
In a phone call, Rosanne Cash told the Washington Post, “I think every musician should be involved. It seems so obvious. Music should never be used as torture.” Cash said she reacted with “absolute disgust” when she heard about it, adding, “It’s beyond the pale. It’s hard to even think about.”
The protest was timed to coincide with a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the National Security Archive, an independent research institute in Washington D.C., which is seeking the declassification of all records related to the use of music in interrogation practices. It also coincided with a recent call by veterans and retired Army generals to shut Guantánamo, and TV and radio ads, which were launched this week by the National Campaign to Close Guantánamo, led by Tom Andrews, a former congressman from Maine.
Nevertheless, with the exception of Tom Morello (of Rage Against The Machine), whose music was used for torture, and who has been complaining about it since 2004, and Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails), whose music was also used, and who expressed his outrage last year when he first heard about it, few musicians have taken the issue on board before now.
Last July, when David Gray spoke out about his disgust that his music was used for torture, and the British-based legal charity Reprieve began campaigning about it, there was little interest. Christopher Cerf, who wrote the music for Sesame Street, (a music torture favorite) complained, but last December, when I wrote a detailed article about it, “A History of Music Torture in the ‘War on Terror,’” I surveyed a generally indifferent industry, in which some of those whose music had been used were indifferent (Bob Singleton, for example, who wrote the theme tune to Barney the Purple Dinosaur, another music torture favorite), others (Metallica) were ambivalent, and others (Drowning Pool, for example) were positively gleeful about it.
Unfortunately, nothing more was heard about this initiative, and the topic largely disappeared off the media’s radar again, with the exception of an article in Der Spiegel in January 2010, and it was not until March this year that it resurfaced on the BBC, in a 25-minute World Service broadcast.
Tristan Chytroschek’s film will help to keep this unresolved issue alive, which is very important even if most of the mainstream media behaved as though they had never been informed before that the music from “Sesame Street” was used to torture prisoners in the “war on terror.”
Asked to comment, Pentagon spokesman Capt. John Kirby said, as Politico put it, that “[m]usic has been used as a ‘disincentive’ in handling prisoners” at Guantánamo. He explained, “Music is used both in a positive way and as a disincentive,” but added that it was not a form of torture. “We don’t torture,” he said.
While I can only wonder if that use of the present tense was an oversight, or if Capt. Kirby was really insinuating that music is still used as a weapon, I will leave you with a list of some of the artists whose songs were used to torture prisoners, and, where identified, the songs that were used:
AC/DC (Hell’s Bells and Shoot to Thrill)
Captain & Tennille (Muskrat Love)
Christina Aguilera (Dirrty)
The Bee Gees (Stayin’ Alive)
Deicide (Fuck Your God)
Neil Diamond (America)
Dope (Die MF Die and Take Your Best Shot)
Drowning Pool (Bodies)
Eminem (The Real Slim Shady, White America and Kim)
David Gray (Babylon)
Hed PE (Swan Dive)
Barry Manilow (Mandy)
Matchbox Twenty (Cold)
Meat Loaf (Paradise by the Dashboard Light)
Metallica (Enter Sandman)
Don McLean (American Pie)
Nine Inch Nails (March of the Pigs, Mr. Self-Destruct and Somewhat Damaged)
Pearl Jam (Don’t Gimme No Lip)
Prince (Raspberry Beret)
Queen (We Are The Champions)
Rage Against the Machine (Killing In The Name and Bulls On Parade)
The Red Hot Chili Peppers
Saliva (Click Click Boom)
Tupac Shakur (All Eyez On Me)
Britney Spears (… Baby One More Time)
Bruce Springsteen (Born in the USA)
The Stanley Brothers
Twisted Sister (We’re Not Gonna Take It)
Plus, of course, “I Love You” from “Barney & Friends,” the theme song to “Sesame Street,” and the Meow Mix TV commercial.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in April 2012, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new “Close Guantánamo campaign,” and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
On Facebook, Zilma Nunes wrote:
good idea make a film and song about this subject…
Jesse Taylor wrote:
There is a really good book on these types of psychological torture techniques, that I am just finishing reading. It’s called “A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror” by Alfred McCoy … I’d highly recommend it.
Jesse Taylor wrote:
And on a side note, it might be a good idea for the local police department to do an investigation into why the Army torturer in the video, who gave Cerf a mock interrogation, has a dungeon in his house … guess once you start getting off at torturing people at Gitmo, it’s kind of hard not to bring it back home, ey?
Thanks, Zilma and Jesse and everyone who has liked and shared this. I think it’s taken a long time for a film to get made, and I hope it reawakens interest in the use of music as torture.
And Jesse, yes, great recommendation for Alfred McCoy’s book, and I also like your comment about the torturer’s dungeon. “Bringing torture home from Gitmo” might be the appropriate slogan …
Rod Such wrote:
The Pinochet dictatorship in Chile also used deafeningly loud music as torture after the U.S.-backed coup that overthrew the democratically elected president Salvador Allende. Did the Chileans invent it or learn it from their U.S. Advisers?
Thanks, Rod. Good to hear from you, and thanks also for the reminder about Pinochet. I imagine that, as when tracing the origins of the rest of the Bush’s torture program, we’ll end up back in the 1950s, with the CIA’s experiments into modern “no touch” torture. I found a good article here: http://www.sibetrans.com/trans/a152/music-as-torture-music-as-weapon
Zilma Nunes wrote:
Right, south american dictactorship were specialists in torture…
Jennah Solace wrote:
What really creeped me out about this is — they’ve turned such a beautiful thing – music – into a weapon! What a low down, miserable, heartless thing to do!!! Look how evil can destroy beauty and arrogance can destroy dignity.
Thanks, Zilma and Jennah. Very well put, Jennah. A truly depressing use of something that, at its best, isn’t supposed to be mundane, and certainly isn’t supposed to involve such cruelty.
Jennah Solace wrote:
Yes, and I used to love Sesame Street as a kid – it was one of my favorites! I even got excited at age 16 running into Louis from Sesame Street at the MET in New York! I can’t believe anyone would think to use such sweet songs to torture someone — that is beyond sick – that is depraved, insane, unconscionable! Did some sick f–ks at the CIA sit around some round table – discussing this? Or what?
Yes, Jennah, they certainly drew on long-established experiments with the use of music as torture, but the specific music used seems to have been something that was left to the discretion of the individual soldiers who were told to keep prisoners awake.
Writer, campaigner, investigative journalist and commentator. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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