Ideas

The Nerve, Pt 3: How music is used as a weapon in war

Music and war is the focus of this episode of The Nerve — a documentary series about why music exists and how it affects us. “The Pipe, the Drum and the Thunder Run” first aired on CBC Music in 2008 — during the Iraq War, and when Canada had troops in Afghanistan. 

'The Pipe, the Drum and the Thunder Run' first aired on CBC Music in 2008 — during the Iraq War

Scottish born Specialist Scott of Charlie Company 5/2 from the U.S. Army plays the bagpipes at dusk at Forward Operating Base Apache in Afghanistan's Zabul Province, 2012. (Tim Wimborne /Reuters)
Listen to the full episode53:58

Usually, we think of music as art, diversion, or entertainment: something that makes us feel happy, and brings people together.

But for millennia, music has been co-opted as a tool — and even as a weapon — to drive people apart during times of war.

If you think of "wartime music," a wide range of styles comes to mind, from the obvious tattoo of war chants and military marches to the sentimental Second World War songs of Vera Lynn, and the fierce protest music of the Vietnam era, such as Creedence Clearwater Revival's Fortunate Son.

But the "music of war" is something different. Sound has been used as an actual weapon of conflict. Music has been used to spur on fighters, antagonize the enemy, and propagandize the public.

Military music "stirs the blood," and in order to achieve this, some instruments, some compositions, some sounds are more favoured than others.

"The drums of war are sounding." The Israelites used trumpets to bring down the walls of Jericho. Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam helicopters played Ride of the Valkyries in Apocalypse Now —a technique that was later adopted by the U.S. military in Iraq. The Scots went to war with bagpipes.  And every army has a band.  

Sometimes the music itself can be used as a weapon: as in 1989, when the U.S. Army used a carefully-chosen playlist to drive Manuel Noriega out of his bunker.  Or it can be an instrument of torture, as in Guantanamo where according to media reports, the U.S. Army has used loud heavy metal music repetitively to "forcibly interrogate" its prisoners.

Music and war is the focus of this episode of The Nerve — a documentary series about why music exists and how it affects us. The Pipe, the Drum and the Thunder Run first aired on CBC Music in 2008 — during the Iraq War, and when Canada had troops in Afghanistan. 


The Nerve is produced by Paolo Pietropaolo, Chris Brookes, and host Jowi Taylor. Feel free to contact the team with feedback or questions you may have at thenerve@cbc.ca.

**Note: this series is not available for download and is available for listening in Canada only due to music copyright restrictions. 

Guests featured in this episode: 

  • Ian Ferguson is a Chief Warrant Officer and Pipe Major in the Canadian Forces.
  • Dan Kuehl (1949-2014) was an expert in information warfare and psy-ops and a former professor of Intelligence Operations at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C.
  • CJ Grisham is a retired First Sergeant in the U.S. Army.
  • Rainer Lotz is a historian and one of the authors of German National Discography.
  • Suzanne Cusick is a musicologist and the author of Music as Torture/Music as Weapon.
     

Also appearing in this episode:

  • Daniel Levitin
  • Laura-Lee Balkwill
  • Simon O'Dwyer
  • Sheila Rainger
     

Episode 3 features music from these artists and composers:

  • Richard Wagner 
  • The Leningrad Military District Headquarters Band 
  • Miles Davis and Gil Evans 
  • Gustav Holst
  • AC/DC 
  • Toby Keith 
  • Lale Andersen 
  • Charlie and His Orchestra 
  • U2
  • Nick Brown and J.R. Schultz 
  • Metallica 
  • DMX 
  • Jessica Simpson 
  • Nirvana 
  • The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards

 

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