Sounds of War

In my post on War and Distance, I referred to a BBC radio broadcast of a Bomber Command raid on Berlin on the night of 3/4 September 1943. There had been previous British broadcasts of bombing raids, notably by Richard Dimbleby who flew on twenty-odd missions with the RAF, but his commentaries were all recorded after the event.  This one was different.  Reporter Wynford Vaughan-Thomas and his sound engineer Reg Pidsley made their recording during a flight in a Lancaster bomber, “F for Freddie”, part of a force of over 300 Lancasters that attacked Berlin that night.  Their live recording was edited for transmission a couple of nights later.  You can listen to an extract here, and there is a lively discussion about whether the recording was fake or not (it evidently wasn’t), together with more details of the recording and the raid, here.

This episode is of interest for reasons that spiral beyond my original post.  Much of the discussion of the histories/geographies bombing – my own included – focuses on the visual, and there are good reasons for this.  During the combined bomber offensive against Germany, as I try to show in ‘Doors into nowhere’ [see DOWNLOADS], what today would be called the kill-chain was choreographed through a sequence of air photographs, maps, charts and visual displays.  In 1941 Harry Watt produced an extraordinary drama-documentary, Target for Tonight, for the Crown Film Unit and the Ministry of Information that tracked this visual sequence in vivid detail.  The film used RAF personnel (not actors); it was shot at RAF Mildenhall and on special sound stages at Elstree and Denham, where Bomber Command’s Operations Room at High Wycombe was recreated (with twice the number of available squadrons listed on the walls); and it followed the fortunes of  a Wellington bomber – also “F for Freddie” – on a strike against a “military-industrial target”, an oil refinery at Freihausen.

The film was a huge success.  Writing in the Spectator Graham Greene marvelled at the way in which ordinary men and women carried out ‘their difficult and dangerous job in daily routine like shop or office workers.. What we see is no more than a technical exercise…’  The New York Times reviewer said much the same; the film ‘shows the manner in which the Bomber Command lays out its operations, how instructions are transmitted to the squadrons which are to participate, how the plan of attack is “briefed” by the men of one particular squadron and then how the crew of one powerful Wellington conducts its appointed task….The true, thrilling quality of it lies in the remarkable human detail which Mr Watt has worked into it — the quiet, efficient way in which each man goes about his job.’   You can watch it here (and marvel at the cut-glass English accents: “Bad luck, Catford!”; how did the language change so much between then and now?)

[There is a much longer discussion in K.R.M. Short’s account of the film in the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 17:2 (1997) 181-218 (which includes the script) and, again, I discuss its visual thematics in “Doors into nowhere”].

In the Second World War air raids were often described in cinematic terms, by observers in the air and on the ground.  As Lara Feigel notes, ‘accounts of the Blitz in both Britain and Germany frequently figure the bombs as photographic and cinematic.’  Partly, she says, this is a matter of lighting – and given the growing importance of incendiaries in the bomb mix, and the emphasis on bombing by night, you can see why – but she thinks there is also a deeper reason. ‘In seeing the war as a photograph,’ she suggests, writers were ‘detaching themselves from the world around them.’  The sense of detachment, if she is right, is not only one possible effect of the visual (or of a particular visuality); bombing was abstracted from the horror it brought to bodies through its bureaucratization – Greene’s ‘technical exercise’; the locus classicus for this discussion is still Henry Nash’s ‘The bureaucratization of homicide’ in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 36: 4 (1980), describing his experience in the USAAF’s Air Targets Division in the 1950s and 60s – as well as specific forms of its visualization, and the two often operated together (as in the kill-chain, in fact).

The emphasis on the visual and, in particular, the cinematic recurs again and again – most generally in Paul Virilio‘s War and cinema: the logistics of perception (which was originally published in 1984 and is surely long overdue for critique).  Virilio draws attention to the elective affinity between flying and filming and, in relation to the combined bomber offensive in particular, describes how

‘The Allied air assault on the great European conurbations suddenly became a son-et-lumiere, a series of special effects, an atmospheric projection designed to confuse a frightened, blacked-out population.  In dark rooms that fully accorded with the scale of the drama, victims-to-be witnessed the most terrifying night-time fairy theatre, hellish displays of an invading cinema that reproduced the Nuremberg architecture of light.’

I think the emphasis on the visualities of military violence is extremely important, though I also think we need to disentangle different modes and effects, and James Der Derian’s discussion of the military-industrial-media-entertainment complex (MIME-NET) suggests that, in the decades after the Second World War, the cinematic entered even more fully into the conduct of warfare [for a discussion between Virilio and Der Derian, see here].

But what of other registers?  Specifically, what of the son that accompanied, and on occasion substituted for the lumière?  In the 1940s British cinemas showed endless black-and-white newsreels of RAF (and USAAF) bombing raids, with rousing commentaries and jaunty music; but try this rare colour version, with a contemporary soundtrack provided by Italian musician and historian Vincent Romano, and pay particular attention to the effect of the new score, especially from  2.20 on.

My point here is not about politics or aesthetics, particularly, but, first, to note that – in contrast to that recurrent emphasis on the visual — for many civilians, at least, the experience of an air raid was a matter of sound: the wail of the air-raid sirens, the crump-crump of the anti-aircraft guns, the boom of the explosion, the crash of glass shattering and buildings collapsing, the whistles and bells of the fire and ambulance services.  ‘Especially in darkness, and during bombings,’ Patrick Deer  in argues in his brilliant Culture in camouflage, ‘the sounds of war took on extraordinary power.’

Pete Adey gets this exactly right, I think, when he writes:

‘For geographer Kenneth Hewitt, sound “told of the coming raiders, the nearness of bombs, the plight of loved ones”. The enormous social survey of Mass Observation concluded that “fear seems to be linked above all with noise.” As one report found, “It is the siren or the whistle or the explosion or the drone – these are the things that terrify. Fear seems to come to us most of all through our sense of hearing.” Yet the power of the siren came not only from its capacity to propagate sound and to alert, but the warning held in its voice of ‘keeping silent’. “Prefacing in a dire prolepsis the post-apocalyptic event before the event”, as Bishop and Phillips put it, the stillness of silence was incredibly virtual in its affects, disclosing – in its lack of life – the lives that would be later taken.’

This isn’t a purely historical affair, of course, and in an interesting post on what he calls ‘warsound’ Geoff Manaugh mixes Dexter Filkins’ brilliant account of the visuals of The forever war with an arresting litany of its sounds:

‘The night sky echoed with pops and pings, the invisible sounds of frantic action.  Most were being made by the AC-130 gunships, whose propellers were putting out a reassuring hum. But over the droning came stranger sounds: the plane’s Gatling gun let out long, deep burps at volumes that were symphonic. Its 105mm cannon made a popping sound, the same as you would hear from a machine that served tennis balls. A pop! followed by a boom! Pop-boom. And then there was the insect buzz of the ScanEagle, the pilotless airplane that hovered above us and beamed images back to base. It was as if we were witnessing the violent struggles of an entire ecosystem, a clash of airborne nocturnal beasts we could not see.’

Those who live in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan know of other terrors, by day and night.  Here is Rasul Mana, who lives in Waziristan:

‘When the drone is 5 km away the sound is very different. It sounds like a missile. As they come closer, it turned into a repetitive humming. Bangana is the word we use for drones. It means bee in Pashtu. I first heard that term in 2005, and the killer bees have been all over us ever since. The kids know what the voice of the drone now. Every day we hear the voice of the drones at least six or seven times.  We listen for the voice 24 hours a day. We are afraid at night as we lie in our beds. The drones are going around and around over our heads. There may be four or five at any given time. They are normally very high, but sometimes they come down if there is a dust storm or it is cloudy.  They also tend to come down lower to attack, which is when you get very scared. When the missile is launched it makes a loud noise – zzhhooo – as it drops onto its target…’

Mana talks of the voice of the drones, but there are other voices in war too.  And so, thinking of Vaughan-Thomas and Pidsley, and the audience gathered around their radio each night (not only in Britain), I also want to remind myself how important it is not to gloss over radio as temporary static in the inexorable mobilization of an insistently visual economy – from photographs through film to television and video – since, as Patrick Deer also writes, in the Second World War  ‘radio shaped the sensory landscape of wartime like no other medium’.   And that matters because a soundscape elicits a profoundly imaginative response on the part of its auditors (which is why Romano’s new soundtrack is so immensely powerful)…

These thoughts have been prompted by a series of conversations with one of our graduate students, Max Ritts, who has also pointed me in the direction of Steve Goodman’s Sonic warfare: sound, affect and the ecology of fear (MIT, 2010)

4 thoughts on “Sounds of War

  1. Pingback: Sound targets « geographical imaginations

  2. Pingback: What does war sound like now? « geographical imaginations

  3. Pingback: ‘Stop, hey, what’s that sound?’ « geographical imaginations

  4. Pingback: Sound(ing)s | geographical imaginations

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