Listening to War: Sound, Music, Trauma, and Survival in Wartime Iraq - J. Martin Daughtry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015
by Norie Neumark
To say that Listening to War is ground-breaking, penetrating, and vitally important doesn’t begin to convey the affective and intellectual impact of engaging with this work. More than challenging music and sound apprehension and scholarship, the book offers painful, visceral access to the ways in which ears suffer, bodies suffer, places suffer in wartime. There is no escape into abstraction or aestheticization here. It’s shattering, from the very beginning…
At the beginning … “K-k-r-r-BOOM (Armor Geddon)”
From the opening “sound-centered memories of operation Iraqi Freedom,” I wanted to duck and hide – from the sound, from the story of the sound, from the horror and trauma of the sound of war’s violence. Unlike watching war on tv, where I can turn down the sound, with Listening to War there is no hiding from the book’s noisy “silence.” This is one media soundtrack you can’t turn off … It’s shattering from beginning to end…
At the end … sound wounds
Martin Daughtry reveals in his conclusion that Sound Wounds had been the working title for the book. The phrase speaks to one of the book’s significant reconceptualizations of sound – from sound as index to sound as practice. Sound, we sense, over and over, is a practice which wounds and leaves wounds – a practice which is a wounding manifestation of war’s violence, leaving its traces on bodies and the environment.
Listening to War succeeds in retheorizing sound in a number of astute and significant ways. It also makes a major contribution to both music studies and the phenomenology of trauma and violence. Himself an ethnomusicologist, Daughtry deftly weaves through key thinkers in his own discipline and beyond. His book is a rare achievement of transdisciplinarity, moving across ethnography, cultural history, and sound/music with an impressive depth of research. As a reader, I find my thinking – my being – constantly provoked and shifted.
Bearing Witness at the Sound-Violence Nexus
I come to this book not having lived through or even near a warzone. And even though war has become familiar through incessant media sound and images, can those of us, like me, who have not directly lived through a war, actually sense what it’s like? Can we apprehend what goes on, say, for the PTSD sufferers who cross our paths so often? With such concerns in mind, Daughtry presents sound and audition as a way to come “obliquely” at what he recognizes as the unrepresentable horrors of war’s violence – by theorizing “violence through the prism of sound and sound through the prism of violence” (p. 6 and p. 24). In doing so, he opens up understandings of both the individual and the wider psychological, physical, social, and cultural traumas at the nexus of sound and violence – making vividly evident the ways that sensory and affective intensity of armed violence actually injure far more people and environments than just those directly hit.
Daughtry’s understandings are built from extensive research, including years of interviews with service members and civilians, in Iraq and the US, and trawling through media and military archives. His text evokes sympathy for both Iraqis and US service personnel, who are suffering from wartime auditory regimes – individuals affected, then and later, by what he recognizes as painful and laborious sonic-induced bodily trainings. Of course there are complex ethical issues of writing about violence in the context of such a terrible, unjust war. Daughtry navigates them with sensitivity and honesty, uneasy but driven by the demands of the testimonies to be listened to.
As an academic, Daughtry is committed to building wider arguments about listening, but he does not make his interlocutors’ experiences subservient to them. Rather we sense that it is they and their experience that demand a building of argument and retheorizations. The book proceeds to do this in three sections, interwoven with fragments from interviews, conversations, and published material – fragments which take us closer to the ground while evoking war’s fragments and fragmenting.
Sound, Listening, Music
After a thought-provoking introduction, Listening to War’s arguments unfold through its main sections: (1) Sonic Matériel; (2) Structures of Listening, Sounding and Emplacement; and (3) Music, Mediation, and Survival. All are rich with new thinking and insight, and with carefully framed and strikingly presented material.
1. Sonic Matériel
Here the body of the listener is at the fore, and we are called to listen both to well-known and to unexpected sounds – from weapons, to drones, to generators, to bombs, to military vehicles, to civilian sounds, and to “silence.” These are sounds which penetrate and shape the lived experience and lived bodily memory of what Daughtry apprehends as “belliphonic auditors”:
Belliphonic auditors … experience war through their ears: never exclusively, but importantly, and often … centrally …. Having heard, and seen, and felt, and smelled, and survived the war, having watched and participated in and been changed by the war, the complex persons whose testimonies inform this book all possess the right to hold the decision-makers on all sides accountable for the events they experience. They are all auditors in this double sense of the word (p. 23).
The use of the term auditor in this double sense is striking – it speaks of the need to call to account, to create an audit of sonic violence. Understanding listeners as auditors in this way helps convey that wartime sound was no longer just an “index of violence … it constituted a violent force in and of itself” (p. 72) for which perpetrators need to be held accountable.
Belliphonic is an equally thought-provoking term. Don’t be lulled by its mellifluousness – this means war, the sound of war. Belliphonic conveys a sonic world that encompasses the agglomerated sounds of armed combat – from weaponry to everyday sonic material, such as music and sirens: “The belliphonic is a fundamental dimension of wartime experience, and learning to contend with it is a daunting and ever-present challenge faced by service members and civilians alike” (p. 4-5).
2. Structures of Listening, Sounding and Emplacement
With my own interests in sound, voice, and place, this section particularly spoke to me. Here Daughtry foregrounds how hearing and listening are embodied and emplaced – how sound involves a sensuous interrelationship that resonates through an entanglement of sounds, places, bodies, thoughts, affect and discourse. Like the grounded and ground-breaking work of cultural historian Alain Corbin (1998), Daughtry provokes much new thinking in relation to sound, place, and bodies, human and more than human. He draws our attention to the effects of sensory overload and sensory impoverishment. There is a particularly harrowing evocation of being inside an interrogational hood (and earmuffs) – the horrific denial of situational awareness – muffling sound as well as denying sight and increasing the sound of breathing and voice – “a territory of absolute sensory control” (p. 207).
In this section Daughtry attunes us to sound as force, conveying forcefully for the reader its impact on the unfolding sensory experience, through what he identifies as auditory regimes, sonic campaigns, and acoustic territories: “If ‘auditory’ draws attention to the physiological act of listening and ‘sonic’ homes in on the physical act of sounding, the term ‘acoustic’ has acquired a connotative field that emphasizes the relationship between sound, listening, and place” (p. 125).
Daughtry’s approach to “the resonant acoustic territory of the body” understands it in a way consonant with new materialism – both as part of wider, fluctuating macroterritories of human and nonhuman, and “shot through with microterritories that it does not fully own or control.” Belliphonic sounds enter the body’s “corporeal microterritories” and can alter it forever – persisting within ears and habits, as embodied, emplaced acoustic events and traumatic memories. As one Iraqi refugee put it, “‘All of us … elders and children, when we moved to Jordan, every sound we heard we were terrified, because the bombing was inside us, its voices were inside our heads’” (p. 210).
The painful, violent macro and micro territories, which Daughtry brings alive for us, trouble the familiar abstractions of soundscape and pure sound. In a welcome move, Listening to War “recalibrates” the concept soundscape to recognize the “interconnectedness of listening, sounding, the body, technologies, and the environment” (p. 122). Chiming with the insights of anthropologist Tim Ingold, Daughtry understands that soundscape can elide the crucial intersubjectivity of sound just as mediated soundtracks (no matter how hi def) fail to impart war’s constant sonic affective and effective violence. We sense over and over that it’s a profoundly different listening on the ground in wartime and war-torn Iraq: “A bomb doesn’t appear ‘smart’ or an attack ‘surgical if you can hear the victims screaming” (p. 195). Just as he rejects the anodyne soundscape, Daughtry questions the possibility of “pure” sound. Like artist, musician, and writer Seth Kim-Cohen (2009), he understands there is no “sound in itself” – it depends on an auditor’s background, the history of the place, and the sounds – it is sociocultural.
While Daughtry does work with sound as vibration – a figure which for me often risks a reductiveness similar to soundscape – he does so as part of understanding how sounds’ resonances impact and shape place, including emplaced bodies. He eschews a reductive, solipsistic approach to all sound as vibration – an approach which pays inadequate theoretical attention to “the social, ideological, or political positionalities of listeners” and which too often makes the listener’s ear an abstract, mute, passive receiver of vibrations (p. 122). Daughtry puts the ear back on a historical, cultural, social, emplaced sentient body that learns to listen. While this comes from his ethnographic sensibility, it resonates for me with the work of Kim-Cohen and Ingold who redirect music and sound studies away from abstraction and aestheticism.
There are many profound insights and recalibrations of thinking on sound in this section, as throughout. One of the most striking is Daughtry’s proposition that listening to belliphonic sound draws our attention to sound’s size rather than the usual focus on volume – that is, it calls us to attend to the extensive area over which sound is perceptible (rather than its volume at a single point of reception). And not just extension or size but bodily, affective weight shapes and disrupts auditors of belliphonic sounds. Daughtry’s insight here is that apprehending sound is not just about consciousness but about the way its size and weight acts upon the body; for instance, it is literally able to propel a body. This actual heaviness of sound on the ground is something that consumer media, for instance, cannot convey, no matter how technically advanced. No wonder YouTube videos often add music for affect and effect. Which brings me to the final section, on music.
3. Music, Mediation and Survival
This section turns attention to music, technology, and acoustic territories. There is a remarkable and complex analysis of the iPod as “icon, index, and to a significant extent, militarized instrument of the war” (p. 220). This analysis chimes with the important work of Jonathan Sterne on the MP3 (2012) in bringing to the fore and analyzing something so ubiquitous and quotidian that scholars generally fail to notice.
Daughtry takes us well beyond music as “entertainment.” Through cinema we are familiar with images of music working to pump up service members – to heighten emotional, cognitive, and perceptual combat-readiness. Less familiar, perhaps, is the way music works in the expressions of grief, which Daughtry alerts us to. Most striking and disturbing, though, are the passages where we are immersed in music as part of a strategy of sonic control of the environment, as when iPod’s are hooked up to loudspeakers in order to disperse Iraqi crowds. Or when, as a technology for brutal biopolitics, iPod’s in the Iraq war rip apart music’s aesthetics with “music-enhanced interrogation.”
When I experienced the compelling exhibition Eavesdropping in Melbourne in 2018, I encountered the forensic architecture artwork of Lawrence Abu Hamden - shattering works that began to open my understanding of the sounds of war on the ground. It was these works that compelled me to read this book. And, like that exhibition, but in another register, Listening to War offers an apprehension that disturbs the many romantic approaches, in art and sound scholarship, to sound and to sound’s ephemerality. This is a moving book that brings to vivid, harrowing audition the moving sound of violence and violence of sound in war. In doing so, it offers important points of rethinking sound and listening. Listening provokes movement, voluntary and involuntary. Sound moves, people move, buildings move/moved through. So much to experience and learn from this moving account. Its final message, if there is such a thing in this complex work, is, however, not one of cold despair or distanced passivity. Daughtry offers a moving conclusion with the story of Baghdad resident Tareq and his mother who would “mishear” Kalashnikovs as if emanating from a musical source, the zanbur:
Small listening games, silent mashups, imaginary compositions-in-miniature: humble acts such as these are wholly unable to stop bullets or stanch bleeding … In those rare stretches when the half-heard composition gelled, when the imagination could stretch to make the battle sound, for an elusive moment, ‘like a symphony,’ they accomplished something quite remarkable. Through listening, they did not aestheticize belliphonic violence – quite the opposite:
They pacified it (p. 277).
Abu Hamdan. Lawrence (2019). “Saydnaya (The Missing 19db).” In James Parker and Joel Stern (Eds.), Eavesdropping: A Reader. Wellington: City Gallery Wellington.
Corbin, Alain (1998). Village Bells: The Culture of the Senses in the Nineteenth-Century French Countryside (trans. Martin Thom). New York: Columbia University Press.
Ingold, Tim (2011). Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge, and Description (pp. 137–139) London: Routledge.
Kim-Cohen, Seth (2009). In the Blink of an Ear: Toward a Non-Cochlear Sonic Art. New York: Continuum.
Schuppli, Susan (2014). “Uneasy Listening.” In Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Nabil Ahmed and Maayan Amir et al. (Eds.), Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth. Berlin: Sternberg Press.
Sterne, Jonathan (2012). MP3: The Meaning of a Format. Durham: Duke University Press.