Disco Inferno | The Nation


Disco Inferno

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In Iraq we can hear about the beginnings of the same traumas. In a gripping Vanity Fair article, Donovan Webster searched for and found "the man in the hood" from the macabre Abu Ghraib photos. Haj Ali told Webster of being hooded, stripped, handcuffed to his cell and bombarded with a looped sample of David Gray's "Babylon." It was so loud, he said, "I thought my head would burst." Webster then cued up "Babylon" on his iPod and played it for Haj Ali to confirm the song. Ali ripped the earphones off his head, and started crying. "He didn't just well up with tears," Webster later told me. "He broke down sobbing."

About the Author

Moustafa Bayoumi
Moustafa Bayoumi
Moustafa Bayoumi, a professor at Brooklyn College, is a co-editor of The Edward Said Reader (Vintage) and the author of...

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Sounding brass in front of your enemy has always been a part of war, from Joshua's trumpets tumbling walls in the Bible to a mean fife and drum ringing out "Rule Britannia" across the Plains of Abraham. When American forces invaded Panama in 1989, Manuel Noriega fled to the papal nunciature, and American forces roared Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It," and songs with the word "jungle" in the lyrics in front of His Holiness's house. During the siege of Falluja in April 2004, American soldiers cranked the volume on their AC/DC. Their preferred song? "Shoot to Thrill."

The calculated use of American music in interrogations is less about rallying the troops than destroying a detainee. The US innovation in the interrogation practice of blaring loud noises is the deliberate use of American culture as an offensive weapon. While culture has long been a rationalization for conquest (consider the "civilizing mission" of European colonialisms), and while much post-Holocaust European thought has viewed contemporary culture as coercive and potentially authoritarian, neither colonialism nor the Frankfurt School witnessed the transformation of culture into the very instrument of torture. For them, culture was more the end than the means of conquest.

But culture as warfare is Pentagon policy. Donald Rumsfeld and Lieut. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez approved its deployment in their lists of harsher interrogation techniques for detainees. Rumsfeld did so in April 2003 and Sanchez in September 2003, and their almost identical memos both specify, along with the use of auditory stimuli or music, that "interrogators be provided reasonable latitude to vary techniques depending on the detainee's culture." The Sanchez memo also allows the presence of military working dogs, which "exploits Arab fear of dogs."

Altering interrogations according to a detainee's culture is not necessarily damaging, but the Pentagon's multiculturalism doesn't run deep, just wild. With the dissemination of the Abu Ghraib photos, Seymour Hersh reported in The New Yorker that the "bible" among neoconservatives was The Arab Mind, a piece of trash scholarship more than a generation old that claims Arabs understand only force, shame and humiliation. When the book was reissued in 2002, Norvell De Atkine, director of Middle East studies at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, wrote its foreword. This is "essential reading," writes the man who has "briefed hundreds of military teams being deployed to the Middle East." So essential, in fact, that The Arab Mind "forms the basis" of his "cultural" curriculum.

Despite (or maybe because of) the continued use of the book, military professionals' knowledge of other cultures is actually dangerously low. A recent article in the military journal Joint Force Quarterly reveals how little American forces understand Iraqi society, using an example of how the US military frequently misunderstands Iraqi hand gestures, leading to tragic consequences and preventable deaths. The article goes on to quote a Special Forces colonel assigned to the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence. "We literally don't know where to go for information on what makes other societies tick," admits the colonel, "so we use Google to make policy."

What the practice of sounding loud American music at Muslims reveals most is the power American forces associate with American culture. Any prolonged loud noise in the right circumstances stands a good chance of driving you mad. Yet narcissistically, American intelligence seems to believe American music will break you more quickly. "These people haven't heard heavy metal. They can't take it," a psy-ops sergeant told Newsweek. And in Guantánamo, they even have a name for it. The Pentagon's Schmidt investigation identifies it as "futility music"--that is to say, screamingly loud and deliberately Western music that will, per the Army field manual, "highlight the futility of the detainee's situation." (On the other hand, "cultural music," Schmidt reports, is "played as an incentive.") Twenty-four thousand interrogations later, "futility music," according to Schmidt, remains authorized.

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