The Sounds of Violence: High-tech warfare and sonic ideology

A first exploration, Karachi, Pakistan, July 2018

Violent events are often accompanied by particular sounds: explosions, air raid alarms, aircraft engines, the whistling of projectiles flying by, but also sound made by people and the silence that often emerges afterwards. At the same time, especially in the case of high-tech warfare methods, violent events are oftentimes connected to imagined, largely fictional soundscapes for those who don’t experience their actual occurrence in their everyday lives. Based on popular cultural representations [1], public relations material [2], and news media reports [3], sonic impressions of technologized warfare are propagated that do not match with its actual sounds. The representation of US military drones is a prime example of this. Whereas Hollywood movies and promotional material predominantly feature slick sounds of jet engines and robotic motors, in reality ‘they [sound more] like a small plane — a Piper Cub or Cessna’ [4]. Through a focus on slick soundscapes, the sonic imaginaries of drone warfare support the visions of infallible technological efficiency and clean warfare that surround official narratives of military technology.

 

What are the sounds of threat, danger and security in a globalized culture of high-tech surveillance and drone warfare? How do people from different places in the Global North and South remember, imagine and know the sounds of technologies of violence? And what do these stories tell about global power relationships, both in terms of military endeavours and the shaping of, and access to, digital culture? By means of an initial exploration of these questions, I travelled around Karachi, Pakistan, for a week in July, together with Karachi-based artist/curator Mehreen Hashmi and artist Yasir Husain (two other project participants from the UK, Alison Baskerville and Joseph DeLappe unfortunately couldn’t make it due to visa challenges). In Karachi, we were looking to meet people from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in the north of the country who had experienced drone operations and other military activity, and ask them about their memories the sounds associated with this.

Mehreen Hashmi, Yasir Husain, me, and three toy drones

Although it is easy to encounter people from northern Pakistan in Karachi – an estimate of 15% of the city’s populations are Pashtuns, many of whom have arrived in recent years [5] – it turned out to be challenging to find people who were willing to openly speak about their experiences to a few artists they didn’t know. The Pakistani secret service, ISI, and the army have a reputation of detaining anybody who seems even slightly suspicious in terms of posing a potential risk to the country’s interests, so most people we met were very reluctant or unwilling to speak to strangers about war and terrorism-related subjects. In addition, our own safety was also a concern when entering certain neighbourhoods, so we couldn’t just visit places spontaneously and speak to people. Until a few years ago, Taliban factions were very active in Karachi and at times controlled large parts of the areas we were intending to visit. The fighters and their sympathizers are still there, but their whereabouts and activities are largely unknown, resulting in a continuous sense of unease about a possible upsurge in activity or targeted actions against individuals.

After several days of unsuccessful attempts to find people, we meet a young journalist and activist, Akbar*, who tells us that he could introduce us to some people from Waziristan he knows. He would pick us up from my hotel the next morning and guide us. In the late afternoon, he finally arrives and we make ourselves on our way in Yasir’s car. We are heading to Sohrab Goth, a suburb about 10 kilometres from downtown Karachi. The area is predominantly inhabited by Pashtuns, many of whom have recently arrived from the north of the country.

 

After sunset, when most shops have already closed, we enter an indoor market along one of the main roads. Some shopkeepers are still sitting together in their shops, chatting and drinking tea. We meet Wahid*, a textile trader from the area of Ghunday, in the mountains of the Afghani border, a few hundred kilometres from Kabul. He moved to Karachi a few years ago. Seated in the shop of one of his friends we drink lemonade and tea, surrounded by a group of about twenty curious owners and attendants from neighbouring businesses. “Before an attack, the sound gets louder and louder. It circles until it drives you crazy, not only because you are afraid, but also because the sound physically affects your body”, Wahid quietly tells us. He recalls leaving the mosque after the afternoon prayer, sometime in 2010 or 2011, when he hears the humming of a drone above. Further down the street, a group of fighters on the back of a jeep start firing into the air. Seconds later, an enormous explosion. The jeep explodes. Small parts of bodies and scrap metal were found spread out across the street afterwards. 

 

Just like Wahid himself, many people from Ghunday have moved to Karachi and other cities since the conflict with Taliban factions, government forces, and US drones has been escalating from the mid 2000s. I ask Wahid if he would be willing to give us a vocal impression of his memory of the sound of the drone. Timidly, he sings into the microphone of our sound recorder: “Zhungngngngngngng – pssssssssshw – BRRRGHOW!” After having been almost completely silent during the recording, bystanders cheer, seemingly in a mix of astonishment and amusement. Looking around the group surrounding us, I also encounter the prying gaze of three men on the back row though, who remain silent with stoic expressions on their faces. Akbar nudges me with his elbow. “Look, Taliban!”, he whispers with a smile.

 

 

In the following days, we meet two other men who are willing to speak to us about their experiences and make sound recordings. Hamid* is from a village in the Bajaur District, bordering with Afghanistan. Before the border was closed in 2003, it took a four-hour walk through the mountains to reach Afghanistan. Nowadays, only smugglers who collaborate with the Afghani and Pakistani border authorities are still using this route. In 2006, the first large scale drone attack took place in this region, killing 82 people in a madrasa in the village Damadola. Hamid never experienced a drone attack himself, but recalls how the sound of drones circling above his village was continuously audible almost every night between 2006 and 2012. Since that time, the operations have become less frequent. 

 

Unlike the noise of the fighter jets and helicopters of the Pakistani army, who also frequently operated in the area, the sound of the drones was actually quite pleasant, almost reassuring, according to Hamid. Not just because of its sonic quality, but also because the drones’ accuracy has steadily improved and in the past 5 years or so only militants seem to get hit, probably also because the ground intelligence to identify and mark targets has improved. Supposedly, a small electronic beacon is passed on to an informant close to the target through an intricate network of locals who cooperate with US intelligence. The beacon is then inconspicuously placed in the house, car or clothing of the person to be targeted, shortly after which a drone fires a hellfire rocket aimed the beacon. Like most people we speak to, Hamid generally considers the US drone operations that have taken place in more recent years to be positive: “The Pakistani army supports certain Taliban factions, which they call ‘good Taliban’. For us, all Taliban are bad, and only the US does something against them.”

 

 

At a local dhaba – a roadside restaurant and tea café –  we meet Jawad*, a young businessman from Kaniguram in the region of Lower Wana. He tells us that the drones came to his town in the evening or the night two or three times a week. Most of the time they were invisible and only their sound could be heard, “which was similar to a small Fokker airplane.” At first, people didn’t know what the sound was, but after they had learned through the media that they were drones, they would flee inside whenever they heard the sound if they happened to be outside. During a visit to the town of Azam Warsak, a few hours drive away from his home, Jawad experienced an attack from closeby: “Suddenly there was an extremely loud sound, like a screaming whistle, followed by a big bang.” He tells us that in drone attacks he experienced from further away there was also often a loud explosion sound before the actual impact, which made the windows shake and sometimes even break in a large area around the place of the attack. Most probably, these were sonic booms; a hellfire rocket travels at Mach 1.3.

 

 

These three encounters formed a first exploration in this art-based investigation of the sonic aspects of high-tech warfare. The sound recordings of the three interviewees’ vocalizations of their memories will form part of what will hopefully become a small archive that will function as a counterpoint to the clean, science-fiction-like sonic imaginaries that usually accompany representations of (supposedly) high-tech weapons in movies, promotion videos and other media representations. This will then also be a starting point to engage with another prominent aspect of contemporary weapon technologies: the increasingly blurry boundary between toy technologies (game controllers, consumer drones) and high-tech military appliances.

By means of an intermediate conclusion, here are two sketches for future work:

Vocal representations by ear-witnesses of drone operations in Pakistan, installed in speaking teddy bear hearts (work-in-progress)

Toy nano camera drone, repainted in Reaper drone military camouflage colours, deployed in a Karachi luxury hotel. Soundtrack by David Fesliyan / Fesliyan Studios.

 

The research activities described in this text, which form part of a project encompassing collaborative research, workshops and public presentations, have been supported by the Global Challenges Research Fund, UK and The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London.

References

[1] James Cameron, 1991. Terminator 2 [film]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xjatJ36cJvM [accessed 1 May 2018]

[2] General Atomics, 2012. Promotional video for Predator C drone, 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v0dHKWjXn-E [accessed 1 May 2018].

[3] Central Office of Information for Home Office, 1975. Protect and Survive [video]. http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/films/1964to1979/filmpage_warnings.htm [accessed 1 May 2018].

[4] David Rohde in Robert Naiman, 2012. When a Drone Flies Over Waziristan, Does It Make a Sound? The Huffington Post, 17 Oct 2012. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-naiman/when-a-drone-flies-over-w_b_1974665.html [accessed 1 May 2018].

[5] The News, 1 November 2011, -‘Karachi’s ethnic composition undergoing radical change’ https://www.thenews.com.pk/archive/print/329303 [accessed 5 September 2018]