Sound and Fury WAR IN THE GULF

ERNEST B. FURGURSON

March 10, 1991|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON

WASHINGTON — Washington.--Most military analysts have given preparatory air strikes credit for the quick penetration of Iraqi defenses by U.S. and coalition ground forces. Here's the rest of the story.

lTC Before the ground blitz began, word leaked of another, even more demoralizing new weapon used to soften up Saddam Hussein's front-line troops. After being pounded by this weapon, thousands of Iraqi soldiers gave up without a fight.

The secret is heavy metal -- not the kind that makes tank armor, or the latest rounds designed to perforate that armor, but the kind that punches holes in human eardrums.

After noting its brain-scrambling effect on millions of Americans of approximately military age, Pentagon planners saw the offensive potential in this kind of noise. For days, even weeks before Allied tanks and infantry jumped off in the attack, U.S. psychological warriors blasted it out across no man's land toward Iraqi positions.

For security reasons, the names of the "musical" groups aimed at the enemy, and their precise effective range, are still classified. But as soon as enemy troops subjected to this bombardment had the chance, they threw up their hands and quit.

As events have shown, this was particularly true in the first days of the offensive, before Allied columns rolled deep into Kuwait and Iraq. Farther in, the Iraqis had been safe beyond earshot of even the high-decibel amplifiers used in modern warfare; all they had to put up with were such relatively minor nuisances as smart bombs, 16-inch rounds from offshore battleships and the occasional shower of napalm.

The use of unpleasant noise as an offensive weapon is not unprecedented, but it has come into its own in the past two decades or so. This advance was made possible by high-tech super-amplification of human and electric shrieks, lumped under the title "heavy metal."

U.S. forces in Panama experimented in this direction, trying to drive Manuel Noriega out of his hiding place with blaring tapes of rock music. They tried Linda Ronstadt's "You're No Good," Martha and the Vandellas' "Nowhere to Run" and Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile," all of which carried meaningful messages. But in modern war, the medium is more important than the message. Even Hendrix was bland stuff compared to heavy metal; the switch of noises constitutes a major escalation of weaponry.

Musical warfare is thus catching up with the rest of society, forgetting soft and sentimental in favor of deafening and obnoxious. Young people who have used such noise calculatedly to drive innocent older civilians mad were quick to -- realize what the full treatment could do to unsophisticated Iraqi privates hung out to dry on the desert.

At first, puzzled military historians were unsure how the amplifier offensive was meant to work -- to tempt the Iraqis over to our side, where they could listen to such noise to their hearts' content, perhaps boogie every night in the discos of Riyadh and Dhahran? But as soon as the historians heard a sample, they realized it was intended to fry the enemy soldiers' gray matter, rendering them unable to resist or even think.

In past wars, music was meant to sweet-talk the enemy, and worry him about what his girlfriend was doing while he was camping out. In our Civil War, soldiers of both sides sang "Lorena" and often wept when they heard "Home, Sweet Home." In World War II, Allied troops adopted the bittersweet German ballad, "Lili Marlene," and Tokyo Rose played the Andrews Sisters' "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree" to make Americans homesick.

In Vietnam, soldiers mooned over "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," and Armed Forces Radio played the softly seditious "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" at least ten times a day. If anything comparable accompanies the troops in the Persian Gulf, it has escaped me.

Of course, there's "Tie a Yellow Ribbon 'Round the Old Oak Tree," a national fad despite the fact that the song is about a convict coming home from prison. But from a distance, it seems anything sentimental would be frowned on in an army so committed to the offensive.

When they cranked up the loudspeakers, our troops opened the most offensive offensive in the history of warfare. When they come home, they will be combat-hardened. Some may be tough enough to accept tickets to hear the latest heavy metal group, which I understand is called Depleted Uranium.

Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.

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