War cries and wailing weapons
Bloodcurdling war cries are a universal way of striking terror in foes. Maori war chants, the Japanese battle cry “Banzai!” (Long Live the Emperor) in World War II, the Ottomans’ “Vur Ha!” (Strike), the Spanish “Desperta Ferro!” (Awaken the Iron), and the “Rebel Yell” of Confederate soldiers are examples. In antiquity, the sound of Greek warriors bellowing “Alala!” while banging swords on bronze shields was likened to hooting owls or a screeching flock of monstrous birds.
The Roman historian Tacitus described the hair-raising effects of the barritus, the war cry of Germanic tribes. The Germans devised a simple technique for intensifying the barritus, which began as a low murmur. The chanting became a roar, then rose to a reverberating crescendo as the men held up their shields in front of their mouths to amplify the thunderous sound.
Another technological invention was the karnyx, the Celtic war trumpet. Romans were awed by the eerie, spine-tingling sounds made by the long bronze tube with a wide bell shaped like the gaping jaws of a fierce dragon, boar or wolf. The horn’s loud, lugubrious tones “suited the tumult of war,” wrote Diodorus Siculus around 50 B.C. Later Roman troops used the karnyx themselves.
Another early military sound technology was an arrow that created a fearsome noise. “Whistling” or “screaming” arrows (shaojian) made by the horseback archers of the steppes were described by the Chinese chronicler Sima Qian in about 100 B.C. A small, perforated bone or wood sound chamber – the whistle – was attached to the shaft behind the arrowhead. In battle, the shrieking sound of thousands of whistling arrows terrified enemies and their horses. Screaming arrows have been recovered from archaeological sites in central Asia.
Numerous other technologies to produce booming detonations to disorient and frighten enemies were described in ancient Chinese war manuals. These explosive devices employed gunpowder, invented in China around A.D. 850, reaching Europe about 1250.
Sound weapons in the modern era
Music was used during World War II to cause stress and anxiety: The Soviet army played Argentine tangos through loudspeakers all night to keep German soldiers awake. U.S. loudspeaker teams blasted deafening rock music (including The Doors, Alice Cooper and The Clash) day and night during the U.S. siege of Panamanian Gen. Manuel Noriega in 1989. In the 2000s, Americans again deployed aggravating, incessant music in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Sound weapons have their uses off the battlefield, too. Shopping centers have borrowed the idea, broadcasting classical symphonies and frequencies registered only by teenage ears to keep young loiterers away. In 2022, Australian police bombarded anti-COVID-19 vaccine protesters with recordings of Barry Manilow songs on repeat to break up the crowd.
Recent development of weaponized sound energy is more ominous, often intended for civilian crowd control. Military scientists in the United States, Israel, China and Russia have unveiled “nonlethal” high-decibel and pulsating high- and low-frequency armaments designed to assault the senses. Examples include hand-held or tank-mounted magnetic acoustic devices, sonic-vibration cannons, and long-range acoustic devices, first used by U.S. forces in Iraq in 2004 and later by police against citizen protests in New York and Missouri.
Since 2016, American diplomats in Cuba, Russia, China and elsewhere have experienced “Havana Syndrome,” associated with mysterious neurological and brain injuries thought to be inflicted by unknown high-powered microwave or targeted sonic energy systems. Sound wave transmitters are not only psychologically toxic but can cause pain and dizziness, burns, irreversible damage to inner ears and possibly neurological and internal injuries.
Since antiquity, human creativity in weaponizing devastating noise to confuse and overwhelm adversaries has progressed from intimidation to the infliction of physical injury.