Sound and War

Here’s a short piece about sound during wartime Lt. Col. Robert Bateman that was posted today on the Esquire magazine’s politics blog. While the context it quite different from what we talked about today, I think it’s an interesting entry point to thinking about the way that sound comes to take on particular meanings.


The Battle of Chickamauga (1890), lithograph by Kurz and Allison.

The Battle of Chickamauga (1890), lithograph by Kurz and Allison.


Here’s a short quote, but the rest of the post is interesting in talking about the difference between modern warfare and the American civil war:

On any battlefield of the gunpowder age, it is likely that you really cannot see what is happening. There is just too much damned smoke, most of the time, to gauge things visually. This is especially true at a distance. Add in broken terrain and/or woodlands, and the only sense you are left with is sound. But sound can tell you a lot. Experience helps, of course, in interpretation.

From sound alone I could determine what nationality of unit was engaged in a firefight. I could tell who was “winning” and who was “losing” (the quotes reflecting the fungible nature of any short firefight in a city). I could determine if a unit was well disciplined, or not, and if that unit was on the offensive, or defensive. The rate of fire, the volume of fire, the tempo of volleys, all of this builds a mental picture that allows you to understand, if you know what you are listening to, what is going on out of sight from where you are.