The Sonic Journey of a Soldier


A Meditation on Normal Sonic Tendencies Embedded in Human Culture

The human experience results from our cumulative life experiences. As we see, feel, and hear our way through life, we will all travel through different landscapes, emotional states and soundscapes. All objects emit sensory information that influences who we are and the lives we live. In every situation, this sensory information bombards our minds. Many of us immediately recognize the significance of visual cues, however we are much less likely to analyze and accept sonic cues on the same level. Due to this, we live our lives almost in a state of “sonic ignorance”, wherein visual cues are sufficient for the acquisition of knowledge. In such a life, sonic cues can unfortunately be considered redundant and thus, unimportant. Our ears, like untuned instruments, become less responsive and selective. We have reached a point in our society where we can tune out cacophonous sounds of construction and industry as if they are merely a slight breeze blowing by. Our sense of sound may never transcend its relegation to a “secondary sense”, unless we are thrust into an unfamiliar situation; a landscape with inadequate visual cues and a soundscape where sonic cues are imperative. At this point, we will fall back on our sense of sound, and be forced to develop it once again for the sake of our survival.

The Sonic Extreme

The soundscape of a warzone exemplifies the above situation in our society. Here, the sonic takes on a new level of importance by prophesizing the coming of danger which gives listeners time to act before danger is upon them. Careful and selective listening could be (and very many times is) the difference between life and death. The transition from a typical visually inclined thinker to a sonically inclined one has a wealth of benefits in the war zone, yet many dangers upon return to civilian life. By diving into the sonic journey of a soldier, we can better understand the extreme cicrumstances of audition that they are subject to and how this sonic experience can affect our minds and bodies. Analysis of these people’s experiences with aggressive and harmful sounds will give us a deeper understanding of their condition upon returning home. The nature of the soundscape in a war zone forces the individuals within it to rely heavily on sonic information; by studying these individuals and how their experience has affected them in the long run, we can learn how to better care for war veterans.


In order to understand the intensity and impact of the sonic warzone on the soldier, we must first understand the soldier’s pre-war sonic environment, that is to say, the civilian soundscape. Most of us will experience this sonic environment within our life times. The modern day sonic environment is comprised of the sounds of a bustling suburban-urban landscape. However, this soundscape is a relatively new one, born of the industrial and technological revolutions. To most of us, the constant hum of electrical and mechanical power is nothing but ambient noise. In order to understand magnitude and amplitude of our soundscape, let us imagine a world without the constant buzz of an air conditioner or rumble of busses and cars speeding along roads. The only sounds present are those of the wind rustling leaves on a tree, or water washing in and out upon a shoreline; the sounds of the forces of nature. This is how our soundscape started. As mammalian life evolved and eventually gave way to the human race, the soundscape began to change. Human culture has a tendency to imprint everything around it, and our sonic surroundings are no exception.

Our soundscape is a mutable object that is simultaneously “a produced effect of social practices, politics, and ideologies” and a force in “shaping” those practices, politics, and ideologies (Samuels 330). For many of us today, our impact on our soundscape is significantly greater than its impact on us. As our culture grew more complex, those complexities imposed themselves on our soundscapes. The hustle and bustle of everyday life caused the level of noise to augment and the quality of sound to suffer. R. Murray Schafer, the man who many consider to be the first sound anthropologist, coined this phenomena “a transition from a ‘hi-fi’ to ‘low-fi’ soundscape”, hi-fi being a soundscape with a low amount of “noise” (defined by Schafer as unwanted sound) and a low-fi soundscape being one with a high amount of noise (Schafer 32). Schafer claims that the pollution of our soundscape causes the transition to a low-fi state, wherein the quality of our sound suffers dramatically. Theoretically, as our culture continues to evolve the “dangers of the imperialistic spread of more and larger sounds into every corner of a man’s life” becomes more pertinent (Schafer 30). Despite the transition to a “low-fi” soundscape, we continue to ignore the loss of quality of sound.

Soldiers, like all others, don’t hear any of the complexities or dangerous trends within our civilian soundscape. We have all been conditioned to for the most part, ignore our sonic surroundings. Soldiers enter the warzone with untrained ears, but they will come out of the war zone as warriors, and they will not be able to forget their sonic experiences. Now, let us travel into the field alongside the American soldiers fighting in Iraq in 2003 via Listening to War: Sound, Music, Trauma, and Survival in Wartime Iraq by J. Martin Daughtry. Through Daughtry’s text, we will be able to immerse ourselves in the extreme sonic environments of soldiers and understand what the soldiers experience.


What goes on within the warzone will always be somewhat of a mystery. One cannot capture the full experience, since the stories of so many experiences are lost as their carriers pass on. With regards to sound, no one can really capture any at all. Sure, recordings can be taken, but there is no way to replicate the exact circumstances of a sound such that same visceral effects will be produced. The best we can do is to “struggle within the confines of written language to evoke the urgency, indeterminacy” of the situation (Daughtry 7). With this, we can attempt to piece together the warzone sonic experience through personal anecdotes as told by those who were present. Analysis of Daughtry’s collection of anecdotes uncovers a discernable pattern of audition of the “belliphonic” sounds (the spectrum of sounds produced by armed combat, brings together the Latin word for war [bellum] and the Greek term for voice [phone]) (Daughtry 7). The soldier’s soundscape can be subdivided into 3 zones, the audible inaudible, the narrational and the tactical/traumatic zone. These zones are contained within each other, as if in a venn diagram. The visual depiction below describes the spatial relationship between the zones (Daughtry 70).

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For our purposes, the tactical and traumatic zone will be combined. Each zone has a different impact on the individual. Looking carefully at these zones, especially at the audible inaudible and narrational zones, we can assess how humans interact with even the most intense soundscapes.

The Audible Inaudible

Daughtry defines the outermost zone of audition as “a conceptual space that housed sounds so distant and/ or ubiquitous that they ceased to draw the attention of the experienced auditor.” (Daughtry 77). This zone essentially comprised all “background noise”. The average civilian’s response to this environment would be intense alertness. As an average civilian, I can attest to the fact that very loud sounds typically grab my attention, but in the war zone, the collective effect of the many individual, loud sounds is much louder than anything heard in a civilian soundscape. Every sound demands attention, and the untrained ear is unable to understand which sound is the most important. The feeling would be one of sensory overload due to an inability to process all of the sounds in the environment. Mark Slouka claims that the western world is “ensnared in webs of sound”, necessitating that we “pick our way through a discordant, infinite-channeled auditory landscape”, but this concept is taken much further here, where the web is woven out of alarming sounds of immense volume (Slouka 41). In this case the audio is not only discordant, but also painfully cacophonous. Civilians in a non-warzone would never need to have the sonic skills to deal with the volume of noise, but this is going to be the norm for a soldier for the next 12 months of their life, therefore, they require a certain amount of sonic adaptation. One would think that soldiers might just adjust their volume threshold, but in that case, the soldiers would continue their trend of sonic ignorance that is so embedded in our culture. The sounds would be much louder, but all still in the background. The difference between the war and civilian soundscapes is the importance and meaning of the sound in each respective environment. In their environment, a civilian will face few (if any) consequences if they ignore all sounds and do not spend time deciphering which sounds to listen to and which to ignore. They already possess a natural inclination to hear sounds that pose danger, and that response is sufficient to keep them safe. However, when your sonic environment is fabricated of sounds that naturally cause a fear response, you have two options; adjust your perception of a “dangerous” sound, or fall into a state of constant paranoia. Therefore, soldiers adjust not only to the volume of noise, but they also develop the ability to discern which sounds are important and dangerous and which are not. An example of this is the noise of a Humvee engine. In comparison to a normal engine this sound is much louder. Surely, if anyone got into this beast for a ride, they would be frightened. However, some soldiers say that after riding in the Humvee frequently, it almost becomes a comforting sound, because the soldiers have adjusted their audition such that the constant hum of the engine just falls into the background of their cognition. As the soldiers filter through the web of noise, the persistent noises that the relegate to the background become “more peaceful, more ‘quiet,’ more unremarkable than silence.” (Daughtry 78). As the soldiers experience war, they begin to “force a privacy where none exists” to maintain their sanity and sense of self (Slouka 42). All of the sonic practices employed in war are defensive mechanism, either to actively keep harm away or maintaining any inner peace that may currently exist. The audible inaudible is all about understanding which sounds are important versus what can be tuned out, and by analyzing this zone, we have come to understand how soldiers draw important information from sound, and how they block out unimportant sounds to maintain sanity.

The Narrational

In the narrational zone, “experienced auditors took note of belliphonic sounds (sounds in the warzone), identified the weapons that likely produced them, located these sounds in space, and used these observations to create a belliphonic audionarrative: the story of an unseen battle unfolding before one’s ears” (Daughtry 80). The narrational zone epitomizes the fact that sonic information can be much more valuable than visual information. In this zone, the soldiers are “regularly compelled to listen with adrenalin-infused concentration that is not nearly as widespread in peacetime life” (Daughtry 88). They listened in for specific sounds of weapons and where those sounds are coming from in order to understand what is going on. This is zone lies within the audible inaudible zone; specifically, it is the sounds within the soundscape that contain valuable information. Soldiers have an extremely impressive ability to construct complex and extremely accurate depictions of what is happening in another area of the war zone. In our society, we do this to a much simpler extent. If I hear a crash from another room and I happen to know that my little brother is playing in there and my mother’s antique vase was moved to a lower shelf, I can infer that my little brother has smashed the vase. However, I have the luxury of just getting up and walking into the other room to confirm my auditory predication with visual information, whereas the soldiers do not have that luxury. For a soldier, the composed narrative may contain “The distant thunder of cannon [that] may be the only indicator that a battle is taking place beyond the next hill” or “the grinding rumble of tanks [that] usually precedes their appearance from around the street corner” (Daughtry 7). When the eyes are not an option for sensory input, one must defer all information gathering to the ears, which is why “people were always listening, even when it was too dangerous to look” (Daughtry 88) . The use of sounds to understand what is going on in one’s direst surroundings can help to create a sense of security. Hearing is a way of knowing, and knowledge is power. After a few weeks in the field, most of the soldiers have normalized some kind of schedule of sounds. Daughtry states that recurring sounds “gave structure to people’s lives in the war zone” (Daughtry 39). By discerning a pattern and creating a sense of sonic normalcy, it is easier for them to recognize the abnormalities (and thus the dangers) in the soundscape. The narrational zone shows us the importance of the sonic over the visual in times of war, and how adapting to absorbs sonic cues is imperative for survival.

The Tactical and Traumatic

In the tactical zone, “listeners trained their skills of echolocation to determine the proximity of explosions, the trajectory of bullets, and the locations of shooters” (Daughtry 88). This zone, a subsection of both the audible inaudible and the narrational zones, is surrounded by immediate warfare. Guns are firing all around the listener, bullets whooshing by their helmets, bombs exploding only hundreds of feet away. If you are hearing these sounds, it means that you are in imminent danger, immediately in the path of a bullet. This registers wholly with the listener, and the analysis of sound is through and rigorous. At this point, a mishearing could be the difference between life or death. The train of thought is simple: If I’m still alive, I’m doing something right. Most of us will never experiences the stressors of the tactical/traumatic zone. This is an experience unique to soldiers. This is the zone where sounds are so loud and so intense that they have a profound effect on the bodies and minds of those who hear them. The lasting impression of the experiences within the tactical/traumatic zone can manifest itself in PTSD and tinnitus post-deployment. The lasting effects can set soldiers apart from the rest of society upon their return, and prevent them from assimilating back into a visually inclined culture.


We all know that the experiences of war can be physically marring. More than 30,000 soldiers come home with some extents of physical injury. However, the sounds and experiences of the war have an even more intense psychological effect. More than 120,000 warriors come home from to be diagnosed with PTSD (Finley 2). The diagnosis of PTSD is heavily dependent on sounds that accompany experiences that soldiers have during deployment. Two criteria put in place by the APA for the diagnosis of PTSD is that the individual 1) directly experiences the traumatic event, or 2) witnesses the traumatic event in person. War in and of itself is a traumatic experience, and within one soldier’s tour, they are likely to encounter many traumatic situations. Most of these traumatic situations are likely to occur in the tactical/traumatic zone. Here, fatal mistakes can be made as the mind is overwhelmed with sensory input. In addition, their desensitization during war prevented them from recognizing the true outcomes of these traumatic events, however, now that they are home they must now deal with the implications of their actions. Finally, their sonic adjustments that are necessary to deal with such a high alert environment will not just disappear when they are no longer needed, even though the “state of hyper alertness that is so valuable in combat becomes dysfunctional in civilian life,” (Daughtry 99). Dr. Charles W. Hoge, MD, Colonel wrote “society hasn’t yet grasped that “transitioning” home from combat does not mean giving up being a warrior, but rather learning to dial up or down the warrior responses depending on the situation”(Hoge x). The warrior’s view of sound will never leave these individuals; it’s just something that is too strong to be unseen.


As long as we have existed, humans have been affecting our soundscapes. However, we do not realize that at the same time, the soundscape has been affecting us. It can cause us a fright if an abnormally loud or alarming sound appears, or can allow us to infer what is happening nearby, but it does not have nearly as profound of an effect on civilians as it has had, and will continue to have, in the warzone. In the warzone, sound becomes the most important mode of information. As Daughrty wisely says, “To witness war is, in large part, to hear it.” (Daughtry 36). Yet, the unique sonic experiences of the warzone change someone, such that they will never really rejoin civilian culture. Everyday life requires constant interaction with one’s soundscape, and after the detriment of war has manipulated a soldier’s ability to interact with the normal civilian soundscape, they lack an important life skill. Their emotional stability and abilities to interact socially have been compromised, and therefore they can no longer lead a normal life. Their condition is inescapable because of the all-encompassing attribute of the soundscape. Those subject to these intense, life-changing conditions should be sympathized, not ostracized. They have experienced the edges of audition, and they may never fully return.


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