The Sound of War

If the dull hum of a nuclear warhead ever mutates to a deafening and life-ending roar of a nuclear explosion, humanity will be extinguished—Tom Unterrainer, END Info 30, Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, March 2022


In 1935, retired US Marine Major General Smedley D. Butler (1880-1941), a veteran of American interventions in the Mexican Revolution and World War One, published War is a Racket, an anti-militarist classic opening with withering fire:

War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.

Gen. Smedley D. Butler and cover of "War is a Racket"

General Smedley D. Butler

“A racket is best described,” Butler wrote, “as something that is not what it seems to the majority of people…conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many.” How many of the 21,000 “millionaires and billionaires…made in the United States during the World War,” he asked acidly, “shouldered a rifle,” “dug a trench,” “spent sleepless, frightened nights, ducking shells and shrapnel and machine gun bullets,” or otherwise experienced the other way war is a ‘racket,’ a truly hellish din?

As I have despairingly argued, I believe the war in Ukraine, one year old on February 24, is essentially a ‘racket’ in Butler’s sense: no clear-cut, heroic struggle of ‘good versus evil,’ but the inevitably atrocious consequence of cynically promoting cults of violence over cultures of peace.

For sure, it was a toxic mix of Russian nationalism, militarism, and, crucially, nuclearism—embodied in the delusional, paranoid person of President Putin—that created its own ‘justification’ for an unjustifiable invasion. But that mix is hardly peculiar to the Russian ‘bear’ any more than to the American ‘eagle,’ guilty as that insatiable ‘bird of prey’ is of spilling oceans of blood through the supposed Golden Age of the post-1945 ‘international rules-based order.’ And Putin’s adventurism remains inexplicable without reference to the Western supremacism that kicked post-Soviet Russia while it was down in the 1990s, combining insult with injury in the bad faith expansion of NATO, a mega-racket grotesquely enriching the same Merchants of Death (Boeing, Lockheed Martin, et. al.) now reaping pornographic profits supplying Ukraine with ‘weapons, weapons, weapons’ as the ‘losses,’ the bodies, pile up.

It may seem that the noise all this mass-murder makes is a secondary issue, symptomatic of the plague of war. But I believe modern war is itself symptomatic of an unholy crusade against nature, a dizzying—and deafening—array of crimes indicting not ‘human nature’ but our industriously imperial, manically-militarized age. Perhaps if we centralized, capitalized Noise as a dominant issue and crisis, we might start to hear ourselves think better about the plight we—and our pulverized planet—are in?


“In the embattled eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut,” Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Natalia Yermak wrote in the New York Times, “there is no such thing as silence. Days are measured not so much by time, but by volume,” the “thuds and blasts” of “rocket tennis” (war’s rackets!) that “echo for miles” and become “just background noise, until they aren’t.”

The report ends with Irina, a retired nurse on the smashed town’s outskirts, listening as “artillery rattled the windows,” exclaiming admiringly: “Those are our boys firing!” Yes—at other ‘boys,’ including large numbers of unwilling conscripts, and at civilian centers and infrastructure in the Russian-occupied parts of the collapsing country, hell-zones where silence is equally absent.

Dolphin swimming

Dolphin swimming beside the ferry in Pico, Azores, 2018. (Photo by Jules Verne Times Two, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The major marine environments caught up in the madness—the Azov, Black, and Caspian Seas—are suffering equally grievously. On May 10, scientists reported a spike in dolphin deaths to the south of Ukraine, in Turkey and Bulgaria: animals stranded or caught in fishing nets attempting to flee the “acoustic trauma” of ceaseless naval activity. On June 7, the Guardian reported that “dolphins found along the coast of the Black Sea had suffered burns from explosions and other injuries to organs used for orientation. They also showed signs of starvation.” In addition, pelicans from Africa, arriving in record low numbers, were described as “very disturbed by the bombing” (and mining) of coastal lagoons and wetlands.

Such brutal disturbances, however, differ only in degree, not kind, from the routine assault of ‘organs used for orientation’ in our overloaded waters. Seeing may be believing, but in the teeming oceans, hearing is key to surviving. As a January 12 Guardian report explained, because “sound travels 4.5 times faster through water than through air…many marine organisms have evolved to rely on sounds to provide important cues to navigate, forage for food, avoid predators and enable communication.”

But during recent decades, the underwater soundscape has changed from one that featured mostly natural sounds to one in which some regions are dominated by human noise pollution, from shipping traffic, seismic exploration, oil drilling and offshore windfarms. The increase in background noise has been linked to strandings, decompression sickness and behavioural changes.

There is actually nothing ‘background’ about such noise. The report notes the miracle of humpback-whale song, audible “up to 16,000 kilometres away.” But it wasn’t until the brief ‘shipping silence’ after 9/11 that whales were able to lower their voices to ‘pre-modern’ levels. Tellingly, scientists only registered this heartrending fact inadvertently, when some impromptu, “unplanned analysis” of the quiet seaways detected “the first link between underwater noise and stress levels in whales”. Not—as a 2018 Japanese study documented—that the ‘revelation’ changed business as usual.


Pelicans, Velddrif, South Africa, 2015. (Photo by ElmienJ, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Male humpback whales are known for their evocative songs, but their classic melodies are being shortened or silenced in reaction to shipping noise… Baleen whales such as humpbacks use songs to communicate, but in Japan, their voices are being drowned out by the din of cacophonous human activity.

Meanwhile, back on our sound-drowned lands, the ‘breathing space’ afforded by the protracted calms of the global pandemic inspired, in countless thousands of urban centres, a beautiful sound track: simultaneously “softer” and “higher quality” birdsong, accompanied by a surge in “bird abundance.” Millions of humans, too, even in the midst of such fearful suffering, were deeply relieved by the unexpected peace and quiet; and many (myself included) dared hope that when the All-Clear sounded, the Bombardment—the decibel hurricane, polluting so many lives and lungs—would not resume.

Will “the world be quieter after the pandemic?” BBC Futures asked on 16 June 2020. So far, the answer is a re-sounding “No.” In October 2021, neuroscientist Nina Kraus lamented that “as human-made noise continues to go back to its pre-pandemic roar,” we need to remember “how harmful” that will prove to “plants and animals.” But we all need ‘more’ of the ‘less’ we heard.


It is 15 July 1915, and 20-year-old Charles Sorley is writing to his father from “a kilometre behind the lines” in Flanders: the Maw that will swallow him three months later. As he writes, the sun goes down and “there begins a sound…like a motor-cycle race—thousands of motor-cycles tearing round and round a track”. It’s only “a pair of machine guns firing,” he explains, as “one sound awakens another”:

…now at intervals of a few minutes come express trains in our direction: you can hear them rushing towards us; they pass going straight for the town behind us…but no, every time, just before they reach it, is a tremendous railway accident. At least, it must be a railway accident, there is so much noise, and you can see the dust that the wreckage scatters. Sometimes the train behind comes very close, but it too smashes on the wreckage of its forerunners. A tremendous cloud of dust, and then the groans.

Even that is just a prelude, for now “the fireworks are beginning,” and in all “the fun of the fair” you “will soon hear the riding-master crack his whip—why, there it is! Listen, a thousand whips are cracking,” on a mad mechanical ride to the “inevitable crash, the inevitable accident,” when perforce “the train service is cancelled (and time too).”

WWI soldiers cleaning a Lewis machine gun.

Photograph of a front-line trench. Two men can be seen sitting in the mud on the floor of the trench, cleaning the barrel of a Lewis gun. (National Library of Scotland, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons)

Sorley was a junior officer from the upper classes, unused to such dehumanizing din. Billy Prior, the working class anti-hero of Pat Barker’s WW1 Regeneration trilogy, complains that for almost all those in command, “England was a pastoral place: fields, streams, wooded valleys, medieval churches surrounded by ancient elms. They couldn’t grasp that for him, and for the vast majority of the men, the Front, with its mechanization, its reductions of the individual to a cog in a machine, its blasted landscape, was not a contrast with the life they’d known at home, in Birmingham or Manchester or Glasgow or the Welsh pit villages, but a nightmarish culmination.” A crescendo.

In the nuclear age, we should all be acutely aware of what the final ‘time-cancelling’ Crash—the ultimate “nightmarish culmination”—might be. In my look back in anguish at the 75th anniversary of the world’s first nuclear explosion—the Trinity test of 16 July 1945, in the New Mexico desert—I quoted physicist Otto Frisch recalling the “complete silence” in which, miles from Ground Zero, he viewed the blast, the deathly calm before “the bang” that “came minutes later…followed by a long rumble of heavy traffic very far away. I can still” (he wrote in 1979) “hear it.”

Generally, it is visual impressions that dominate accounts of what Kenneth Bainbridge called the “foul and awesome display” of the explosion: the “enormous flash of light,” I.I. Rabi said, that “blasted,” “pounced” and “bore its way right through you”. But for me—in its fusion of the Apocalyptic and the ordinary—Frisch’s evocation of the relentless, dull roar, echoed in the dead-sea churn of traffic, remains the most telling testimony of all. “Most experiences in life can be comprehended by prior experience,” another witness, Norris Bradbury, wrote, “but the atom bomb does not fit into any preconceptions possessed by anyone.” Humanity, indeed, had never before ‘succeeded’ in ripping apart, from inside, the atomic fabric of reality. But once it had, the unstoppable Roar grew louder and louder, ‘climaxing’ in the Soviet ‘Tsar Bomba’ atmospheric test in the Arctic in October 1961, a 50-megaton “planet shaker” over 2,500 times as destructive as the Trinity explosion.

Castle Bravo nuclear test 1 March 1954

Castle Bravo nuclear test, 1 March 1954 (Photo by Federal government of the United States, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The largest US test was the 15-megaton Castle Bravo blast – a thousand Hiroshimas! – in Bikini Atoll on March 1, 1954. Three times larger than its predicted yield, the fall-out contaminated a vast area, horribly poisoning the crew of a ‘far away’ Japanese fishing vessel. Thirty miles away, physicist Marshall Rosenbluth watched the mushrooming fireball “rising and rising, and spreading,” looking “to me like what you would imagine a diseased brain, or a brain of some mad man would look like.”

But what did it sound like? Though a recording of the detonation is included in a series of “harsh noise works” by conceptual artist Jliat, I haven’t listened, and urge readers to likewise settle for this account by Timothy Morton in his 2013 book Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World:

Words fail to describe the horror with which I heard the first few seconds… I had to tear the headphones off my head. There’s something about hearing that sound, that actual sound. It has been sampled and translated of course into an MP3, yet is a sample of the real sound of a real object, a massive bomb. Hearing it rather than seeing it, in a tiny movie image on YouTube behind the aestheticizing glass screen of your computer, restores to our aesthetic dimension a trauma and a pain we edit out at our peril..

There has been, Morton writes, a “traumatic loss of coordinates” caused by the atomic breach of reality in conjunction with accelerating climate breakdown: a “dissolution of the notion of world,” accompanied by “all the whirring machinery of capitalism.”

Hear ye, hear ye?


C.S. Lewis’ novel The Screwtape Letters (1943), an improbable wartime bestseller, consists of a series of epistles from a veteran lieutenant of Lucifer, Screwtape, to Wormwood, a struggling apprentice in the evil-tempter Arts. In order to reap whirlwinds of souls for their “Father in Hell,” Screwtape stresses, the God-fearing, peace-

Illustration of Screwtape from CS Lewis' "The Screwtape Letters"

Screwtape (The Illustrated Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis (1961). Illustrated by Papas. New York: Harper One Publishers.)

loving Opposition must be—loudly— hounded down. “Music and silence,” Screwtape shudders:

…how I detest them both! How thankful we should be that ever since our Father entered Hell…no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise—Noise, the grand dynamism, ruthless, and virile—Noise which alone defends us from silly qualms, despairing scruples and impossible desires.

“What is’t with me,” the novice-murderer Macbeth trembles, “when every noise appals me?” But soon the ‘grand dynamic’ kicks viciously in, and, ever more ‘ruthless, and virile’ in his crimes, he becomes deaf to his own “tale,/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/Signifying nothing.” The admission comes after the death of his wife, when hearing “a cry of women within” he recalls almost fondly “the time has been, my senses would have cool’d/To hear a night-shriek.”

“We will make the whole universe a noise in the end,” Screwtape prophesies: “The melodies and silences of Heaven shall be shouted down.” That, I believe, is the thermonuclear ‘end’ Morton heard; but we can all hear the preparatory Bedlam, most obviously in the Horror Show we take on the road—a million roads—every thudding, pounding day…

In The Tripartite Tractate, a gnostic text unearthed in Egypt in December 1945, “the marvels of silence” are described as “spiritual emissions,” “births” developing “the faculties of the mind.” We need, quite simply, to hear ourselves think, see ourselves drowning, before we can come to the rescue: “we need,” to quote Bishop William Barber’s Christmas Eve ‘Message of Peace for Ukraine and the World,’ “ceasefires everywhere.” Barber is a guiding spirit in the Poor People’s Campaign, working for ‘Moral Revival’ in America and everywhere human (and other) beings are struggling to live livable lives. But to buy ourselves time, we need a Time Out, “a ceasefire to make an honest assessment of where we are.” “All it requires,” Barber brings us the good news:

…is listening to the Spirit and just stop. Just stop. Stop. Cease firing. Let the night go silent. And hear the voice of God until the night becomes holy without the sound of war, and we study war no more.


Postscript & Appeal

I hope to return to the theme of the ‘Kingdom of Noise’ later this year, in a piece exploring ways we—locally, regionally, nationally, globally—can help each other ‘make an honest assessment’ of the multiple traumas of the pandemic era. I would deeply value any reflections, suggestions, stories readers may have on the impacts of noise—and quietness—before, during, and after COVID stopped us in our tracks.

Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton and the Canadian Pugwash Group. He may be reached here.