The magnitude and the music make war AOK

July 15, 2006 | By | Reply More

My government’s violent occupation of Iraq has not flustered me nearly as much as the nonchalance of half of America.  Why are so many Americans utterly complacent about the wretched and rampant killing going on in our names?  Is it possible that we have become confused and seduced by the magnitude of the killings and by the music?  Allow me to explain.

First, the magnitude.  Stalin’s well-cited quote comes to mind: “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.”  Perhaps the immoral nature of Bush’s aggression would be clearer had Bush caused the death of only one man.  Imagine this hypothetical: 

President Bush looks out the window of the oval office and sees a man wearing a backpack walking down the sidewalk.  In a dry-drunkish paranoid moment, Bush tells his security officers that the man walking down the sidewalk has nuclear weapons grade aluminum tubes in his backpack and orders his guards to capture “that terrorist.”  While capturing the man with the backpack (it turns out to be empty), a U.S soldier is accidentally shot by friendly fire of a fellow soldier.

It is later disclosed that, one minute before giving his order to capture the man, a former ambassador had advised Bush the man wearing the backpack had just been searched and that he was not carrying anything dangerous.  Then it came out that Bush and his highest advisers had intentionally blown the cover of a CIA agent to discredit the former ambassador.

“Such unforgivable lying,” the American people would immediately conclude. George W. Bush can no longer be trusted to be the President. He made up a story and needlessly caused a soldier to die.”

Perhaps this example seems outlandish, but how can it be any less outlandish than what has actually occurred in Iraq?  There, the deception of this Administration has so far caused the deaths of 2,500 U.S. soldiers and 100,000 Iraqi adults and children.  Yet to many, the deaths of these thousands seems less horrible than the death of one.  When we read of one child drowning or one adult killed by a carjacker, we wince.  When we hear that another 50 people were killed in Iraq each day, we simply throw it on a ethereal pile of statistics in our minds. Though Stalin’s idea seems counter-intuitive, I have no better explanation.

Is it possible that music is also to blame?  “That’s absurd,” many would say.  How could that be? 

Music is one of the triggers of the deeply-rooted frame by which we distinguish war from other forms of violence.  Just listen to the ubiquitous drumbeats that spur us on to war.  We hear them on the network news intros preceding those all-too-eager reports of people being blown up.  We’ve all seen news anchors who can barely disguise their almost sexual high as they talk about the bombs and blood.  No close up photography, though!  This is a news tease, not real news.

War is a sure cure for boredom, especially for broadcasters and advertisers.  There’s nothing like blanketing us with music during these extremely troublesome reports. The solemn beat of the bass drum and the heavily reverbed snare.  The patriotic brass and the strings to bring some culture to the vulgar proceedings.  Tying the acts of violence together with some form of driving harmony can give the viewers the sense that we are all of one mind.  Everything has been already decided.  Don’t interrupt the music with your doubts and protests! 

Just listen to any report that is pro-war or uncritical of war.  Somehow, music is a terrific substitute for reason. We hear slick music whenever we see videos of planes taking off from aircraft carriers.  Really, how could we ever have a special report on “terrorism” without music to enhance these reports that otherwise lack meaningful context, these hollow barkings? 

Drumbeats promote military recruiting commercials and synchronize those marching recruited soldiers.  Those pounding beats of music pervade and turbo-charge the jingoistic radio broadcasts of our Christian fundamentalists, perhaps the most fervent supporters of our military violence against Muslims.

Give them a good beat, Nietzsche wrote, and the people won’t need any other reason to go to war.  In fact, without the right kind of music, it wouldn’t be war, it would just be killing. 

Nietzsche often wrote of the seductive power of music:

Elemental overpowering force that humans experience in themselves when listening to music: rhythm is a compulsion; it engenders an unconquerable desire to yield, to join in; not only the stride of the feet but also the soul itself gives in to the beat– probably also, one inferred, the souls of the gods!  By means of rhythm one tried to compel them and to exercise a power over them

Nietzsche noticed that music served as “an advocate”:  “With tones one can seduce people into every error and every truth: who could refute a tone?”  Just how seductive is the power of rhythm?

Was there anything more useful than rhythm to the old superstitious type of human being?  One could do everything with it: promote some work magically; compel a guide to appear, to be nearer, to listen; mold the future according to one’s own will; discharge some excess (of fear, of mania, of pity, of vengefulness); from one’s soul and not only one’s own soul but also that of the most evil demon.  Without verse one was nothing; through verse one almost became a god.  Such a basic feeling cannot be completely eradicated– and still today, after millennia of work at fighting such superstition, even the wisest of us occasionally becomes a fool for rhythm, if only insofar as he feels a thought to be true or when it has a metric form and presents itself with a divine hop, skip, and jump.

[Each of these Nietzsche quotes is from The Gay Science, Book 2]

Half of America desperately needs force itself to occasionally think small scale without the salve of music. In the absence of clear and urgent reasons, shooting off people’s faces and burning their children is repulsive, even when (especially when) we justify it with phrases like “collateral damage.”  We need to hang onto this repulsion, even when the music starts up and when the killings accelerate.  That natural repulsion is trying to tell us something.  We shouldn’t drown it out with music or with the magnitive of the killings.

That which is repulsive when done once in silence, is still repulsive when done repeatedly to a steady beat.


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Category: American Culture, Iraq, music, Politics, Psychology Cognition, Statistics

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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