Journal of the Society for American Music

Research Article

“You are in a place that is out of the world. . .”: Music in the Detention Camps of the “Global War on Terror”



Based on first-person accounts of interrogators and former detainees as well as unclassified military documents, this article outlines the variety of ways that “loud music” has been used in the detention camps of the United States‘ “global war on terror.” A survey of practices at Bagram Air Force Base, Afghanistan; Camp Nama (Baghdad), Iraq; Forward Operating Base Tiger (Al-Qaim), Iraq; Mosul Air Force Base, Iraq; Guantánamo, Cuba; Camp Cropper (Baghdad), Iraq; and at the “dark prisons” from 2002 to 2006 reveals that the use of “loud music” was a standard, openly acknowledged component of “harsh interrogation.” Such music was understood to be one medium of the approach known as “futility” in both the 1992 and the 2006 editions of the US Army's field manual for interrogation. The purpose of such “futility” techniques as “loud music” and “gender coercion” is to persuade a detainee that resistance to interrogation is futile, yet the military establishment itself teaches techniques by which “the music program” can be resisted. The article concludes with the first-person account of a young US citizen, working in Baghdad as a contractor, who endured military detention and “the music program” for ninety-seven days in mid-2006—a man who knew how to resist.


Much of the research for this essay was done when, as a Fellow of the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard University, I participated in the 2006–7 workshop “Cultural Reverberations of Modern War,” led by Nancy Cott and Carol Oja. I am grateful to Professors Cott and Oja, to my workshop colleagues Alan Braddock, Susan Carruthers, Susan Geiger, Beth Levy, David Lubin, and Kimberley Phillips, and to student participants whose names I never knew for their comments on my work. An early version was delivered at the conference “Music, Gender and Justice” organized at Syracuse University by Amanda Eubanks Winkler, 14–15 September 2007. Conversations with Vita Coleman, Martin Daughtry, Harlene Gilbert, Alexander Karsten, Margaret McFadden, Martha Mockus, Ana María Ochoa Gautier, Stephen Oleskey, Judith Tick, Holly Watkins, and Elizabeth Wood helped me clarify my thoughts, as did the editorial queries of Ellie Hisama and Ben Piekut. I am grateful for the many courtesies of Maryam at Above all, I gratefully acknowledge the courage and generosity of Moazzam Begg and Donald Vance, both of whom agreed to talk with me by phone about their detention experiences.