A flimsy pretext for a post: drones and The Drones

The Drones are a powerful band on many levels.  One of their powers in my case, is that they helped me get over my case of cultural cringe (the belief that Australian cultural products are inherently inferior to those produced overseas, particularly in Europe and the United States).

The Drones in the bush

The Drones aren’t great and cool despite being Australian, but because they’re Australian.  Their Australian-ness is itself a crucial part of their shtick and of their attraction.  Lead singer Gareth Liddiard’s accent is almost comically ocker (I said almost).  And although their sound, at least on the first couple of albums, harks back to many non-Australian forebears like the swamp-rock psychobilly of The Cramps and the noisy punk-metal sounds of bands like Black Flag, there is still something quintessentially Australian about the music, beyond Liddiard’s vocals.  It sounds like isolation, dirt and big, empty space.  A prime example of this Australian sound is ‘The Island’ from their first album Here Come the Lies.  “By day the flies came, by night the mosquitoes” has to be the best nine-word description of Australia ever thought up.

The United States first conducted experiments with auto-piloted planes, aka drones, during World War I.  But it is only since Obama assumed the Presidency in 2008 that they have been used regularly.  Under the Obama administration, drones have become a significant element of the US military machine.  Most famously used in Pakistan, they are also deployed in Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia.  The US is not the only user of drones: the UK and Israel have some too.  Drones’ most controversial function is their ability to launch missiles, although only five per cent of the US fleet actually has that capability.  Most drones are in fact used for surveillance.

The debate over the relative merits of unmanned and manned aircraft is so hot right now.  There are those who claim that drones are morally preferable to manned aircraft because they do not endanger a pilot’s life.  Proponents also argue that drones are more precise than their manned counterparts meaning that, despite perceptions, they result in less civilian casualties.  On the other side of the debate, there are those that say that the complete removal of risk to one side of the human conflict is unfair, that the rules of war are based on the precept of mutual mortal risk, and that drones are hence morally reprehensible.

One particular worrying aspect of drone warfare is that they may make it easier for governments to give the go ahead to acts of violence or even war.  The removal of direct peril to aggressor governments’ citizens may make those governments feel less answerable to those citizens (although they would still be spending huge amounts from the public purse).  In this way debates about whether to enter a conflict could be short-circuited.  Despite the current debates in foreign policy circles, unmanned warfare certainly gets less public attention than conflicts in which American troops are serving and dying on a daily basis.  That gap has been recognised but not yet addressed.  An effort to increase the public visibility of drone warfare, an app that maps drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, was recently rejected by Apple.

Drones app?

The Drones deal with Australian history a lot, but given the entirely flimsy premise of this post is the fact that their name coincides with a controversial weapon of war favoured by the Obama administration, we’ll turn instead to their songs concerning war on terror politics.  Discussing his 2010 solo album Strange Tourist, Liddiard questioned why no musicians were writing about the politics of terrorism: “No one else seems to write about anything like that. Even though there’s all this bullshit, terrorism, things like David Hicks.  The shit’s everywhere, but why does nobody take it up apart from journalism?  It’s fucking bizarre… I just think that its fucken weird that no one else does it. So this is kind of like ‘hello! What are you fucking doing?’”

The opening track to The Drones’ third album Gala Mill is the eight-minute long ‘Jezebel’.  The song drones on and on, hurling horror and despair about a world that “prefer[s] a civil war” to a tyrant.  The long, repetitive verses are interspersed with a simple, strangely sweet chorus, composed of just one line “I….I would love to see you again”.  The lyrical highlight of the song comes though when the narrator shoots “a woman in a headscarf” who asks, “does my bomb look big in this?”

Drones were first used in Pakistan in 2004.  The South Asia Terrorism Portal database has recorded 251 such attacks, with at least 2,371 killed.  The New America Foundation counts 330 strikes and 3,171 deaths.  The drone attacks in Pakistan target members of the Haqqani network, Al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban.  They have been highly successful.  Since June this year drones have killed Al Qaeda’s 2nd in command and the Haqqani network’s 3rd in command.

Drones are, unsurprisingly, deeply unpopular in Pakistan.  A survey conducted in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in 2010 found 90 per cent of respondents were against US army activity in their region and over 75 per cent opposed US drone strikes.  As The Atlantic points out, drones are helping the US lose the “war of perception” in Pakistan.

An airstrike doesn’t need to be unmanned to be controversial though.  By far the most controversial attack in recent times was the November 2011 NATO air strike that killed 28 Pakistani soldiers on the Afghan-Pakistan border.  In response to the attack Pakistan closed its Afghanistan supply route to ISAF forces, stating it would not reopen it until receiving an apology.  And a guarantee that the use of drones on its territory would be stopped.  US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton finally gave the apology in June this year and the supply route was promptly opened.   US drone strikes on Pakistani soil have however continued unabated since.

The final song on Liddiard’s debut album is ‘The Radicalisation of D’.  D is for David. David Hicks, convicted Australian terrorist who spent six years in Guantanamo after being picked up by US forces in Afghanistan.  Actually Hicks’ story is just a springboard for the story of D.  The song is not really political at all, instead it’s a compelling portrait of a young, lost, impressionable, empty, lonely boy, and an attempt to explain why ordinary people are pulled into strange pursuits in the search for belonging and meaning.  It is eminently relateable and that, in the end, is its message.

Drones have been so successful in Pakistan that it is running out of high-level targets.  Yemen on the other hand is “target-rich”, with the White House declaring earlier this year that the country’s Al Qaeda affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) is the biggest terrorist threat to the US.  The Brookings Institute warns not only that the US has no clear strategy for its undeclared drone war in Yemen but that it risks entanglement in brooding civil unrest in that country.  Yemen’s insurgents are closely allied with Yemen’s terrorists – by attacking them the US implicitly supports the current Yemeni regime.  It may be that supporting the Yemeni regime is something the US is comfortable with, but that is a conversation that has not yet taken place.

Some suggest US drone activity also encourages sympathy towards Al Qaeda among Yemen’s population: although drones may have reduced AQAP’s leadership ranks, it has not had the same effect on the rank and file.  AQAP membership in Yemen is said to have more than doubled since drones started to be used in 2009.

As a postscript, there are Australian dimensions to this story: the ABC recently ran a sensational report on the use of a South Australian airbase by US drones, a fact only made public after being spotted by amateur aviation enthusiasts.  It has also been revealed that the Australian Defence Force deploys unarmed Israeli-owned drones in Afghanistan and that it may have intentions of buying its own.


From Panama to Guantanamo: Music as Torture

When Panama’s General Manuel Noreiga took refuge in the Vatican Embassy in December 1989, the US military brought out the big guns.  Those guns included Guns N’ Roses, Elvis Presley, Styx, Billy Idol, The Doors, Twisted Sister, Judas Priest, Led Zeppelin, Boston, Funkadelic, Kiss, Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper, Steve Miller, Whitesnake, Van Halen, Joan Jett, Tom Petty, AC/DC and Pink Floyd.

A few days earlier US President George Bush had launched Operation Just Cause, an invasion of Panama aimed at deposing military dictator Noriega.  The US Commander in Chief detailed the justifications for the invasion hours before the operation commenced.  They were 1) to safeguard the lives of Americans living in Panama, 2) to defend Panama’s human rights and democracy, 3) to combat drug trafficking and 4) to protect the Torrijos-Carter treaties.  Those treaties transferred control of the Panama Canal from the United States to Panama on 1 January 2000 and maintained the US’s right to defend the canal from any threat to its neutral use with military force.

The United States government had supported Noriega until a military crackdown on protesters and declaration of emergency rule in July 1987 after which then President Ronald Reagan applied sanctions.  Six months later courts in Tampa and Miami, Florida, charged Noriega with drug trafficking.

The music was broadcast from a military radio station that allowed soldier requests from Boxing Day until 29 December.  President Bush, clearly not a rock fan, described the tactic as “irritating and petty”.  It was ordered by General Thurman to act as a “sound barrier” to prevent journalists eavesdropping on negotiations for Noriega’s handover.  But it was also a useful form of psychological pressure on both Vatican Embassy staff and Noriega himself, and many considered that to be the true motivation.

The tactic has continued to be used by the US, including on those detained in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, despite a United Nations ban on the use of loud music during interrogations.  Particularly popular songs include AC/DC’s ‘Hell’s Bells’, Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman’, Eminem’s ‘White America’, Nine Inch Nails’ ‘March of the Pigs’, Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ and the Sesame Street song.  Other artists frequently cited as used in military interrogations (or to prevent inmates from communicating with each other according to some US military sources) include Queen, Britney Spears, Rage Against the Machine, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam, Don McLean, Marilyn Manson, The Bee Gees, Barney the Dinosaur and Tupac.

Some of the songs chosen are perfect, lyrically and aurally, for their (despicable) use.  ‘March of the Pigs’ particularly stands out (though it makes me love it no less).  Whoever thought of using Britney Spears must be a military strategist of the highest order, and severely sadistic.  Others are less appropriate (for want of a better term).  ‘Born in the USA’ is, of course, congenitally misused.  Eminem’s ‘White America’ is a dig at the angry disaffection of white American youth as personified my Mr Mathers himself and really a very odd choice.

A campaign called zero dB, calling for an end of the use of music as torture, was started in 2008.  It is supported by Massive Attack, Bruce Springsteen, The Doves, R.E.M., Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails, Steve Earle, Billy Bragg, The Magic Numbers, Rosanne Cash and others.  Its main success seems to have been increasing awareness rather than securing government commitments to halt the practice.

Opera-loving Noriega surrendered on January 3 1990.  He completed his sentence in the United States in September 2007.   He has been in a French jail since February 2010 when he was sentenced to seven years for money laundering.

Swinging Saigon

Soundtrack for this post: ‘The Greatest Love’ by Bich Loan and CBC Band, ‘Long, Uneven Hair’ by Thanh Mai and ‘Riddles’ by Phuong Dung.

Things will be quiet around here for a few weeks.  I’m going for a Holiday in Cambodia and Vietnam.

Speaking of Vietnam…some really great funk/soul/rock was produced there in the late sixties and early seventies.  Vietnamese music had before been influenced by the west – it was of course part of French Indochina from the 1880s until the 1950s – but that influence was intensified in the south with the American war of 1959-75.

Some of the music that resulted was documented in the Sublime Frequencies compilation Saigon Rock & Soul: Vietnamese Classic Tracks 1968-1974, released in 2010.  Most if not all of this music was recorded at US bases, with GI audiences in mind.  The scene came to an end with the fall of Saigon in 1975.

With the caveat that I speak zero Vietnamese, with titles like ‘Your Hair Clip’ and ‘The Crazy Song’, these songs don’t appear to be explicitly political in content.  The way the music came together and the way its sounds is though political in itself.  No doubt escapism was a significant motivation for making and listening to this music too.

The first of the songs in the above playlist, by The CBC Band, is I think the most conventional to western ears.  If the lyrics weren’t in Vietnamese it would easily pass as an American group (and a good one).  It even has a film clip which is all hair, waistcoats and flares.  Despite the visuals though, the sound is more garage-stoner rock than psychedelia.

The CBC Band fled Vietnam at the height of their popularity in 1974 after receiving news the south was likely to fall.  They went to Indonesia to seek asylum in Australia.  This failed (Australia didn’t begin taking Vietnamese refugees until 1975) and they ended up in Bombay.  In October 1975 they were allowed to resettle in the United States where they continue to play to this day.

The second song on the playlist, ‘Long, Uneven Hair’ by Thanh Mai, is probably my favourite.  The production, instrumentation and vocals are all very Nancy Sinatra (when she was produced by Lee Hazlewood).  The lead guitar alternates between mellow doodling in the slow bits and fuzzy solos in the fast bits.  The tempo changes are a bit unusual for a pop song and I wonder if that could be a Vietnamese influence on the song.  I don’t know.

‘Riddles’ by Phuong Dung is the most unusual of these three songs.  Both the melody and singing style is more Vietnamese sounding than the other two tracks.  The sublimely languid opening three minutes are truly beautiful.  After that there’s one of those tempo changes again and the song gets a bit more upbeat.  I can’t really find the words to describe this song.  There is something unique about it, but it also feels familiar.

These songs are a great example of how wonderful cross-cultural pollination can be, and of the power of artists to create great things in the worst of conditions.  Please listen to them!

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