What does war sound like now?

By Vanessa Barford
BBC News Magazine


The Gaza conflict is being played out to the noise of modern air raid sirens and drones, as well as the thump of shellfire and the roar of rockets, but the sound of war is always changing.

In Gaza, correspondents have described the whine of Israeli drones overhead. In Arabic they're known as "Zananna", literally "whining child".

media captionThe sound of explosions in Gaza

Then there is the occasional sound of warplanes streaking overhead and the thump of shells from Israeli ships.

In southern Israeli towns, residents are familiar with the sound of air raid sirens prompted by rockets from Gaza. There is the distinctive sound of the Iron Dome air defence system intercepting rockets in the sky above.

Particular noises are associated with particular conflicts, both by those who watch the news and soldiers and civilians who experience it firsthand.

media captionBBC correspondent Jon Donnison on the sound of the sea and shellfire from ships in Gaza

For many Britons, WWII brings back memories of wailing air raid sirens and the dull rattle of V1 flying bombs, otherwise known as doodlebugs.

More recently, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been punctuated by the explosion of improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

Some sounds - the silence of shock, the pain of the wounded and the cries of bereaved relatives - unite all wars.

But others, in many ways, help define a conflict.

media captionThe sound of Israel's Iron Dome defence system

"Every period has its own sound, all the way back to the Roman period, when you would hear the clash of shields in battle," argues Maj Charles Heyman, editor of Armed Forces of the United Kingdom.

"The key WWI sounds were artillery barrages. There were thousands of guns on each side, and the bombardment in France could be heard in Dover, and even sometimes in London.

"WWII was sirens, the Blitz and bombs, and the Spitfire. For me, helicopters have been the sound of the past 30 years, and this age is definitely marked by the sound of buzzing drones," he says.

media captionBBC correspondent Yolande Knell on the sound in southern Israel

Different wartime experiences are associated with different sounds, says Maj Chris Hunter, author and former army officer who served in the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and Northern Ireland.

He says his overarching memory of the Balkans is the "distant thud" of artillery shells and tank shells, while Iraq was distinctive for IEDs and Afghanistan for the sound of helicopters.

One of his most "terrifying" experiences was being ambushed while in a vehicle about 3km outside Basra.

media captionThe sound of Chinook helicopters in Afghanistan

"Suddenly there were really, really loud bangs from automatic guns, then a supersonic crack as bullets passed right in front of our faces - you could feel the air being cut in front of you.

"Bullets smashed through windows, there were whooshes of rockets, and then a shuddering as grenades exploded," he says.

Many wars are associated with the primary weaponry or tactic used.

The siege of Sarajevo - which saw 10,000 people killed between 1992 and 1995 - is often remembered for its terrifying snipers.

media captionSarajevo: Inside sniper alley

Hiding in high-rise buildings, gunmen picked off unsuspecting victims, killing them with a single shot to the head or heart.

The BBC's Dan Damon, who was in Sarajevo at the time, recalls having to cross sniper alley at high speed.

"To dodge the bullets and occasional mortar shell, flat out was the way to survive," he says. "I couldn't count the number of near misses - the streak of fire past the windscreen with the crack of the rifle a half-second behind."

media captionThe sound of 'shock and awe' in Iraq in 2003

Iraq is associated with the US-led coalition's "shock and awe" opening tactics, which rained down cruise missiles and bombs on Baghdad and other cities in a bid to destabilise the Iraqi military and force it to surrender.

"The noise was deafening but more shocking was the blast wave from the explosion. It was like someone thumping you in the chest and I was wearing my protective flak jacket," wrote BBC cameraman Duncan Stone in 2003, who had been based in Baghdad at the time of the initial bombings.

Helped by Hollywood films such as Apocalypse Now and Platoon, the Vietnam war is associated with the distinctive "whomp-whomp" of hovering Huey [Bell UH-1]helicopters.

media captionThe sound of an Argentine air attack

Patrick Hennessey, an author and former captain in the Grenadier Guards, says "the Chinook, with the distinctive thump of its double rotor, was the sound of Afghanistan".

However some conflicts sound like a "cacophony" of firing and machine guns, according to Major-General Julian Thompson, who led 3 Commando Brigade during the Falklands War.

"There was the whistling sounds of Argentine jets approaching, the roar of firing as people tried to shoot it down, the big splashes of bombs if they went into water. If something hit, like when HMS Antelope was blown up one night, there was a huge flash of light and crackling of flames.

"Then there were explosions, I'd liken some of the crunching noise to the noise you'd get if you throw a crate of beer bottles into a cellar, the crunching of glass breaking. There was a hell of a lot of noise."

media captionThe sound of tracer fire and rockets in the Falklands

Amyas Godfrey, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, says sound has always played a part in war - and although it's often associated with the primary weapon of a conflict, it's not always the case.

"If you think of 17th or 18th Century, the battlefield was purposefully controlled by drums and bugles. They conveyed messages, kept the marching pace and signalled the end of the fighting day," he says.

Sound can be a "two-sided coin" in war, he argues.

media captionThe sound of a US predator drone from 2002

"It can boost morale, like the bagpipes on the beaches of Normandy. It can be a statement like shock and awe, or the sirens in German Stuka dive bombers - to make a terrible noise and scare the enemy.

"But if you are on the receiving end, it can also signal game over," he says.

But it is not only the most obvious sounds that have a lasting impact.

"A major sound of war is the sound of white noise. If you are a commando, it's always in your ear, and every base location or operations room has that crackle of radios," says Godfrey.

media captionThe sound of WWII air raid sirens and V1 flying bomb or "doodlebug"

Hennessey cites the "whirl of generators" as another constant at modern patrol bases, while in a "surreal juxtaposition", whatever is playing on MTV can become a soundtrack to a war.

But Thompson says although war is full of noise, there is also another notable sound that shouldn't be forgotten - silence.

"They are whole days where nothing happens. There is a saying, war is boredom interspersed with sheer terror," he says.

Additional reporting from Kathryn Westcott