Jan Philip Müller – The Electronic Battlefield, the Acoubuoy and The Ears of the Jungle. The Becoming-ecological of Radiophonics in the Vietnam War, ca. 1966-1974

In a short text with the title Radical Radio Murray Schafer has written about the idea of a Wilderness Radio that would feed back the sounds of nature back into human urban environments. Actually, something very similar has been done by the US-Armed Forces in the Vietnam War, just around the time that Schafer developed his concepts of an ‚acoustic ecology‘. I would like to tell some stories of Operation Igloo White, thinking of it as the evil and weird twin of Schafer’s Wilderness Radio in a media-archaeology of sonic ecologies.

Beginning around 1966 the US-American Department of Defense devised and put into operation a new strategy to secure the McNamara-Line between North and South Vietnam; an ‚Electronic Wall‘: Hundreds of electronic sensors were dropped into the confusing jungle by air in order to detect and eliminate the traffic along the Ho-Chi-Minh-Trail that was used to infiltrate South Vietnam. One of these sensors was called ‚acoustic buoy‘, or ‚Acoubuoy‘. It would ‚recognize‘ the sounds of trucks and of people stepping on small mines and send its signals back to a computerized information center in a secret and remote location. There the data produced by this whole net of sensors would be gathered to calculate and predict the enemy‘s movement and thus to localize it in the Vietnamese ‚soundscape‘. But this kind of a reversal of the classical structure of radio broadcast would bring about a whole set of new problems: How to filter ‚technological‘ sounds (of eg. trucks) out of natural noise (eg. crickets or rain and thunder)? How to identify friend and foe? How to connect this radiophonic topology back to the mapped ‚ground‘ of the battlefield?

Some of the epistemic, political, technological and aesthetic problems and potentialities of this set-up are negotiated in the novel Ears of the Jungle (1974) by Pierre Boulle: With the help of local ‚indigenous‘ tribes the head of the North Vietnamese intelligence discovers the acoubuoys and plots a grand counteroperation. By acoustic deception with tape recorders the American Bombers are misdirected and (ab)used for her own goals. The bombs and napalm are redirected to hunt animals as food, to clear the forest for rice fields and for the roads that in turn would lay the foundation of an independent and unified Vietnamese people. While Schafer‘s Wilderness Radio ultimately relies on a feasible distinction of natural sounds and the noise of man, Ears of the Jungle points to sonic ecologies that are marked by recursions and potential oscillations between strategies of acoustic surveillance and deception, signal and noise, technology and nature.

Jan Philip Müller studied cultural studies and economics in Berlin and graduated with a thesis on the media history of the x-ray image. In 2015 he finished his doctoral dissertation „Audiovision and Synchronization. Seeing, Hearing, and Simultaneity in Technical Arrangements of the 19th and 20th Century: Astronomical Observatory – Psychological Experiment – Sound Film“ at the Bauhaus-University, Weimar. Since then, he is working at the University of Basel as a post-doc and coordinator in the research project „Radiophonic Cultures – Sonic Environments and Archives in Hybrid Media Systems“. In the context of this project his research focuses on the history of sound art installations and ‚free radio‘ stations as experimental arrangements of radiophonics.

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