[Editor’s Note: W is an experienced soldier with combat experience in several corners of the world. They are now working as a PMC and cannot reveal their identity due to the possibility of backlash. As they put it, “The military is a very, very tight-knit community.” This article has been edited for style and clarity; no additions or deletions have been made.
W's opinions are, of course, their own.]
Disclaimer: I am not an academic. I have no education past the age of 16, so my writing may be rough. What I do have is an entire adulthood of military service, which I terminated recently when I decided I wanted more money for doing the same job.
I am a private military contractor, and I have an issue with the depiction of war in videogames — or more specifically, the soldiers in those games.
When I say soldier, let me be clear that I am talking about the Infantryman and the Special Forces operator, as I have next to no knowledge about anything outside of this relatively small percentile of service personnel.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of games featuring the military focus on these frontline combat troops in “realistic” action. And that’s where we get problems.
Imagine a war game where you could only move at a slow walking pace. Imagine Skyrim when your inventory is too full, except you can’t drop any of it. This war game has a prone button like Call of Duty, but your character takes 2-3 seconds to change position. Every time you press it, the animation gets slower because your character becomes more and more tired.
Every mission is set in the same level. They each take 12 hours to complete. Sometimes, absolutely nothing happens. Other times, your lead guy gets blown up and you spend the next hour or so casevac’ing [ed note: casualty evacuating] him while under fire.
Other missions involve you being under fire for the entire patrol. You never see the enemy, just fire at the long grass in front of you as you crawl slowly to some cover. If you get up, you will be cut down within seconds, so this process takes hours. When you reach the enemy compound, if the enemy haven’t run away, dropped their weapons, and are pretending to be farmers, or if you haven’t called in enough ordnance to flatten Mexico, you will kill them in the most horrible way imaginable. That is your incentive.
Only a violent sociopath would play this game.
We do it for real, time and time again, with no other motivation but pay, leave, and the chance to brutalise whomever we deem the “enemy”. This is the lot of the combat soldier.
In military videogames, you tend to get “good guy” characters that are the rough and ready types. The situation may be chaotic, but they crack on with the task in hand to the best of their ability, never let anyone down, and may or may not die in a dramatic fashion. Good, wholesome stuff.
Then there are the Tier 1 types: a more modern iteration that exists thanks to games like Modern Warfare and Medal of Honour. These stone-cold killers speak in clipped monotones, uttering the odd cool one-liner to show that although they are still human, they will never be anything but utterly professional. Both kinds of soldiers end up wrapped up in something bigger than themselves, their missions are always of utmost importance, and every action they take is ultimately justified.
Good enough for entertainment, but should war be sterilised and glorified in this way? Here is the crux of my beef with the military videogame genre:
None of the stereotypes exist. They are put in place by a media and a military that hates the wars we fight but loves the men fighting in them.
Let me give you an example. I was in Iraq in 2007. Over a 3-month period, we saw some of the bloodiest fighting since the invasion, losing more than ten men and killing hundreds of insurgents. A reporter for a very well-known men’s lifestyle magazine visited us to learn about our experiences. About halfway through his escort, an officer from the military media centre tells him that he is not allowed to speak to us anymore. He has to use stories taken from a non-combat unit earlier that day. It turned out that the officer was appalled at the jovial nature of our recollections; the story in which a vehicle commander sawed two men in half with a mounted machinegun because they were on their phones “dicking” us made him balk in particular.
The journalist took some pictures of us because we looked “warry” and lo and behold, 2 months later, the magazine has an article about some medic that helps local civilians accompanied by pictures of infantrymen in full gear.
This is one of countless ways the military carefully shapes the public opinion of the troops. It’s a shameless PR exercise. One of our guys got a Military Cross (a medal for bravery) awarded after he got shot in the bum and continued to fight. His platoon was isolated on a rooftop with no escape for hours, and there was literally nothing else he could do but fight. This does not make him a hero. It makes him a soldier with a sore bum.
Next time you watch a military documentary, ask yourself why only 3 or 4 men are ever interviewed from a unit. The answer?
The rest of them are like me.
There’s a reason the new guy always gets put on point and nobody really cares when he gets blown up, that so many incidents of collateral damage go unreported, that failed missions are spun into something positive like gathering “valuable intel,” and why only roughly 20% of combat troops ever get PTSD – when if you think about it, it should affect everyone that ever sees combat.
It’s because the vast majority of us are straight up sociopaths.
Heroes are a myth. Every incident I can recall in war that created a hero was either an accident or ended up with said hero in a body bag.
Which makes the “hero” myth a fight of luck versus stupidity, a roll of the dice.
We all make calculated risks in war. Not one of us would make that risk if we genuinely thought it would get us killed.
I’ll say it again. Heroes in a frontline combat context do not exist.
Here is a real scenario that should be put into a game:
A friend of mine came under fire inside a compound. He followed up the shooter, who disappeared into an escape tunnel. My friend followed standard procedure and threw a grenade into the tunnel entrance before following up. When entering the tunnel, he found only the bodies of a woman and a small child, whom the terrorist had used to cover his escape.
When I spoke about it to my friend years later, he recalled how pissed he was at losing the insurgent, and how bad he felt afterwards about it. He’d had his professional pride tarnished. I asked him if he ever thought about the woman and her kid and he just looked at me blankly.
He didn’t even remember they were there.
This is a serious issue that needs to be addressed in videogames. How would you feel if you accidentally killed an innocent child in a game? If the words “MISSION FAILED” appeared, but then disappeared after a few seconds, leaving you to continue as normal with no repercussions. Any normal person would feel guilty, but that’s my point. Combat troops are not normal people.
War is the most horrific, sickening thing mankind can inflict upon itself, fought by and large by uneducated maniacs that have no other place in the world. Videogames have the attention of the youth and can educate as well as entertain. The real horrors need to be made very public to keep the next generation from turning out like us.
My friends and I are not represented anywhere in mass media. People need to realise that their wars are not fought by the guy on the news that lost a leg and loves his flag — he was the FNG [ed: fucking new guy] that got blown up because he was incompetent, who left the fight before it turned him into one of us.
The world needs to be made aware of my kind: the silent majority of fighters, those that do not care about politics, religion, ethics, or anything else other than war for war’s sake.
We are not our forefathers. We were not conscripted. We know the dangers. We are not naïve and we are very real.
But I’m sure everyone would rather watch Captain Price stab another faceless goon in the neck whilst chasing the big bad all over the world again.
One last thought: My psychologist estimated that roughly 80% of infantrymen have an undiagnosed violent personality disorder. These aren’t hard stats, but’s it’s interesting when compared to the 20% that suffer from PTSD.
I am perfectly sane, but as the psychiatrist said to me before referring me to a psychologist:
“You’re probably just a complete bastard.”
A true assessment.
Further Reading: “Call of Apathy: Advanced Warfighter” (Medium Difficulty)