Response: Call of Apathy: Advanced Warfighter


The following article is a response to an article already published by Medium Difficulty, entitled “Call of Apathy: Violent Young Man and Our Place in War,” written by anonymous contributor W. The author of this article, J, saw a reflection of his own experiences in that article, but contacted us in order to expand, elaborate on, and trouble some of the ideas raised there.

J wishes to remain anonymous as he is still in active service. The following thoughts and opinions are his own.

by J

During most of 2010, I was deployed to southern Afghanistan. My job as an airborne sensor operator was to work with my crew and various agencies to find, fix, and eliminate “targets of interest” in the Helmand and Urozgan provinces.We were, for lack of a better term, assassins.

The tools of my particular trade weren’t guns or bombs. I’d leave the trigger pulling to faceless men like “W.” Instead, I was armed with two monitors, a joystick, and a radio.

Without going into specifics, someone somewhere with some authority would give us a target, someone to hunt. My crew and I would find the target, and together with anything from a fire team to a drone, we would kill, or occasionally capture, our mark. This went on day after day for months on end. Killing didn’t become routine; it was routine from the start.

I must confess: I never felt a thing.

This isn’t machismo. I am not boasting. And, in contrast to W’s claims, this isn’t sociopathy; it’s a lack of consequence. As someone who’s been to war I can tell you it’s an awful thing that no one should have to bear. Nevertheless, I still feel nothing about the deaths I witnessed and participated in remotely. There’s no revelry or regret. I have no traces of PTSD.

So what’s the difference between me and the 200,000 combat vets with PTSD? I’m not a psychologist but my best guess is likely the same as yours. I was behind a monitor the whole time. Every death, injury, gunshot, and explosion was only as real as watching it on the news or playing it in a video game. At the end of my mission I’d get a “congrats!” over IRC chat or through my headset. I’d log off, shut down my computer, and go back to my bed for a night of sound sleep, completely emotionally and physically untouched after helping to kill a real live human being.

It wasn’t until one particular mission, late in the summer, when a call was made to fire into a tree line by two Apache helicopters, that a light bulb went on. Everyone was so sure and so complacent that our target was hiding in the treeline that the order to fire was given without a second thought. As it turns out, he was indeed hiding in the treeline, but was using a large group of women and children to shield himself. After the Apaches fired, women with children in tow went scattering as fast as they could to the shelter of the mosque about a hundred yards away across an open field. Once we realized this, the firing stopped. However, I honestly don’t know how many people were injured that morning. Maybe none at all. However, there was no mission report and all video data went to some classified server somewhere; nothing to see, nothing to confirm. This doesn’t bother me as much as it raises questions about the status and effects of the future warfighter.

Am I the product of 20 years of desensitization? With the decrease in infantrymen and the increase in bomb-dropping drones, am I the model killer the military wants–or needs? It strikes me that the first generation to grow up not knowing a world without Call Of Duty or Battlefield is now coming of enlistment age, right as the military shifts to a digital battleground. If you were born when the original Mortal Kombat was released, you are now 19 years old — possibly a year into your first tour. If anyone wants to pay attention to the potential effects of game violence on human behavior, now is the time.

The list of questions raised by our military’s digital paradigm shift doesn’t stop with its effects on our youth. What few answers are provided are shrouded in the smoke and mirrors of “classified information” and “the interest of national security.” Is the risk of fratricide or civilian casualties through apathy worth the ease of war-fighting in a digital age? Are we saving lives while sacrificing our humanity? If we ever return to peacetime, will this technology be used against American citizens? Will it be sold to future enemies like so many technologies before it? These are only a few questions I find myself asking.

There is one certainty: as long as video games continue to glorify war and dehumanize the enemy (EA’s changing of “Taliban” to “OpFor” for instance), it will only get easier to teach our sons and daughters to kill. Video game makers are in a unique position to tackle contemporary war issues that no one else has, but so far have been entirely gutless in their approach, favoring marketing and giving in to pressure. At least they make a lot of money, though. Right?

The space between the killed and the killers in war is rapidly increasing, stifling all emotional investment. Men like “W” are on the way out and men like me are the future of warfare. Teaching a Soldier, Sailor, Marine, or Airman to press a button or issue an attack order over IRC is the easiest way to teach them to kill. There are no real faces, no real words, and no real blood. The act of killing another human being is reduced to a grainy, silent explosion on a monitor in a room 7,000 miles away, where men and women high five each other, crack jokes, and go home.

Sound familiar?

Further Reading: “Close Playing: Unmanned” (Medium Difficulty), “Call of Apathy: Violent Young Man and Our Place in War” (Medium Difficulty)

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  • Royal Cheese

    Video games ?

    You don’t need that to turn people into emotionless capable-of-killing robots, there’s plenty other tools for dehumanization, there’s truckload of books on this, and plenty of instruction manuals too.

    In my opinion (civilian, law student, europe), the psychology of killing in war is the result of interactions between many psychological elements, interacting with each others, with one result at the end : killing or not killing.

    The two most important subgroup of elements where psychological training can modify a person would be (imo) “what is human”, “what can you kill”.

    First, you need to dehumanize the enemy, through several steps.
    – they are not people (with their own lives, friends, families)
    – they are fighters without any strings attached to the society
    – they are separated from the rest of the environment (civilians, economy, culture fighters).
    Then, once you “separated the wheat from the chaff”, the final phase is turning them into a global “danger”, into a signal.

    When you’re going into a town or a valley to attack enemy fighters, you’re “securing the area from any danger” ; you’re not eliminating human beings carrying firearms, you’re removing a danger signal.

    => The danger signal can now be an IED, a suspicious walking person, SAF shots coming at your position, or even a potentially dangerous open-field, there isn’t any human involved in the threat analysing process, it’s all a matter of danger/risk management.
    Indeed, it’s much more professional and secure to think like that (if used intelligently), rather than just shooting at anything that looks like an enemy human and sitting there. It’s still allowing humans to kill other humans with an higher success rate on the psychological side.

    Then, you lock down the dehumanization : humans do not kill each others, humans have feelings, humans “have a lot of humanity in their heart”. You are a human. So any threats is not human, it is against the very nature of humans.

    Second, you now need to enforce the rule “everything that isn’t human, as defined above, should be treated as a potential threat, and be neutralised if necessary, for the survival of everything human”.
    => So when you kill an enemy human planting an IED or shooting at you, you are eliminating a threat, a danger, a risk, that is so far away from humanity it’s actually the exact opposite of a human. By killing that person, you are being human.

    Killing another specy is much more easy.

    Now, look at how newspaper, TV, politics portray talibans and insurgents : “talibans” and “insurgents”.

    In our culture (US/Europe), it means “some bearded islamists with AK, RPG and IED blowing up our troops – they’re basically, you know, being terrorists, doing their terrorist stuff, all days”.

    It sounds like they appear from nowhere, they happen to be there, and screw up the poor civilians rebuilding the country with our brave troops taking all these bullets for freedom and democracy.

    Not a single word regarding their motivation, why they’re fighting this war, how the hell these people can be send to from their villages/town the front, why these human beings decide to kill other humans being, using bombs/SAF/RPGs.

    If these fighters don’t have a personality, a culture, values, a past, relatives, how can they be human ? They aren’t according to what we perceive. It’s actually extremely hard to consider these running targets you see on embedded cam video posted online or leaked helicopter camera as humans.

    Of course, once you’re an infantry, see them getting close, shooting at you, then getting shot down, and you later walk by the bodies (if they couldn’t took them away) once the shooting ended, all you see is human bodies, behind that “danger signal” you shot at.

    The only thing video games, like Call of Duty and Battlefield, are doing, is portraying “enemies” (= insurgents/terrorists/anything shooting at you) as soulless bodies, without any humanity. Just like the rest of the ENTIRE society.

    You never see a family burying their deads, you never see them the next days during your patrols, you never feel people’s hostility, you never see people living their everyday-lives in what you consider your battlefield (if it has buildings, it’s a town with people living in it, or at least used to live there).

    You never see an enemy cry, you never see an enemy or an ally suffer (I’m not talking about the hollywood bullshit drama or the short viril grunt when hit, I’m talking about the real suffering that make you sick and unease), you never kill anyone like it actually is in reality (and that’s really horrible if you didn’t went through the process of dehumanizing your targets).

    Just like everywhere else in our society.

    Just because video games are labelled “fun” and “for kids/teens”, they’re getting all the flak about dehumanization, “they’re making money on war, that’s disgusting !”, but we’re missing a big point here : the entire society does the same, every single day since humanity exists.

    If you look at Antiquity, they kept selling wars and invasion to people, citizens and historians, it was the driving force of the society, whenever a society was powerful it was invading lands and get involved in wars all the time.

    If you look at Middle-Age, same phenomenon : the entire system (estates of the realm) was based on war (and its share of insecurity/security it provided).

    It never ended, war has always been the main focus of societies, be it military war or economic war.

    By having these 2 wars in the Middle-East, the military–industrial complexes of several countries are making tons of money, also making the factories work year-round. Same with Halliburton. Same with the money going back home to the families. Same with the Big Oil, getting deals they wouldn’t have get without these wars, allowing the US economy to keep on working on oil, with the same kind of basically-uncontrolled consumption.

    To keep the war going, the entire society is selling that war as a “good” war, a war with a meaning, a purpose, a goal, so everyone is well-fed : military industry, “patriots” minds, moral-hippies, america as the super-power beating the shit out of anyone messing with it, and the man on the street that wish his country wasn’t screwing everything up.

    Publishers (the ones deciding what kind of game they’ll sell to the masses) will jump on the bandwagon and try to get as close as the current stance on “war” by the society, to make profit on the PR/marketing made by the society. Nothing more, nothing less.

    If the society was currently selling war as tool for growing the nation’s power, or allowing its citizens to live (expansionism), video games would just follow immediately (or would simply fail to sell).

    Pretending video games are shaping how war is sold to the population is jumping on the scapegoat you’re being given, video games are just the latest entertainment system of a society selling war like that.

    Blaming video games for the dehumanization of our youth is like blaming Western movies for making the massacre of native indians historically acceptable. It’s picking the most visible element, while ignoring the most important elements.

    • Lurklen

      Well said, though I think the main point the author was trying to make was that the type of warfare that is becoming the norm is very similar to a video game and that could be dangerous. To put it another way, if you told someone that they could fight for freedom and kill the bad guys without ever having to leave the country or be shot at they’re more likely to consider it. Especially if they’ve grown up doing something very similer in their living rooms.

      It triggers all the same responses, it’s a very similar activity. It gives the same sense of risk and reward without any real sense of danger. And you get paid for it. So I understand his concern; and much like film and filmmakers I think it’s time game makers start trying to use the game medium to portray the truth of war and the effects it has on people.

  • Kitsune_Ikkin

    The problem with any claim that exposure to videogames makes it easier to dehumanize enemy combatants is that, outside of very particular circumstances, video game enemies share little in common with actual humans in experiential terms. Even a perfectly photorealistic fictional human elicits no empathy whatsoever if the player isn’t given a reason to care about it — and, if the player feels no empathy for it to begin with, it seems unlikely that anything they could do to it would affect their capacity for (or capacity for ignoring) empathy for actual human beings. Heck, judging by the reaction to Shadow of the Colossus in the gaming press (who probably play more games than anyone), it doesn’t even affect one’s ability to feel empathy for fictional monsters!

    As for the sensor operators and drone pilots of the world, it’s more likely that they’re caught up in the same sort of effect as players are than it is that videogames themselves are somehow responsible for their lack of caring. Their point of view has a lot of the same limitations as a player’s: limited sensory input, limited inability to interact with the target as anything other than an “on/alive, off/dead” light switch, and significant barriers to seeing the target as an individual. Simply knowing that something’s human doesn’t automatically lead to empathy, after all, or else the “A Million Is A Statistic” problem wouldn’t exist; there’s no reason why the pixels on a screen that represent an actual human life couldn’t fall into that same category as numbers on a page that represent hundreds or thousands of human lives. And, if that’s the case, then maybe empathy and dehumanization don’t play into their experience any more than it does a player’s — games don’t make it easier for them to kill, it’s just easy to begin with because it takes more to see someone as a person than the knowledge that they’re human beings.

    (If that’s true, of course, any solution would involve figuring out how to make people see pixels on a screen as people in the first place, rather than figuring out how to avoid desensitizing people to their natural empathy for other humans… and that’s something videogames might actually be able to help with)

    @Royal Cheese:
    You never see an enemy cry, you never see an enemy or an ally suffer (I’m not talking about the hollywood bullshit drama or the short viril grunt when hit, I’m talking about the real suffering that make you sick and unease), you never kill anyone like it actually is in reality (and that’s really horrible if you didn’t went through the process of dehumanizing your targets).

    I wouldn’t say never — you do get stuff like Final Fantasy Type-0 that puts a spotlight on the sort of undignified suffering that Hollywood and videogames avoid in order to make a statement. But it’s true that you’ll probably never see a Call of Duty spend nine minutes showing a minor character bleed out and die, sobbing, terrified and somewhat delirious.

    Honestly, though, that seems to be simply a matter of convenience. Showing the human cost of war in a game takes effort — screams and pleas need to be recorded, fear reactions need to be programmed into the AI, non-combatant NPCs need to be created from scratch in combat zones with proper animations — and that effort runs a massive risk of making the game less enjoyable to the majority of its players. I know my own behavior changes when game enemies crawl backwards away from me, begging me to stop if they’re knocked down and surrender when their commander’s killed, and I probably wouldn’t play a game like that at all if killing enemies was that game’s core engagement (like it tends to be in the various sorts of shooters). Type-0 can benefit from what it does only because emotional torque is essentially the point of the thing.

    Videogames don’t sanitize war to convince anyone of anything. They sanitize war because not only is sanitized war easier to make, the audience has a massive appetite for it as opposed to a limited appetite for brutal honesty. And the fact that, generally speaking, gamers really do find that sort of thing uncomfortable might be a better testament to the lack of true desensitization in gamers than just about anything.

    • inespie

      There are games, with “realism”, in gameplay, or honesty in war. Opf and Arma “mission” are the 9h long type where you crawl and wait for hour, and fire “on that thing” on the bush, and see that was a civilian. Damn, so the one who was shooting me on that forest 6h ago is still here.

      I liked the “Spec-op, the line ” approach with the phosphor. and the game in general. Feel just like another third person shooter, where you play a 3 man army, fighting rebels, then “traitors” US marines, learning to finish people wounded, or wait for theirs comrades to go out of cover for them. you have one of these “super weapon”, where you take a mortar, shoot some sort of camera on parachute from it, and use it to aim your phosphors shell on the blinking dots you see on the camera.
      Then, you have to get through this base. collateral damages.
      Then you see that the bad guys aren’t bad guys, and that the game teach’ed you to play like a psychopath.

      Of course, those game have less, less succeed than the blockbusters like Cod. But are not inde/niche.

  • ThirteenthLetter

    I’d really like to know what the actual objective of these sort of thumbsucker articles is. Is it that:

    a) the war in Afghanistan is a bad idea and should stop? In that case, it doesn’t matter whether we fight it with drones or bayonets. Going on about the bad side of remote weaponry is a dangerous distraction from the fact that we should end the war immediately.

    b) these weapons aren’t as effective as non-remote weapons, and so we should use the second and not the first in order to win the war? Seems unlikely, because there’s never any “dammit, we’ve got to beat those lousy Taliban but the drone strategy is losing” angle to this sort of article. Indeed, the enemy is othered, treated as some sort of natural, inhuman force instead of a real three-dimensional human society like ours with its own objectives and failings, and an anguished fatalism rules the day.

    c) we shouldn’t have unmanned drones, or remotely piloted weapons, or analysts stationed in the United States instead of closer to the battlefield, because these things are somehow immoral, unfair, or harmful to the operators? In which case I still have to ask how it’s worse in any of those senses than training young men to go over there in person and, in person, murder another human being. War is hell either way and nobody’s getting out undamaged; that’s why we should try not to get into one unless absolutely necessary.

    d) drones and remotely piloted weapons lead to more civilian casualties? If so, this is simply false. There were vastly more civilian casualties when the apex of warfare was dropping thousands of dumb bombs on cities from 30,000 feet in the air.

    Don’t beat around the bush, guys. State it clearly. What are you really trying to say? What’s the takeaway? What’s the recommended action here?

  • John Quindell

    One can foresee a future in which the military enlists people for programs which allow them to participate in the war effort from their homes. Volunteers would see what video warriors see in real time, online, and would be able to participate in carrying out missions. Just as members of firing squads are told that at least one of them has been given blanks instead of real bullets, armchair warriors would be told that only some of their would have a real effect on actual combat.

    This would have the effect of bloodying the hands of all volunteers, making participants (which would include very young children as they would lie about their age in order to be able to participate) “virtually” responsible for the killing. Feeling thus partially morally responsible, they would justify any and all wars in their minds and the war machine would roll on unchecked.

    Another thought: curious it is that none of the people who commit supposedly random mass shootings (Columbine, Aurora, Sandy Hook, etc.) has thought of putting a camera on their head with a realtime uplink to the internet so that everything that they see during their shooting spree could be seen by millions. The fact that none of those people has thought of doing so lends credence to the idea that the shootings are committed by Manchurian candidates.