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.
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.