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Make Believe Counter-Insurgency


War, the old saying goes, is “hell.” But what about video war? Polls show that many Americans are fast souring on US military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. But, paradoxically, sales of video war-games like Call of Duty, which allow consumers to become “cyber-soldiers,” pulling the trigger on Taliban-style “terrorists” in wars just like the ones they say they oppose in real life, are booming.

Are Americans of two minds about the messy, morally ambiguous conflicts that the Pentagon insists we must fight?

Or perhaps, much like faithful churchgoers who rail against sin, and adultery, while secretly surfing for porn or engaging in illicit sex, they know deep down that these wars are bad but still fantasize mightily about fighting them from their living room.

If you think it’s only Survivalists and Skinheads buying these games, take a look at the sales numbers. Call of Duty: Black Ops, the third installment in the new and wildly popular Call of Duty series, was released just a few short months ago. Its sales volume has already surpassed that of its enormously successful predecessor, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.

In fact, in its first five days on the market alone, the sales revenue generated by Black Ops exceeded $650 million, beating the previous five-day global record for movies, books, and other popular video games like Grand Theft Auto. Clearly, Americans – men and women, adults and youth – are “hooked.”

And Blacks Ops not only allows you to kill, but as its name suggests, to engage in covert activities in dubious conformity with established rules of war. Abuse of prisoners in secret jails isn’t on the menu, but killing informants and targeting political cadre are. After all, they are part and parcel of any modern counterinsurgency campaign.

Yet they are the very activities that have gotten US troops – and our nation as a whole – into so much trouble, politically, and prompted calls for our withdrawal.

Amazingly, Activision, the manufacturer of Black Ops and its predecessors, is aggressively promoting the game with expensive 60-second ads that run on national television during prime time. Popular celebrities like Los Angeles Laker basketball star Kobe Bryant are shown breaking down doors and taking out “the enemy” in surprisingly vivid, and brutal, house-to-house combat.

The title of these ads? “There’s a soldier in ALL of us.” Talk about “bringing the war home.”

The physical harm of playing video war games is fairly low, of course. Raised blood pressure, bleary eyes, and a strained wrist, from zealous overuse, at worst. But their impact on our national psyche? That’s where consumer wars are actually fought and won, and their real costs must be reckoned.

Are games like Black Ops contributing to an underlying acceptance of global counterinsurgency ? conveniently repackaged as anti-Al Qaeda “counter-terrorism” ? and somehow binding Americans psychologically to perpetual war, while desensitizing many of us to its grisly affects?

Liberal psychologists have long argued that the violence shown on television tends to beget violence in everyday life. And those teenage killers at Columbine High School? We all know that they hatched their murderous plot based on scenarios they’d studied over and over again in the violent video games they played.

Of course, Americans aren’t out on the streets burning down mosques or rounding up suspected Islamic fundamentalists and their families ? not yet at least. But in the event of a future terrorist attack on American soil, could otherwise mild-mannered Americans find themselves getting in touch with their “inner Rambo”?

Pentagon war planners must be overjoyed. They still can’t get a draft started, and Congress won’t formally declare war. But maybe they’ve found a subtler and even more effective way to rally Americans ? by bloodying their hands remotely – in the unavoidable nastiness that military planners now like to call “4th generation” warfare.

It’s also eerie that these new home-based, war fantasy games seem to parallel the increasingly remote, hi-tech, and desensitized nature of America’s actual participation in overseas wars.

Take the escalating campaign of “drone” attacks directed by the CIA and the Pentagon against presumed Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan. This has become the cutting edge of the US war effort in the entire Afghan “theater,” allowing US forces to limit their ground casualties while circumventing the presumed incompetence and mixed loyalties of our “allies.”

But the directors of these campaigns aren’t based in Kabul or Islamadad, but in some plush office at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, or at a Special Ops Command headquarters in south Florida. And while their spy equipment is more sophisticated than a video game’s, much like today’s civilian “cyber-soldier,” they can kick back, identify targets, and fire away – and their long-distance “kills” are mere images on a screen.

The CIA and the Pentagon even get to compete against each other, much as participants in games like Black Ops do.

But of course, these attacks do kill – and not just soldiers. US commanders like David Kilcullen, a recognized counterinsurgency expert, have testified that most of the casualties from US drone attacks, which have escalated sharply in recent months, are civilians. Some may be combatant family members or unarmed support personnel but most are civilians completely uninvolved in the hostilities – known as “collateral damage” in Pentagon war-speak.

So, the rise of video war games may be part of a macabre “convergence” of sorts. War is beginning to look more like play, and play is increasingly turning to war. And the dividing line between “civilian” and “military” ? both on the ground and “stateside,” which now seems to include the cyber-world, is becoming blurrier than ever. That means it’s also getting harder to define and measure our complicity – and to assign the moral blame.

Isn’t that just how the new Pentagon war hawks and their apologists want it?



Stewart J. Lawrence can be reached at

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