The Real Consequences Of War Fought Virtually

The Real Consequences Of War Fought Virtually

The blowup this week over gun-camera footage showing an Army operation raised comparisons to “video game-like” behavior by the men pulling the triggers. NPR’s “On the Media” looked at this controversy and the relationships among games, tactics and weapons systems.

“On the Media” spoke with Clive Thompson of Wired for 10 minutes. “I’m a little uncomfortable judging the behaviour,” of the soldiers involved, Thompson said. But he did acknowledge the footage’s similarity to the mission “Death from Above,” in the first Modern Warfare.

If I’m reading Thompson and his host correctly, the discomfort people have with this kind of behaviour is the fact it’s completely depersonalising the taking of another’s life, regardless of whether it looks like a video game or not. “There is a moral and ethical aspect to the way weapon systems are designed,” Thompson said, meaning the ease of killing they deliver, the distance they place between a human operator and his target, and the manner in which they depersonalise that target it or make it seem less real in life.

Thompson discussed games that actually sensitise players to the concept of death and violence, mentioning an example from God of War III in which players see Kratos through the eyes of his victims as they’re killed.

On the whole it’s a balanced examination of both games and military operations that keeps the purpose of both in their proper contexts. It’s worth the 10 minutes of your time. Thanks to reader NINgod for sending this along.

Virtual War [On the Media]


  • Just how exactly are the soldiers suppose to behave?
    They acted very professionally and ‘by the book’.
    Do people expect them to cry out in despair every time they fired?
    “Oooh, Im so sorry! War is terrible! I had to do it! Please dont hate me for killing you!” *pow pow pow. . .* “Oh God! What have I done!? Oh the humanity!”

    The media have it around the wrong way. The soldiers werent acting like they were playing a video game.
    Video games are played like soldiers perform in real life.

    • By the book? the rules of engagement for military personal are that gunships ARE NOT FIRST STRIKE WEAPONS YOU DO NOT USE THEM TO ENGAGE PEOPLE TO START WITH.

      They’re meant for fire support (the nearest squad was a fair way away and none of the people in the video are in a hostile posture) or for observation, not to be used as some impervious killing machine.

      And before anyone quotes the “danger” this pilot was in, the video shows that given the flight speed of the bullets used (30mm Chaingun rounds) the math shows given the delay between the sound of firing and impact the helicopter is a MILE or more AT LEAST from the target.

      The effective range of RPG-7s is 500 metres where tests showed that 4 metre large moving targets have a 100% chance of being hit within 50 metres but at 500 metres hit rates drop to FOUR PERCENT.

      In other words, men with no reason to be worried, no threat to them in any way by the people in the video with no threat to other people in the area opened fire on 2 journalists and men who are thought to be either bodyguards or simply civilians (the fact that one or 2 might have had an AK-47 is irelevant as this is perfectly legal for iraqi civilians as the government realised people might want protection in a war zone).

      Its sick and twisted not “war is hell” it sure as hell isnt when you’re in a multi million dollar apache a mile from danger watching things through video feed.

      • Oh yeah and its been shown that the pilot lied to his CO about the number of people armed and mistook a tripod for an RPG7 something that he should be EXTREMELY familiar with.

        Not to mention part of the outrage is that even if the military does prove that the men operated within the RoE in some legalistic way it means that the RoE are disgusting and need to be changed, testimony from troops from the front line turned protestors have shown that civilian incidents like this HAPPEN EVERY SINGLE DAY AT THE HANDS OF US FORCES.


        • I totally agree with you LordLeckie. The link between this story and video games was really not clear, but what is clear is that there is nothing professional or ethical in the way these soldiers acted. And look at how the gunner reacts when he sees the crawling dude: he just wants an excuse to kill him for good, while this dude can barely crawl at all… Again, this is a chopper probably a mile away against… a crawling dude who could not have had anything like a hidden rpg or anything heavier than a revolver.

          And the debate about depersonalization in modern warfare is legitimate. In this case, it’s a chopper a mile away from the victims, but with the increase of robotics (and autonomous ones), it will become even more important to keep a check on RoE, how they are applied and checked. Yeah it’s war, but it has conventions, rules and there are war crimes. The wealthier and the more advanced your society and technology, and the higher your responsibility in enforcing these. There’s just no excuse for covering these kind of events.

          • Funnily enough recent studies have shown people who pilot UAVs to have even worse PTSD and other negative mental afflictions than other troops despite most of the time operating our of somewhere like Edwards AFB.

            Cant remember exact details but i think it was that despite being able to go to work, bomb people and then come home to your family the ability of these operators to see their targets without adrenalin, without the force of the moment of being in a warzone they dont lose their inability to kill without negative effects.

            Its like how Basic Training is more about breaking you down psychologically than physicall prowess, these guys havent been broken into the proper mental role to kill people, the whole reason basic exists is to do this, in WWII a lot of conscripts were found to be incapable of killing at all.

          • Mostly completely in agreement. I found it absurd that they recognised the camera or tripod as an RPG when it had already been identified as an AK47, a new transforming weapon, maybe. I do blame the CO a bit though, they had been given permission to fire on the targets even though they had not indicated they were under any threat. After they saw the “RPG”, they did definitely seem panicked, too. It’s probably a little easy to forget the range of the projectile in that sort of situation, so I can sort of understand, even if what you say is right.

            Also, when they said those derogatory things, I think soldiers in the past have proven to do far worse things than say how much they wish to kill a defenseless enemy. Like say, the Holocaust, or the events in the Mongolian, Viking conquests. Or the Red Army going through Germany. Or any of the millions of examples of soldiers just going bat-shit insane with the power they wield and things they are forced to do.

            The thing that really gets to me, though, is the ambulance. That was crazy. They said to their CO that they might have been picking up weapons but the first thing they did was pick up a wounded person’s body. Even after that they did not consider the possibility that they might just be civilians trying to help people.

            Really, though, I just don’t like those sort of weapons in an urban environment, at all. Even if it was for support and it could reduce the number of deaths on the American’s side (whatever happened to trying to take prisoners of war, anyway), the potential for civilian deaths with that powerful a weapon is hardly minimal (especially when they try shooting with their damn zoom function broken like in the clip). So really, why not just bring out Evangelion and wipe out the whole damn city, it would even further reduce American fatalities (if they had left, obviously).

            Bah. Anyway, the comment that they acted like they were playing a video game is wrong, to me. They probably acted as they though they should, and any other comments or actions were likely acted out out of unprofessional (and unreasonable, IMO) resentment, not the desire to get a ‘high score’.

          • Yeah except this one had 2 kids in it not people with RPGs, and as i said before the effective range of the RPG means that the pilot was in absolutely no danger.

  • Depersonalising the enemy is not just the modus operandi of videogamers or soldiers. Today’s warfare is designed to be fought with media coverage in mind. Wars begin synchronised with prime time news broadcasts. Foreign enemies are presented as evil doers. The TV screen is not a window, but often the vision is presented as such. The tragedy in all of this is not that human life is devalued but that we live in a world where people different from us need to be killed.

  • This footage proved to me that Video games haven’t desensitized me to violence. I found that footage disturbing even though I’ve done that in video games hundreds of times.

    • That is a great point. I did not think about it in that way but I have intentionally not watched this footage. I have seen IED footage and other military (from both sides) footage and I don’t enjoy any of it.

      I played Just Cause 2 for a couple of hours finally exceeding the 1000 kill count. I have killed over 1000 virtual enimies this week alone, but have not watched this. I can certainly tell the difference and don’t like the reality one bit.

      I do actually support the military (when the war is justified of course) and the armed forces can not hesitate or second guess when they feel threatened or they will die. From that perspective, they ahve to do their job…

    • Same with me. I found it very hard to watch.

      I must say though, I think video games is un-necessarily being brought into the argument once again. Doesn’t the army train and prepare soldiers to basically kill as part of their job? That’s what we are seeing here.

      • This sort of discussion does warrant merit in its connection to the depersonalisation of war but i agree that its been a little overblown.

        This sort of thing was more the atmosphere of paranoia and otherisation of the inhabitants of iraq fostered by higher ups along with the “protect our own” mentalitity of shielding people from the consequences of their actions. Sometimes you do get people locked up see: abu gharaib but it hardly ever goes up to the people who did the nudging and the winking as they used loose vague language to describe boundaries and what is permissable.

      • Yeah the effects of video games on people definately exist but the fact that 99% of video game players dont do it show some credence in the theory that the person absorbing the media is more important than the media itself. You have to have something wrong for you in the first place be it mental disorder, legit grievance or other to make it have any effect on you as most people are capable of distinguishing reality from fiction.

        For me i happily laugh at atrocities i commit in say GoWII but i see them in real life id retch, hell i have a hard time watching medical procedures.

  • I think the only issue here is in regards to how keen the the gunner was to fire.

    When that van rolled up, he seemed stoked. “Come on! Let us shoot!” and so on.

    The jokes and such are just how soldiers deal with that kind of thing, it’s no different than ER personnel, ambulance workers or morticians making related jokes. It just helps one deal with tragedy that they see every day.

    • I dont think he was happy to do it. I think he just wanted to avoid retaliation or organising before their forces could arrive.
      The issue in the video is the f-ed up rules of engagement. The gunners shouldn’t have been given permission to fire with no clear intel. The fact he wanted to shoot what he called insurgents is irrelevant. He doesn’t seem to be doing it for pleasure. It’s his job.

      • Uh, did you miss the part where a wounded guy crawling along to cover was set to the sound of the gunner begging for a chance to kill him?

  • I really get worry when an army is restrained with the phrase “unless fired upon”.

    It wasn’t that long ago that the dutch army watched a bunch of people being massacred in Bosnia… specifically because they weren’t being fired upon.

    Furthermore, the army is in place for the elimination of the enemy, and the protection of the populace from the same. They are not a police force, and using them as such is reckless.

    I’ve watched the video, I didn’t enjoy it… much like I didn’t enjoy the AC130 level in MW1, or the airport level in MW2. If I didn’t know that was a camera… I don’t think I would have.
    It looks like a portable tube.

    I’ve spoken to several people from the British Army Black Watch, all good men who have seen horrible things, they lost twelve of their friends when a single person driving towards them blew up a car bomb. That was just the group I was with. As a battalion, their losses have been staggering. I’ve had similar conversations with personnel from other British army units.

    It is still a war, albeit carried on in an abnormal manner. The enemy have made little distinction between millitary and civillian targets, and are prepared to use women and children as weapons to prosecute their agenda.

    Succesful strikes from a distance, not just from Helicopters… but from drones or fighters too, strike me as a good thing. They mean fewer lives lost.

    Was it like a video game?
    Absoulutely. But only because video games are designed to mimic real life.

    Did they screw up?
    Absolutely. perhaps they should have had a colour camera, or eyes on the ground, or maybe the reporters should have had GPS beacons that screamed non-combattant to any targeting systems.

    Should the US army have tried to cover it up?
    Maybe, it does reveal a capability… and it does also show that the green machine is fallable, which in a war is not a good thing for the OpFor to know.

    Were they callous about their targets?
    Not really, to their way of thinking the guys on the ground weren’t people, they were targets.
    There isn’t room for shades of gray… that’s a police function.

    • Again, I agree, mostly, but I disagree with a couple of points. One, I agree that the atrocities in the Balkan wars/Rwandan genocide should have provoked a change in UN security policy but that doesn’t mean that an army has a right to instantly kill anyone who might be a combatant merely because they are wielding a weapon and meet another person wielding a weapon. That merely makes things like this more common. They have to use a certain amount of judgement, even though that’s difficult in circumstances like these.

      Secondly, as I said above, helicopters, drones, etc. mean fewer lives on *your* side lost. Even though I accept that the exceptional circumstances in Iraq make it difficult to fight fairly and reduce casualties on both sides, their has to be some restraint.

    • I hate to break it to you but when considering that war is an enourmous political, economic, cultural and social phenomenon saying there are no shades of grey is pretty short sighted.

      “The enemy have made little distinction between millitary and civillian targets, and are prepared to use women and children as weapons to prosecute their agenda. ”

      “The Enemy” Who is this enemy? could it be iraqis sick of the fact that america rolled in on reaons now known to be false and displaced and killed hundreds of thousands of people?

      Not to mention said enemy wasnt even here as the main reason people are getting upset over this is that THEY WERE CIVILLIANS. IE: Those guys the geneva convention say you cant shoot, and before someone says they arent a signatory to it, it doesnt matter the US being part of it obliges them to stick to it anyway.

      Oh and for the record, you know how the soldiers are giving out candy and the like to kids all the time? Well its been found out that the insurgents wont fire on children of their own country and the troops would use them as a convenient human shield while video after video and bombing after bombing shows the US having no such qualms.

      Amazing, the insurgents wont kill children but a certain superpower will.

      Yay media [email protected] enemy have made little distinction between millitary and civillian targets, and are prepared to use women and children as weapons to prosecute their agenda.

      Yay Media Narrative!

      • The shades of grey I was referring to are not applicable to the guys on the ground. This is one of the reasons that most armies are civilian led. An army fights where it is told to, why it’s told to, when it’s told to and how it is told to. It is a tool wielded by others. The shades of grey are political factors, and they should be determined through the political process.

        I hate to be blunt, but if you’re carrying a firearm in a combat environment… you’d best be prepared to use it. If you’re prepared to us it, then you’re a combatant. If you’re a combatant, then you’re either on one side or the other… and that’s how it is.

        Robert, I’m sorry to disagree with you. But… when an army worry about minimising enemy casualties, they’re going to lose.

        War is a God awful thing and shouldn’t be anything but a last resort… but when you attack an opposing force you should hit them so hard and fast that you destroy them, demoralise their allies and completely remove their will to fight.
        It’s the same principle in a street fight and it was the same idea when Hannibal sacked Rome or when Sherman razed Atlanta. The goal should not be to extend a fight, but to end it with such a violent immediacy that there are no further fights.

        LordLeckie, let’s try and restrain the vitriol a little.

        In Iraq at the moment, it seems to be about religion… religion and power.
        I’m not an expert, but from what I understand the Sunni’s were in power under Sadam. The elected government provides representation to the majority… who are not Sunni’s.
        Suicide bombers are primarily attacking Civilian and Iraqi security forces, and the casualties have been enormous. The hostile forces involved have been known to use women bombers because of the security forces reluctance to search women.
        Civilians, for the record, do include men, women and children, religious pilgrims, the elderly and patients in hospitals.

        • Religion is a tool for recruitment or a way a person defines themselves into a particular group that may or may not be militant in this scenario.

          The reason people are fighting is the worlds remaining superpower invaded them over WMDs that do not exist, have stayed causing enourmous pain and suffering through casual bombing of congregations on thin pretenses, use of extreme tactics (Fallujah is now suffering birth defects from depleted uranium dust used by american forces in AP Tank rounds) and the fact that their entire country has been destabalised, infrastructure destroyed and the fact that america didnt have the best PR there to begin with.

          As for the idea that war requires maximum violence for maximum efficiency to make sure it ends, it might work in one sense but the more people you kill in Iraq the angrier the families get, the more hostile the governments and international opinion plummets.

          The easier thing is you know, leave.

  • One thing most people that are not soldiers dont think about is how a person can live with themselves after they kill another human being.

    A little known truth is most people manage to kill by convincing themselves that its not real, its not a person its a target, its just a game.

    If the make it real and let themselves feel they end up suicidal.

    That being said, they need better training on how to identify weapons, and gunships are a support and response tool, not a primary assault tool.

    Vans are commonly used to transport groups of RPG bearing troops and when something comes in close enough to investigate they get blown up. So I can understand the van being a target, but it appeared that they recognized the van was being used as a medic platform to extract the injured which should not be a primary target.

    All in all it shows that the technology to wage war is far ahead of where our own morality and ethics are.

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