Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Fantasy of War as entertainment

The following piece is a reprint of something I wrote a few years ago at another blog in a galaxy far far away, and I thought it deserved another look.


This is neither an anti nor pro-war thread... it is just me looking at part of myself, because I wondered why I dream about war so often, and why it is almost always in my thoughts. What brought this to a head for me was reading the posts of a bunch of forumites at a wargaming site about the military action around Fallujah.... how they were second-guessing what was going on there.

I think a lot of the fantasy of war is derived from our entertainment. There is this nearly universal message that a small ragtag group of soldiers can do the impossible or die trying. Games like Medal of Honor and the like paint war as this endevour in which a single figure can just wipe through hundred to thousands of enemy troops without dying, which we all know is silly, but I wonder if these sorts of activities soak into our subconscious mind so that without realizing it, we too fall victim to the fantasy of war. It's relatively clean battle with no pain, no real consequences if you lose... its aesthetically pleasing and without any real bite. And the war games I play as a commander... where I tell my units where to go and just look on as I lose assets and win objectives in a cold and calculating manner... where my losses are only of a numeric variety, and again, it is without blood, without the visceral horror that is real battle. Even a movie like Saving Private Ryan sort of feeds into this fallacy near the end(especially when you contrast it with the assault on the Omaha Beach at the beginning). But no one really wants to see a movie or play a game about a battle that was a failure for the "good guys"... which is why I think they don't make a lot of movies about military failure for North American audiences; A Bridge Too Far and the Alamo(s) aside.

Now, I've never been a soldier, and I've never lived in a warzone.... but I still have the fantasy of war in my mind... that as someone who has never been under fire, that I could somehow not only survive but prosper under such conditions... when I know rationally that is not the case. I couldn't make it through basic training, let alone a day in combat. Red Dawn is perhaps the greatest fantasy of war I can think of in this respect.... that a small group of teenagers could become the most painful thorn in an invading coalition's side, which when you look at partisan actions and such... well, there is usually a much larger underlying structure to those movements. I know its only entertainment, but at the same time, it is one of those kinds of movies that sends one of those hugely inaccurate messages to the general public... that with little training and no support, you could easily fight a huge force and win, which is sounding more and more familiar every day!

It was also the fantasy of war that led many young men in 1914 to enlist to fight in WW I... because the general consensus was that it would be over in about 6 weeks, and it would be a jolly good adventure... something that would relieve the tedium of their lives. When that illusion was shattered after 4 years of bloodshed, boredom and barbed wire, well, those who had survived the Western Front were less than eager to engage in war again, which led to perhaps the greatest source of my own fantasy of war... WW II. After all, this has to be the reigning war for entertainment because of its scope, weaponry and diverse theatres, and the fact that a lot of veterans of this war and there were clearly defined villains and protagonists. There is also so much information about it, it would be hard not to think of war without at least passingly thinking about the Second World War even for a moment. I wonder if there has been one year where a movie about WWII hasn't been made since 1941. Again, for the most part, these portrayals of war are cleaned up and interpreted to make the experience more "enjoyable" and less visceral, because if its too realistic, well, that might alienate people, and that's something major studios don't want to do. War is not a game or an intellectual exercise, and I think it took me this long to finally get it through my head.

It is also these kinds of portrayals that lead many who are not soldiers to second-guess the validity of military actions during a war. As a student of history, I have condemned commanders in hindsight, and in thinking about it, I don't know if this was entirely fair. I mean, I only see tactical information from maps prepared long after the fact, and not from the information provided to the generals themselves who had better knowledge of the conditions at hand. True, there were some bloody awful mistakes commanders have made, but who am I to second guess them. Sure, I can play scenarios to see if I could come up with a better result sometimes, but in all honesty, I am not a soldier, I will probably never BE a soldier, so why should I try to believe that I could be better than one? I think its a growing experience for me to finally be able to admit that out loud.


Jim Squires said...

Funny you should bring this up now. The latest copy of EGM just showed up in my mailbox and there's a great article in there about why gmae makers don't make games about current wars. You should check it out.

MC said...

Did they discuss KumaWar?

I'd also be interested in reading that if they discuss how the user community seems to develop those kinds of scenarios for their peers.