Sunday, June 28, 2009

making fallujah into a video game

There seems to be nothing a philosopher flees from more than being called a moral relativist. A moral relativist, it appears, is somehow unable to condemn Nazism, murder, lying and other nasty things.

Of course, moral relativism is, outside of polemics, merely a description of our actual collective moral lives. There are few moral absolutists, and none of them designed the bombers or the terror bombing strategy employed with devastating effect against Germany in 1943-1945. The justification of this was that it was necessary to defeat the Nazis – that it was moral, that is, relative, to the greater goal of defeating Nazism. Moral absolutes, when in contact with the real world, quickly evaporate. Mirages in practice, they are seized by those with one agenda or another to lend a little gloss of highmindedness, and to maintain a systems of control. As it is impossible in the developed states to punish people who don’t swear unswerving belief in God, one needs a substitute in order to keep the hierarchical symbolic order going. Myself, I am a moral relativist – as I am pretty sure is true of my readers. I jusge my position on this by assessing my actions, not by assessing my arguments – since it isn’t very clear that the moment in which I sit down and make an argument is coincident with expressing what my ‘beliefs’ are. Why should it be?

That doesn’t mean there isn’t an argument for moral absolutism – there are plenty of them. For all but the few, however, they are made not to enforce an absolute – thou shalt never kill – but to justify instrumental evils – we have to kill x, y, and z in order to overthrow an evil system. To demand that a person condemn something – Auschwitz, the Gulag, etc. – as an absolute evil is simply part of a game of coercion, here, prodding us to fork out the tax dollars and the paranoia to support, say, nuclear weapons, or fire bombing, or whatever is on the menu. Lining up and piously denouncing moral relativism is, in fact, one of the ways moral relativism socially reproduces itself.

There is actually a Philosophers series on Peace – as I found out when trying vainly to look at the Peace and Change issue about Iraq – and there is a H-Net listserv that connects up the Peace and Change people. I was interested to read a review of a book about what philosophers had to say about “the war on terror’, but, alas, the first thing up is the piety of arguing that being against the war on terror is not moral relativism. Heavens no!

Meanwhile, back on earth, Newsweek carried an interesting article about the Battle of Fallujah. There is a video game company seeking to transform that battle into a video game. The article goes into the ins and outs of the hurt that might be experienced by the Marines or the parents of Marines in the recapitulation of the battle that you, the shooter at home, can alter as you craftily “cleanse” houses of insurgents. The most interesting things about the article is the quotes for Iraqis. That is, the fact that there isn’t a single quote from a single Iraqi. Fallujah, translated into a videogame, becomes a perfect patriotic stunt, in which the opposing “team”, being of course absolutely evil, doesn’t require any consultation.

“Peter Tamte was months away from completing his dream project--turning the largest urban battle of the Iraq War into a videogame--when it all seemed to fall apart. The 75 employees of one of his companies, Atomic Games, had worked on the endeavor for nearly four years. They'd toiled to make Six Days in Fallujah as realistic as possible, weaving in real war footage and interviews with Marines who had fought there. But now relatives of dead Marines were angry, and the game's distributor and partial underwriter had pulled out of Tamte's project. On May 26, he got on the phone to Tracy Miller, whose son was killed by a sniper in Fallujah, and tried to win her over by arguing that the game honors the Marines. Miller listened politely, but remained skeptical. "By making it something people play for fun, they are trivializing the battle," she told NEWSWEEK.

Tamte is not above triviality. A second company he runs, Destineer, makes games with titles like Indy 500 and Fantasy Aquarium. But the 41-year-old executive says he's now attempting something more serious: a documentary-style reconstruction that will be so true to the original battle, gamers will almost feel what it was like to fight in Fallujah in November 2004. At his studio in Raleigh, N.C., Tamte has been helped by dozens of Fallujah vets who have advised him on the smallest details, from the look of the town to the operation of the weapons. And he's staked the fate of his company on the success of the $20 million project. "If for some reason it doesn't work, we'll have to think about making some very significant changes to the studio," he says.

Can something as weighty and complex as war be conveyed by the same medium that produced Mario Brothers and Grand Theft Auto? Mostly, videogames are associated with mindless entertainment or gratuitous violence or both. For Tracy Miller and other skeptics, the idea that animated shooters can communicate the heroism and sacrifice of Fallujah is deeply misguided.”

Of course, it is hard not to get all relativistic here and point out that the insurgents that are cleansed – like dirt – from houses that they happen, often, to be living in, latter went over to the American side in the Anbar awakening and became heroes for the surge. But to point out that the Iraqis were involved in the Iraq occupation is to run into the brick wall of American projection. The video game – the idea of capturing the battle and turning it into the kind of thing the player can command – is almost too perfect, a symbol thrown up by the American libido that will, doubtless, be a huge success. And at the same time, Americans will gravely ponder the evil of shouting Death to America, which for some reason keeps going on in the Middle East. Who knows why.

ps - and on a totally different topic - check out my review in the Statesman today.


P.M.Lawrence said...

That publication with your review in it is no more the Statesman than the New York Times is the Times.

Roger Gathmann said...

Mr. Lawrence, you do have the strange idea that there is one and only one way to name things. It must pain you deeply every time an American says Robin, and points to a thrush.
Life is hard, Mr. Lawrence.

P.M.Lawrence said...

"Mr. Lawrence, you do have the strange idea that there is one and only one way to name thing".

Not at all; I do, however, have the no doubt strange ideas that naming should help rather than hinder communication, and that it is hindering to use a name which is already in use elsewhere (as with the Times - which is in fact a prior use) or which fails to distinguish between which of two things is being abbreviated (as with the American Statesman and the New Statesman - the Statesman proper being now defunct).

As to your example, anything Americans do in their ignorance but also without confusing ramifications is unimportant; but it would be elevated to something serious were one such ever to presume to transfer his area of inexpertise to a wider forum, so causing confusion. Of course, the internet is just such a wider forum.