The Virtual American Army

Six Days in Fallujah, slow violence, and the new digital battlefields.

The US military is ramping up its war effort on the front of unreality. Throughout the history of American media, the American soldier is at one moment portrayed as an individualized hero fighting against impossible odds, at the next a soulless avatar caught in a giant unfeeling machine of strict bureaucracy. The US army portrays itself simultaneously as the most powerful, far-reaching militarized force in the world and as an abstracted, virtual, fictional idea. This is one of the defining characteristics of contemporary military propaganda: Leaning into the virtualization of warfare. The military’s shift towards drone bombings serves as a commonly cited example of their attempts to launder mass death through virtual distance and de-territorialization. Despite the chorus of military personnel announcing that drone warfare is “not a game”, this new kind of distanced violence has much more in common with entertainment consoles than its operators let on. In their essay States of Exception, Kris Fallon provides context for the Army’s virtualization:

“Peter Singer notes that many of the controls for future robotic weapons are prototyped and eventually designed using hacked versions of the physical controllers and graphical user interfaces from console systems like the Xbox and Playstation” (108).

More and more, over the past few decades, the military’s increased investment into their sanitized, gamified public profile has resulted in less and less subtle gestures to the new virtuality of warfare. The simple existence of The US Army’s Twitch account serves as a high-profile indication of this phenomenon. Even excluding its effective uses as a recruitment tool, the simple concept of the army directly developing atomized, parasocial relationships with prospective recruits over the internet should be the object of intense scrutiny. However, on the level of the military portraying itself as a virtual entity, this is nothing more than the next step in its evolution. A report from TechRadar determined that “in its nine-year existence over $32 million has been spent, with $3,395,782 spent in 2009 alone” on the Military’s popular video game America’s Army; which has proven the exceptional value of using virtual combat as a recruitment tool.

Additionally, the military doesn’t just subcontract their gamification to recently-founded development studios, they churn it out directly with propaganda that seeks to capitalize on this commodification of virtual warfare. The What’s Your Warrior campaign ties the concept of a character class selection screen in a first-person shooter to the concept of enlisting in the U.S military. The Verhoeven-Esque advertisement is just one example of the army blatantly draping enlistment in the glitchy digital glamor of a first-person shooter, representing the battlefield as a sanitized, consequence-free, virtual space.

Choose your character!

The commercial is not dependent on the viewer having any understanding of the United States Military other than what they might have come across in a video game. In keeping with the feedback loop generated by the Department of Defense’s deep involvement in the entertainment industry, the whole of this marketing campaign is predicated on how the viewer perceives the military through its own fictionalized media representations of itself.

To increase the likelihood of enlistment in volunteer service, the military frequently presents itself as a sanitized, unreal entity. More and more, this process of passing from the real to the virtual, from our physical world to a world of speculation, deterritorialization, and abstraction, is not restricted to the battlefield.

Copyright © 2021 Victura, Inc. Six Days, Six Days in Fallujah, and Victura are trademarks of Victura, Inc.

Today, the revival of the previously canceled 2009 first-person-shooter Six Days in Fallujah; a video game based around the US military’s utter destruction of the titular Iraqi city, serves as a new kind of attack deployed by the Military onto the virtual battlefield of information warfare.

The story surrounding Six Days is one of permanent cognitive dissonance; on the part of its developers, its supporters, and its military backers. During its initial cycle of promotion, the game’s proponents attempted to set Six Days apart from its inevitable reception as another generic FPS by lauding the game’s supposed “realism.” Much of the game’s marketing and development both pre-cancellation and post-revival was oriented around the developer’s participation number of the marines who took part in the Fallujah massacres, specifically, the widely touted authenticity these men would bring to the project.

This formula was put on display in a 2012 GameSpot piece that chronicled Six Days in Fallujah’s road to cancellation, stating that “authenticity comes in the form of video interviews of Marines recounting their experiences of the battle, interspersed throughout the game, as well as near-perfect re-creations of Fallujah neighborhoods using satellite photography.” In a recent Eurogamer article announcing the revival of Six Days, the game’s developer includes a quote from former Marine Sergeant Eddie Garcia, who was wounded during the Battle for Fallujah and proposed the original idea for the game in 2005:

”Sometimes the only way to understand what’s true is to experience reality for yourself”

Ideas like the one postulated by Sergeant Garcia beg the question: whose reality is he referring to? According to the former VP of marketing at Konami, it is not the reality for the Iraqi people. In fact, it’s not reality at all. During the period of initial pushback to the game in 2009, the aforementioned marketing director Anthony Crouts was widely quoted attempting to pull this same rhetorical trick, saying:

“We’re not trying to make social commentary. We’re not pro-war. We’re not trying to make people feel uncomfortable…at the end of the day it’s just a game”

So who is telling the truth, Eddie Garcia or Anthony Crouts? Is Six Days in Fallujah reality or is it virtual? When it comes to issues of imperial violence perpetrated by the US military, projected intentionality means functionally nothing on a material level. In this example, the transition into the virtual fortifies the military’s propagandistic aims in another sense, by accenting the unreality of the medium instead of downplaying it. The army controls the spread of certain information and thus has the power to decide how that information is publicly perceived. That includes, but is not limited to, denying the entirety of the violence perpetrated against the people of Fallujah.

How can the game be anything but explicitly pro-war and pro-US imperialism if its developers “don’t think [they] need to portray the atrocities”? In a recent GamesIndustry piece about the revival of six days, developer Peter Tamte summarizes this tautology as he flounders with the idea of presenting supposedly realistic accounts of war in a virtual medium:

“Very few people are curious what it’s like to be an Iraqi civilian. Nobody’s going to play that game…the reason why people are going to play this game is because they want a more realistic combat experience

In this instance, Tamte is saying the quiet part at a deafening volume, and it offers a solid foothold in a journey to scale the mountain of self-edifying bullshit the US military has built up around itself over the decades. Players aren’t ‘uncurious’ about playing the role of an Iraqi civilian; they are indoctrinated to think otherwise through the media. The reality is, if prospective recruits experienced even a mere simulation of true Iraqi life under American occupation, their perception of the military would be irreversibly shifted away from that of the subordination and respect which the would institution demand from them.

This contradiction is fundamentally baked into what Tamte is saying. A realistic combat experience in Fallujah would include unparalleled brutality of US military violence against insurgents and civilians alike and would account for the disastrous effects of radiation from experimental U.S weapons tested on civilians during their siege of the city. In spite of this, for the sake of disguising the incongruence between the Military’s virtual identity and their actual purpose, a prospective recruit cannot in any way identify with the enemy, even in the virtual world.

This creates another feedback loop within American culture. The American soldier in the era of perpetual war must be portrayed as a hero, because he has to represent “liberation” or a “humanitarian intervention” for a subjugated people, no matter how much violence he inflicts on innocent civilians during imperial wars against abstracted enemies around the globe. Games like Six Days in Fallujah increase the resemblance between the real and the virtual for the prospective recruit, trivializing and gamifying US imperialism. At the same time, the game combines the real and the virtual for the victims of violent neocolonial war. This is the central goal of military video games.

The aforementioned statements from Garcia, Crouts, and Tamte are founded on a fundamental contradiction that, when you say it outright, sounds like it shouldn’t have to be said at all: video games are, by their very definition, not reality. By the nature of its form, Six Days in Fallujah is fundamentally incapable of “telling the truth” about what the city was like during US occupation, because it is not reality. It may represent reality in a convincing way, but to believe that proximity to the aesthetics of reality is the same as proximity to reality is to voluntarily believe in a simulation.

Sgt. Garcia, who is seen here in both his real and virtual incarnations, seems to have a lot of trouble distinguishing between the two.

The developers of Six Days in Fallujah keep finding themselves at this impasse. In interviews from the time of Six Days in Fallujah’s original announcement, as well as repeatedly during its current rehabilitation, those involved with the game’s development are practically jumping out of their seats to sing the praises of its supposed authenticity. Yet, upon receiving any level of pushback for their digital rehabilitation of US war crimes, they suddenly can’t decide whether their game is a gritty interactive documentary chronicling the reality of the US siege of Fallujah, or if, as Crouts so eloquently put it, it is “just a game.”

The previously cited GameSpot piece on Six Days offers a direct illustration of a commonly used tactic of military propaganda that has remained relatively consistent through the transformations of the digital age: the unquestioned assumption that military entertainment liaisons provide “authenticity” to the projects that they work on. While these operators may provide cursory legitimacy to the aesthetics of the military, their true role is not to add authenticity, but to sanitize atrocities.

When an agreement like this is made between the US military and the developers of a media property, the entertainment liaisons have the final say on the script and content and are free to omit any details that would reflect poorly on the US military. This is why the virtual realm is a perfect candidate for this specific engineering of reality. As Jean Baudrillard noted in The Gulf War did not Take Place: “Just as wealth is no longer measured by the ostentation of wealth but by the secret circulation of speculative capital, so war is not measured by being waged but by its speculative unfolding in an abstract, electronic and informational space, the same space in which capital moves” (56).

Six Days in Fallujah is sometimes reality and other times pure entertainment; whichever space it has to occupy at any given time. Without missing a beat, the various trumpeters of Six Days will shift from referring to the game as an unfiltered account of gritty reality to framing it as nothing more than lines of code whizzing across a screen. What was once touted as real can always be discounted as virtual if it generates enough flack, because the reality it was portraying was never authentic in the first place. After all, it’s just a game, right?

This formula is nothing new; neither in the case of films nor of video games. The US Military has a history of attempting to modernize its propaganda in a deeply digital post-9/11 world. A local NBC news article from 2005 put this history on full display:

“Increasingly, the Pentagon is joining forces with the video games industry to train and recruit soldiers. The U.S. Army considers such simulators vital for recruits who’ve been weaned on shoot ’em up games”

While the military had long considered video games as “a way to get teenagers interested in enlisting,” they first struck gold with America’s Army. The game’s effectiveness as a recruiting tool is almost common knowledge to anyone who had to deal with an omnipresent recruitment table permanently situated somewhere in their high school. The importance of games like America’s Army to the military is also highlighted in Fallon’s States of Exception, where they make the point that for many, (America’s Army is) the first point of contact that many will have with what will eventually be a series of experiences using virtual immersive technology” (102). They go on to propose that America’s Army “had the effect of normalizing warfare on a larger cultural level, but it also lent the military a level of cultural cachet that it sorely needed in an era of all volunteer soldiers” (102). Beyond the formula of America’s Army, the military has turned to consultancy on video games throughout the years as a form through which they rewrite history and launder violent imperialist ideology. Whether it is blaming American war crimes on the Russians or mapping out a comprehensive fictional coup of Venezuela, the virtual world has proved an effective place to sanitize old war crimes, and plan new ones.

Additionally, to understand how differences between the overtly virtual and the supposedly real are constructed in a game like Six Days, the next best place to look is within the differences between military subsidized documentaries and blockbusters. Antiwar activist and Fallujah veteran Ross Caputi is acutely aware of the effect this propaganda can have on people;

“History has defined the US veteran as a hero, and in doing so it has automatically defined anyone who fights against him as the bad guy. It has reversed the roles of aggressor and defender, moralized the immoral, and shaped our societies’ present understanding of war.” (Caputi).

Illustrating what goes unsaid in the job description of the Defense Department’s entertainment liaison office, the history of Fallujah is in the process of being re-written to serve the aims of the American Military. To quote Baudrillard:

“We are no longer in a logic of the passage from virtual, to actual but in a hyperrealist logic of the deterrence of the real by the virtual” (27).

The charm and appeal of fictional military entertainment lie precisely in its unrealism, while conversely, the appeal of military-centered documentaries (and their cable news counterparts, “embedded journalists”) lies in their supposed proximity to realism. Both may gesture at a certain reality, but neither is the reality of the Iraqi people nor of the consumer; the prospective recruit.

The constant theme that this dilemma always returns to is that of narrative control. One of the most famous examples of this process was seen during the theatrical release of Top Gun. The film, which was already financed with innumerable military subsidies, frequently featured Navy recruiting booths set up outside theater exits. Quoting Hollywood producer John Davis in his book Operation Hollywood; How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies, David L Robb documents that:

“Top Gun was a recruiting promo for the navy…it really helped their recruitment drives. People saw that movie and thought ‘wow! I want to be a pilot.’” (181).

All of these pieces of so-called militainment have one key thing in common; they all have the potential to function as great recruiting tools, but realizing this potential is only possible through extremely restrictive control over information that ensures the military’s virtual portrayal is lionizing and valorizing. Detailing this control in their book National Security Cinema, Matthew Alford and Tom Secker state

“primarily, the Pentagon’s role is not to be a decisive force in making movies, nor in short-circuiting their creation, but rather to manipulate existing scripts” (11).

Both of the two aforementioned types of military subsidized entertainment are characterized by a proclaimed proximity to reality, but ultimately end up creating narratives that cannot function without this necessary level of manicured, virtual distance.

A promo image for the second Top Gun film. Even though it’s quoting the original, the sentiment it communicates is pretty on the nose.

The paradox inherent in the concept of an interactive “virtual military documentary” such as this was also highlighted by Kris Fallon in their essay States of Exception, in which they propose the seemingly self-evident point that “fictional games, like fiction films, allow us to experience realities that are not our own” (108). These narratives typically attempt to frame the military as the righteous party, and to do this, the experiences of those who resist the violence of U.S militarism are selectively determined to not be a part of reality. Fallon addresses this idea as well, animating the critique of spatial dislocation:

“Neither fully embodied nor disembodied, virtual worlds can place users in a zone of indeterminacy that forecloses some experiences while enabling others” (98).

With a game like Six Days in Fallujah, the military is attempting to synthesize the supposed unreality of a Hollywood blockbuster with the presumed realism of a military-centric documentary, all as a rhetorical sleight of hand meant to deny the reality of its own war crimes in real-time. By temporally and spatially dislocating the violence perpetrated against the people of Fallujah, the military portrays a decontextualized account of the perpetual violence they imposed onto the Fallujans; and the people of Iraq writ large. Mirroring the ongoing generational trauma and environmental violence suffered by the Fallujans, the military is continuing to wage a calculated information war against them.

For the US military, Fallujah is a testing ground in a number of different senses. During the first and second sieges of the city, the city was a testing ground for experimental armaments now known to have irreversibly irradiated the land. The US military tested new weapons on the people of Fallujah on insurgents and civilians alike, including but not limited to anti-personnel thermobaric armaments, which have been documented as containing uranium. On top of this, the military has admitted to using white phosphorus on the people of Fallujah, despite spending years denying the reality of these accusations.

Even considering all of these horrors of war, the violence imposed on the Fallujans remains ongoing with or without the presence of American troops. A widely cited article in The Independent by Patrick Cockburn documents the ongoing aftershocks of the experimental US weapons tested on the people of the city. Infant mortality skyrocketed to 8% of all births in the city, and those who are lucky enough to live past their infancy are frequently afflicted with serious birth defects that contort their bodies and minds.

“The report says that the types of cancer are ‘similar to that of Hiroshima survivors who were exposed to ionizing radiation from the bomb and uranium in the fallout”

But in the years following these heinous acts of violence, Fallujah has served as a testing ground for new weapons in the Army’s virtual information war.

The intricacies of the horror wreaked upon Fallujah have been comprehensively documented by Ross Caputi, the former Fallujah vet, whistleblower, and antiwar activist. Ross Caputi has an in-depth understanding of the multiple fronts on which the US continues to wage war against the Iraqi people, and this understanding was put on display in an interview with him from Public Seminar, where he was quoted saying:

“In my opinion, one of the most dangerous concepts that came out of the military literature on information operations was the notion of a “battlespace” that stretches beyond the battlefield into cyberspace and the information real.”

This concept of a ‘battlespace’ gives a name to the staging ground for the military’s process of virtualization. If the battlefield is in the realm of information, this expands the definition of enemy combatants to any person publicizing information that is not ideologically aligned with the military’s new virtual identity. This monopoly over the virtual means that the military has free reign to launder the violence they perpetrate around the world through this space of inarguable unreality. Caputi goes on to describe how this concept of the ‘battlespace’ functions in real-time, highlighting its application preceding the second siege of Fallujah:

“After U.S. forces were forced to retreat out of Fallujah during the first siege, they launched a campaign of information warfare to ‘shape’ the battlespace for the second siege”

“What resulted was a highly censored narrative told from the frontline perspective of embedded journalists, placing the experience of American soldiers in the foreground and moving the Iraqi experience to the background, if not absent altogether.”

(Copyright 2021 Booz Allen Hamilton Inc.) ((Yes, this is an actual promotional image from a Booz Allen Hamilton article about how to win wars in the battlespace.))

Caupti’s articulation of the battlespace concept puts on display the overall aim of the military’s virtualization. The idea of this digital battlespace, when observed in conjunction with the tautology of depicting virtual war through documentary realism, reinforces the critique of contemporary military propaganda. The point of these types of games, most acutely on display in Six Days in Fallujah, is to represent its contents as a reflection of reality. In doing so, it necessarily has the opposite effect; they transform Fallujah into an unreal space, fully transposed into the world of representation.

The city is reduced to a backdrop for the laundering of American military atrocities, lionizing the perpetrators of this mass death as martyrs instead of murderers. The sublimation of Iraqi experience under the experience of their killers is achieved through a predilection for emphasizing spectacle in the virtual world. This idea is a central component of Baudrillard’s writings on the Gulf War, wherein he observed that

“there remains today a widespread will to spectacle and with it the obstinate desire to preserve its specter or fiction” (32).

The violence the US army committed against the Iraqi people on the material battlefield and the violence the US army continues to impose on Fallujah in the virtual battlefield are defined by completely different temporalities. In his seminal essay Slow Violence, Rob Nixon elucidates the nature of this framework:

“The insidious workings of slow violence derive largely from the unequal attention given to spectacular and unspectacular time” (2).

In the realm of virtualized military entertainment, the reality of the toxic aftermath of US violence in Fallujah is not a spectacle, while the idea of outnumbered marines in a shootout with insurgents is absolutely a spectacle. Therefore, the latter becomes reality. Caputi’s description of “the battlespace” explicitly aligns with a broader military project of virtualization, with the end goal of dislocating warfare entirely and relegating it to the realm of unreality. As Baudrillard said; “war, when it has been turned into information, ceases to be a real war and becomes a virtual war…everything which is turned into information becomes the object of endless speculation” (41). Six Days in Fallujah is an attempt to start this process of sublimating the reality of war into the unreality of information. The goal of the game is to represent the violence that was imposed on the people of Fallujah as a single moment in history, disregarding the perpetual environmental violence and generational trauma they still experience on a daily basis:

“violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence…is typically not viewed as violence at all” (2)

This slow, persistent, everyday violence that comes as a direct result of imperial war, doesn’t fall under the military consultant’s definition of what constitutes reality. A truly ominous aspect inherent within this level of distancing, spatial dislocation, and virtualization of imperial violence, is that the whole concept is always a two-way street for the military.

As was previously illustrated, what proves so useful about this new kind of so-called “virtual documentary” format for the military is the fact that it allows the institution to vacillate between their real existence and their virtual existence with increased speed and more presumption of legitimacy than ever before. This is at once true for the virtual battlefield and the material battlefield, especially in regards to the increasingly gamified virtual nature of the US military’s drone program.

Essentially since its inception, drone warfare has been touted by media figures and military personnel alike as a “surgical”, “precise”, and most egregiously, “clean” way of waging war. However, this conception could not be farther from the truth. The US military’s drone program is an example of warfare distilled down to its most important contemporary aspect; a spectacle. Peter Heft, a Ph.D. candidate at Western Ontario University, dissected this idea in-depth with his paper The Drone War is Not Happening:

“The act of killing becomes pure spectacle where those killed are ‘not people with names and faces’ just images on the screen that explode’ as the events unfold before the eyes of the pilots”

The similarities between how drone operators and militainment video game developers construct this virtual reality don’t stop there.For Drone pilots, the footage that ends up on their screen must go through layers upon layers of mitigation from different operators to construct a finished representation. Sometimes, hundreds of operators are required for a single drone mission, with multiple different groups reviewing different parts of the data collected by the drone. As Heft notes:

“The ‘reality’ for [drone] pilots becomes the mental map they make out of the simulacra that are presented to them, further distancing themselves from the individuals being surveyed.”

Much like the developers of Six Days in Fallujah, these soldiers compartmentalize visual information and stitch together a finished visual representation built from the component parts, careful to filter out anything that might be ‘unnecessary’. The end result of this is that, in terms of genuine connections to reality, any given pilot might as well be playing Six Days in Fallujah. The images that flash across the screens of their monitors are equally as manicured, controlled, and filtered as that of a military video game.

Is this real? Or is it just a game?

When it comes down to it, this process of virtualization isn’t completely about what’s included, nor is it entirely about what’s omitted, but about what is laundered. The virtualization of the US military isn’t just about which narratives are inducted into the new digital world and which are excluded, but also which realities are forcibly inducted into a permanent purgatory of de-spatialized virtuality.

All things considered, it comes as no surprise that Six Days in Fallujah is being revived during a time of maximized normalization of the slow, violent, and preventable mass death imposed upon black and brown people in this country and abroad. In the case of imposing sanctions that starve nations around the world of food and medicine, as well as that of the asymmetrical domestic responses to the COVID-19 pandemic that has resulted in mass deaths across BIPOC communities, the violence is de-territorialized and temporally compartmentalized.

When this happens, the violence loses its power as spectacle, and can thus be made unreal if it is made virtual. It is in this same realm; that of the temporally and spatially dislocated simulation, where both the heinous acts of violence against the Fallujans and the global mass death caused by the military’s drone program are normalized.

Writing on connections between power, film, television, and imperialism. Trying my worst.

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