Fantasy war

Thursday, June 10th, 2004

The all-purpose war on terror may bring the draft back; it has already brought us “stop-loss,” which is forcing thousands of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan to prolong their stay in hell. Does anyone else notice the irony of having the unfree “defend our freedom”?

Language is a beautiful thing. Without it, how could you lie, or justify the irrational?

Last week, President Bush signed a directive expanding the Army’s so-called stop-loss program, which prevents desperately needed warm bodies from leaving their overseas units just because their terms of service have expired. Under the new order, the only way you can leave the war zone before the rest of your unit is to die. Many of the soldiers affected are vets who have already served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Let us take a moment to marvel at the impunity the military has to do what it wants, whether it be destroy Pacific atolls in Cold War-era nuclear blasts, confiscate three-quarters of the island of Vieques (off the coast of Puerto Rico) for war games and weapons testing, or declare American soldiers exempt from the protection of the 13th Amendment (which abolished slavery).

At the recent court-martial of deserter/conscientious objector Camilo Mejia, the military panel took only 20 minutes to dismiss his defense — that he had been ordered to commit war crimes during his tour in Iraq and would have to do so again if he returned — and find him guilty.

Of course he was guilty. He was guilty of intelligence and the capacity for critical thinking — “crit-think” that would be, in military parlance. This is far more disturbing to the military mind than mere criminal brutality. It’s like a live grenade in a Quonset hut. Suddenly, boom. And then there’s a big hole in the prefab glory language that justifies this war and every war, and reality rushes in.

“In elementary school kids learn about the actions of the Continental Army that won our freedoms under George Washington. Today, they need to know that the Army is engaged around the world to defeat terrorist forces bent on the destruction of America and our freedoms.”

This passage, from the FAQ section of, was quoted in an extraordinary essay by former pro football player Reggie Rivers that ran recently in The Denver Post. The Web site is home to the Army’s special recruitment video game (see screen shot above) geared for 13-year-olds, which so far 3 million people worldwide have registered to play. And versions are soon to be available for Xbox and PlayStation 2.

“It’s a recruiting tool aimed to win the hearts and minds of children of all ages,” Rivers said. “The goal is catch them before they develop critical thinking skills that might lead them to question the wisdom of volunteering for slavery.”

Hook ’em early — the Joe Camel strategy. The military establishment is in the same awkward position as the tobacco industry: peddling a toxic product that, on its own merits, can’t bear up to the scrutiny of common sense. Therefore, it has to sell the consumer a diversion: glory, tradition, honor.

Thus the game is about “values,” parents are assured, and “does not include any dismemberment or disfigurement.” Mom and Dad can even “disable the blood” to be secure in the knowledge that their progeny are enjoying the thrill of the kill without being traumatized by any gore — or the least moral consequence.

The video game is the Army’s most effective recruitment tool, and as such it gives the real game away: War is a high-tech, self-perpetuating global malignancy sustained by an adolescent fantasy of good vs. evil that many people never outgrow.

Try arguing about the war with true believers. They always comes back to some version of this fantasy, which is impervious — especially for the armchair warrior — to reality. Abu Ghraib? One recent e-mailer reduced it to “women’s panties on your head.” And Saddam, our moral lodestar, was worse. By this logic, as long as we keep our Iraqi civilian kill count under 300,000, we’re the good guys and our mission is justified.

Deploy a little crit-think to this logic and all of a sudden you’re right there with Mejia. Or with Army Spec. Peter Enos, who, just a few days before he was killed in Bayji by a rocket-propelled grenade, said in a phone conversation to his mother: “Go to every radio and TV station and newspaper, and you tell them this war is wrong. They don’t want us here.”

Many GIs in Iraq are coming to this conclusion. They may want to leave, but Bush’s stop-loss order gives them only one way out.