Thursday, 24 September 2015

Who's playing this war game? - Updated.

Classified as: reflections, war and peace again, 'non-playing characters'

Updated 4 October - Stop calling it collateral damage

A US airstrike that killed up to 20 aid workers and patients in a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital in Afghanistan constitutes a “grave violation of international law”, the charity’s president has said


"US forces conducted an airstrike in Kunduz city at 2:15am [local time] on 3 October against individuals threatening the force. The strike may have resulted in collateral damage to a nearby medical facility. This incident is under investigation,” said Col Brian Tribus, spokesman for international forces in Afghanistan.

See more

If Professor Ranson is right that 85% of those who die in wars now are civilians (see original post below) as I'm sure he is, then the least we can expect is that those waging war stop using terms like collateral damage. It's not collateral damage, it's what wars do. Pacifists like me (or more famous ones like say, Joan Baez or the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom) oppose war in general, but I fail to see how anyone can justify it now that the vast majority of those killed are civilians.

Original post 24 September:

Today Professor David Ranson, of the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine, gave a talk to students in the Climate Change and Public Health unit I'm teaching in this semester.

David was talking about emergencies and disasters, and in the talk he spent some time talking about war. He mentioned that in recent wars, from about the 1980s, 85% of those who die are civilians.

Part of the reason that more of the deaths are civilians now than they used to be (although apparently about half the deaths had been civilians for a long time) is the huge investment that goes in to protecting soldiers, including rapid and massive forensic investigations when soldiers die.  In discussion, David suggested that nations are reluctant to lose soldiers because they invest so much in them. (My apologies to David if I've misunderstood in any way, but this is what I remember).

But I've been thinking about this, and am seeing it in a different way. Recently on the blog Crooked Timber, Belle Waring wrote a couple of posts about NPCs, or non-playing characters, in computer games.

NPCs: What Are They, Even?

by BELLE WARING on AUGUST 28, 2015
... It’s pretty simple. Let’s say you play a FPS (first person shooter) or even a third-person shooter (you see the character you control as if he were the star of a movie). You generally roam around the game shooting alien monsters or zombies or Nazis or zombie Nazis or whatever. But there will be people on your side, or fellow members of the space marines, or bystander city-dwellers—people with whom you can interact but don’t need to/can’t shoot. These characters may have only one thing to say, or they can say one thing when first approached (or when you say a certain thing) and one or more other things later (or when you say that other thing). Alternately and more generally in all sorts of games an NPC can be someone you share endless experiences with, or are trained by, or you start a romantic relationship with, or you lose your shit over when they die ... Basically, in a single-player game, you’re the player, and the non-player characters—even if they look just like you—are merely generated by the game, just like the rendered terrain itself or the monsters or the weapons/spoils of war/scrolls, etc.
You can read it here
Belle was using NPCs mainly as an analogy to talk about sexism. But I started thinking that civilians in wars were like NPCs - expendable characters. Of course soldiers aren't 'supposed' to shoot (or bomb, or whatever) civilians, but loads of civilians die, because they're not key characters. 
Except of course in Belle's analogy, the player identifies with the character. Whereas in war, there are lots of 'characters' (soldiers) and many more 'non-player characters' (civilians). But there isn't one person (player) who identifies with each soldier. There's other people - politicians, arms manufacturers, owners of capital, senior military, diplomats, even (often in an ill-informed way), some of the citizenry in the countries that aren't being invaded - who control or direct the game. The soldiers are used, a few of them get destroyed, but they are defended. They're not in charge, but they are important. Whereas the citizens of the country that's being invaded are just, as Belle says, like the "terrain".
Only then I started thinking about chess, and the similarities. Chess is a game of war, and the pawns in chess are a bit like like non-playing characters, or citizens, although I think they're really foot soldiers. They can move, they can even get to be queens, if they're lucky, although they're largely expendable. 
So in some ways these war games have been around for a long time. But now when you think about how many civilians die, and how much investment goes into the soldiers, who are still just expensive characters, not players - it's chilling. Who's playing this game, really? Who's in charge? I'm outright opposed to war, and have been for a long time, but a lot of people aren't. I think they have a romantic notion that war is about brave soldiers fighting each other to defend the people. But it's not. It never has been really, it's always been about the powerful competing with each other, using soldiers as their pawns. But now it's not even about the soldiers dying, mainly - it's just ordinary people. Civilians, kids.