Variations on an Abyss.
When I was young, I had the opportunity to spend most of my summers in Lebanon. I am Lebanese. My parents would take my brother and I back to Lebanon to get to know the country they left and to develop closer ties with my family half a world away.
Most of my family live in a village in the mountains near the mid-south called Kfarhatta, about 20 minutes outside of Saida. My maternal grandmother lives in a house that overlooks the main road. On the other side of that road was a steep decline, and there was a soccer field at the bottom. It wasn’t actually a soccer field though, it was just dirt. It was a plot of land that a local man used to grow some plants occasionally, but when he wasn’t, it was our soccer field.
Surrounding the field was a thicket of trees. The field wasn’t large by any standard, but it was enough for the village children and I to play soccer.
During one particular game one summer (I was 9 or 10), I kicked the ball into the thicket and ran out to get it. Near where the ball had landed I found an unexploded grenade. I brought it back to the field with the ball.
I showed my friends what it was. I was really excited that I had found a relic of the war that plagued Lebanon for nearly 30 years. I wanted to keep it until an older village kid told me it was dangerous and could explode at anytime. He took the grenade and threw it into the valley below.
We continued our game.
Most summers when my parents weren’t able to stay in Lebanon as long as my brother and I, we would stay with one of my paternal aunts.
My uncle designed and built his house himself with the help of his four sons. He was a master electrician with a penchant for language and history. In his youth he had been an exceptional bodybuilder.
On the final day of our stay in Lebanon on this particular summer (I don’t remember how old I must have been), I was sitting with my aunt in the rear bedroom where my cousins and I all slept, helping my aunt pack my suitcase. I was mid-sentence in saying something when a sudden explosion went off.
It wasn’t really something you heard so much as something you felt in your stomach. Your insides shake as the ground shakes, it feels like you’ve been thrown into a jet engine.
We ran outside. I moved purely on instinct, I had no control.
Outside we ran to the side of the house. An artillery shell landed through the back wall of the house down the road. They were distant relatives of mine as well.
We continued to the side entrance of the above ground basement my uncle built into his house. We waited and listened in the dark. A second artillery shell slammed down further down the road, landing just behind the third house on our stretch of street.
I was angry and I knew I couldn’t do anything. The oldest of my four cousins was in the police force, he was with us in the basement, he had to tell me to shut up so that he could listen for an all-clear before heading out to a car that was picking us up.
When the car came we ran outside and I stubbed my toe on a cinderblock (I was barefoot) and when I looked down, the floor was covered with shrapnel. We made our escape to another house in the village.
At the second house, there were rumors of attack helicopters coming in, you could also here the fighters in the sky.
The sound of jet engines is the most horrifying noise in war.
On the way back to my aunt’s house (by car) to get our things and leave for Beirut we found one of our neighbor’s children just roaming the street far from the house and sobbing, confused. We pulled him into the car and asked him what happened. His mother had been pinned underneath the rubble of the rear wall that had collapsed on her. He had tried to pull the rubble off of her, but she just screamed at him to get out, so he did, he ran.
We got back to the house, checked it for physical damage. My brother and I got our things, my father showed up and we dashed for Beirut.
I stayed with my grandmother a lot when I was very young. I would go to sleep with the sound of machinegun fire in the distance. My grandmother would come in and try to explain that these were guerilla fighters attacking occupation forces. That never made me feel better.
There was always retaliation.
The way I understand it, my paternal uncle M. was something of a hero in my village.
My father (Then working as a vice detective in Beirut) bought him a .38 revolver (long barrel). M. loved that gun.
My uncle was tall, athletic, and generally respected. He had the reputation of being a tough guy.
Once there was a rabid dog that was attacking livestock in the village. It was savage and, even in its madness, an excellent hunter. It was hard to track.
After some time, some men in the village managed to track it to an unkempt field with long grass. They called my uncle.
He showed up with his .38. It was in the afternoon. He stepped into the field and slowly tried finding the dog. After sometime the dog came after him. He killed it with one shot.
M. was political (it was impossible not to be at that time), he was involved in the civil war that centered mainly in and around Beirut.
He was gunned down. Ambushed in the night, at a checkpoint just outside of Beirut. I’ve heard it told that he took down six of the people who ambushed him before dying.
This was the greatest tragedy in my father’s family.
In 2006, I went to Lebanon in the summer. One morning in July, there was a news report that certain guerillas had crossed the border into a neighboring country and taken two soldiers on patrol near the border hostage. The details were in dispute, but retaliation was quick.
That afternoon, I had gone with my cousins (who had just arrived in Lebanon the previous day) to eat at a restaurant 15 minutes outside of the village. The place was empty, we sat down and ordered our food. Before the food had come I was getting phone calls that things were getting serious. I ignored them.
I sat there until that sound came back, the engines. I looked up and saw a fighter dropping flares. One of the flares landed just below the restaurant on the mountainside. A fire started. We drove back to the village.
That night we stood on the balcony of my maternal aunt’s house, her home was elevated above other ones in the village. We watched the refugees in the nearby city firing red and green tracers at the planes flying overhead. They lit up the sky like Christmas.
My mother built a home in the village a few years earlier, it stood on the top of a mountain, isolated and exposed, we thought it was dangerous to stay there so we went and stayed with my grandmother in the village itself. As the days wore on, my brother was growing more anxious. The psychological impact of the engines was weighing on us all: Where would the bombs drop?
The airport was the first target, they bombed the runways and fuel storage tanks, the fuel leaked into the ocean. The act was condemned internationally. We couldn’t get out.
The decision was made after the guerillas managed to score an attack on an opposing battleship sitting in the Mediterranean to leave for Beirut and get out of the country.
We had to take a back road to the capital because they had bombed nearly every bridge and main road in the country. The only beautiful thing to come out of the trip was seeing where the Druze lived. Their land was high in the mountains, covered with a thick fog, streetlights glowing softly, it was a whole other world.
We made it to Beirut and stayed in a hotel for a few days. We were interviewed by someone from ABC News. I was frustrated. The American government had taken no action up to this point. Other nations had evacuated their citizens prior, in the first days. We felt abandoned.
The bombing in South Beirut (the guerillas stronghold) was ceaseless. You could hear it all the time from the hotel. I found irony in the fact that the opposing army was bombing Lebanon with munitions supplied by the United States.
This is what it is to be from two worlds. There I am the American. Here I am the Arab. There I was bombed on all the same. Here I am searched in airports most of the time.
War has a dumb, brutal logic that tears at any and all of a person’s identities.
Once it became evident that nothing was going to change, that the embassy was dragging its feet. We hired cabs and just headed for Syria. Eventually landing in Damascus. Two weeks later we bought our own tickets and flew back to the U.S.
The final irony being the inversion in circumstance: Now Lebanon is swarming with Syrian refugees escaping the nightmares of their own country.
A few days after I landed in the U.S., I heard a plane flying overhead. I was scared.
One of the major problems of realistic war games today, is the total inability to capture any of the fear, isolation, anxiety of actually being in an environment that is in the process of descending into total loss.
I recall reading an article once that discussed the devs behind Battlefield 3 and their reasoning for not having any civilians in any of the maps or city levels in their multiplayer. Their reasoning was that the player was to assume that the civilians had been evacuated and that had they included civilians (and in particular children) that people would do awful things to them.
I can understand the challenges (both financially and mechanically) of having a game with two opposing sides that players control try to navigate around a level with NPC civilians fleeing or hiding from the fighting. I could also understand the PR hell that would occur when mainstream media got hold of some footage on YouTube of a player only targeting civilians for a good laugh and hits to his YouTube channel.
Despite this, the image of war that is often depicted in games is too clean, too brazen, and gives players and consumers a hyper-sanitzed vision of what happens.
Jean Baudrillard once wrote a book titled ‘The Gulf War Did Not Take Place‘. In it, Baudrillard argued that in terms of the West, the Gulf War was not really a war, it was a massacre. Few casualties were reported on the coalition side, they avoided engaging the Iraqi army directly, and very little attention was payed to the Iraqi losses, both civilian and military. This asymmetrical, overbearing show of force was increasingly sanitized to present a clean, stoic narrative through the media to the American public. So while violence did take place, none of it was felt, none of it was presented.
Modern video games on war can be seen as an extension of this philosophy. The presentation of an ultra-slick, concise narrative (Call of Duty) with empty urban environments devoid of any civilian life (Battlefield) can be seen as an extension of the track that was firmly established in Gulf War 1.: Keep the audience engaged without showing them the costs.
It is also odd to me how games about war today often involve the opposing forces of nations that are viewed negatively in American and western media. Russia, China, Cuba, North Korea, Iran, various Arab states have all been depicted as simply being ‘the enemy’. While I understand that a narrative requires an opposing force, an antagonist, the lack of creativity at play is evident.
It would be fine if this was simply a question of laziness and/or of what is financially feasible, however the danger behind not only removing civilians from the question of conflict and using modern states only in the context of ‘the enemy’ is the subtle propulsion of racism through the mind. The cementing of hostility.
Having played (and enjoyed!) most modern war games, it feels odd sometimes when I am tasked with killing people that I have a shared culture, language, and appearance with. This is the trouble of being caught in two worlds. Here I am the Arab. In games I am the American fighting for American dominance or the total other extreme of my shared identity: The terrorist.
In playing multiplayer, players are required to fill up the opposing roster on a team. However, does that really change anything? You aren’t given any insight or understanding into why you’re doing what you’re doing, you’re just fighting, period. You’re digitally cosplaying as the enemy, nothing more. A virtual Marionette.
A few weeks ago, I saw this. A new kind of war game. A game that is trying to show the rest of the world what being in a conflict is actually like.
‘This War of Mine‘ is a dark survival game being developed by 11 bit Studios where you play as a group of civilians trying to stay alive in a city stumbling through the violence and misery of conflict. In this case, the opposing factions are in the background, they are the parameters, the fringes that can (and will) kill you.
While other games pushed out by large publishers like EA and Activision justify their lack of civilians as the removal of a financial, cultural, or mechanical burden, ‘This War of Mine’ allows room for both the conflict and the civilians.
Having lived (in parts and pieces) through war, I can attest to the realism of 11 bit’s approach. Being stuck in a large-scale conflict, you are not only full of dread and anxiety, but after a certain point you don’t care anymore who is right or wrong. You stop caring what side is winning or losing. None of it matters, you just want to try and live.
I watched this game being played at PAX East 2014. I watched someone having to make decisions about what to send out with survivors. Basically, since in the game you have to gather supplies to make sure everyone can stay alive, you need to choose to send certain people from your group out into the city to try to find some way of getting supplies to aid the group back at the home base. Sometimes people just don’t come back. Sometimes people are just gunned down.
While the game is mechanically interesting, it has a very strong aesthetic. The colors are dark, the survivors and their environments are broken.
There is no flourishing here either aesthetically or mechanically.
Some might be turned off by a game as dark as this, especially in the U.S. where we have become so used to winning (however you can define that) in the post-Vietnam era.
But this game is necessary.
It is necessary to an industry that has become an extension of the ‘America wins’ narrative and to all the gaming communities the world over to understand the horrible loss of identity and the shouldering of a dread that slowly consumes the heart. War is the excruciating process of being broken.
‘This War of Mine’ will hopefully get other devs to think of what’s possible, about the kinds of experience that people need to feel to understand.
“In war, not everyone is a soldier.”