When I was 19, in the autumn of 1918, I was private Harvey Nottoway, serving in Kitchener’s Army on the Western Front in France. In my final, desperate moments, squatting beneath a wall in the mud, I reloaded my rifle, aimed down the sights and fired until the “ping” of the bolt told me I was out of ammunition and the knife at my throat told me I was out of time.
In 1918, I was also machine gunner Dean Stevenson, ordered to defend the ruins of a village church, before it was engulfed in flame. I was Paul McClaren, a Lewis gunner in a Mark IV tank, when it was annihilated by a German field gun. I was Wyeth Wright and then Needham Jackson. Through their eyes, I was all of them and none.
In the opening sequence of Electronic Arts’ blockbuster game Battlefield I – released in 2016 to coincide with the centenary of the First World War – I am told I am not expected to survive. It feels real, but in spite of the bullets and the mud, Battlefield I is not war, merely a convincing replica. Everyone is a hero, nobody really dies. My Lee-Enfield rifle bucks and jams and spits fire, but the game does not simulate the tap of hard tack on billy tin, or the taste of the weevils inside.
Yet the relationship of video games to history, politics and modern military cultures is no mere child’s play. Battlefield I is making a point, brutal and violent and pornographic though it is. That point is that in video games, enactment is akin to remembrance.
These links are deeply embedded in contemporary visual culture and their operations can be observed and exploited. Take, for example, a slick 2014 advertisement for Royal Australian Air Force pilots, viewed over 430,000 times on the RAAF’s official YouTube channel, as well as broadcast widely on TV.
In it, graphic overlays mimicking the heads-up display (HUD) of a fighter jet augment scenes of young Australian gamers playing Xbox and chess, and pursuing each other in go-karts like dogfighting aces. The tagline? Take your skills up a notch.
There is a young but sophisticated history of the use of video games as military recruitment and training tools, and much has been written about the success of pioneering games such as America’s Army and Full Spectrum Warrior as both PR platforms and commercial enterprises. Literacy and education historian Corey Mead’s book War Play: Video Games and the Future of Armed Conflict traces the methods by which modern soldiers are trained through interactive media.
Others have analysed the relationship between video games, capitalism and militarism and the role of entertainment media in disseminating military doctrines and creating a latent acceptance of military might in popular culture.
The Australian Defence Force website alone lists an impressive array of games with titles such as Rise & Command, Army Artillery, Strike Fighter and Secure the Deck, inviting gamers to “battle online against your opponents in this Army Artillery warfare game”.
“Could you airdrop people from a swinging rope attached to your Seahawk helicopter?” it asks. Another, less exciting, option: “Learn how to tie Navy knots, the proper way”. Clearly, there is utility in gamifying life in the military.
Let’s put aside for the moment the awkward ethics of recruiting through the enculturation of play-based violence. While the relationship of war gaming to violent behaviour is still yet to be fully understood, we know that games and war orbit each other in a relatively predictable cosmology, each supporting the other.
But what happens when the system turns inward, when the physics of this cosmology becomes the subject of critical enquiry by both artists taking games as their medium, and gamers themselves forging narratives through play? How can the network of war and games be gamed?
Playing serious games
This network is the subject of the late German filmic essayist Harun Farocki’s series Serious Games (2009-10): four video works that explore the relationship between game simulation, combat training and traumatic reconciliation. Farocki’s works are often built from the stuff of surveillance – tapes, archival materials – and real-life footage of soldiers being trained using video game technology.
Serious Games was mostly filmed at Marine Corps Base 29 Palms in California in 2009. Between them, the first three works unveil a narrative that describes the trajectory of a soldier’s tour of duty. The footage can barely be described as aesthetic; the images are documentary, raw, somehow staid in spite of the spectacle of their subject. Farocki describes his material as “operative images” not intended for individual consumption out of context.
In Serious Games I: Watson is Down, on one side of the screen we see the crew of a Humvee at laptops as they play out a training mission in digitised Afghanistan. On the other side, we see their actions in the virtual world. An instructor simulates insurgents and IEDs and, at one point, shoots one of the men dead. They are being taught how to respond in real life.
Serious Games II: Three Dead documents a real-life military exercise undertaken at Base 29 where 300 extras played the roles of Afghani and Iraqi locals and insurgents in a town manufactured for the purpose from shipping containers. Farocki himself remarked on the blurring of visual languages between real life and virtual simulation.
In Serious Games III: Immersion, filmed at Fort Louis, Seattle, an army veteran describes combat while ensconced in a virtual reality headset. It is in fact a meta-memory, a simulation of actual events he experienced during his service in which he relives – with what appears to be genuine trauma – the death of his comrade. The denouement reveals the exercise to be a demonstration of new software that has been developed for the army to treat PTSD in returned soldiers.
Interrogating the links between gaming, simulation and reality in this way is instructive. In training, these soldiers are literally able to view themselves in the third person as digital avatars. They are disembodied and reconstituted in a world that has confusing boundaries between action and consequence.
Just as in Battlefield I on Playstation 4, what does it mean for these soldiers to be killed in a virtual Afghanistan on a laptop in California? How does this condition their responses to real combat and its aftermath?
This has civic implications too: what happens to democratic governance when wartime sacrifice – the greatest burden of the body politic – becomes disassociated from the sacrifice of the individual body?
The economies of war
In some sense, this disassociation is a necessary part of the prosecution of modern wars. War consumes. It consumes raw materials, people, nations. It facilitates industries – technological, logistical, financial, medical, governmental – that maintain the consumption of goods and services.
There is a vast economy to war that hides behind the edifice of its moral and political imperatives. And there is also a positive social feedback loop that we are often loath to admit. It is hard to envisage the Apollo missions, nuclear medicine, radar, microwave ovens or the internet without war.
War consumes and it is also greedily consumed by us in newspapers, on film, TV and online. It is streamed in real time to handheld devices, archived on servers, mapped, simulated and replayed. All this must necessarily happen at some distance.
War games form a link in this chain, but they can also expose its loops. In his recent work MQ-9 Reaper III (Skyquest) (2015) Australian new media artist Baden Pailthorpe references the language of video games to visualise the complicit economies of war.
Over a mountainscape that evokes the Hindu Kush of Afghanistan as much as it does the backdrop of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar made famous in Top Gun, hovers a microcosm of capitalist activity. A surreal structure formed from a resource extractor, drone control room and luxury apartment with wifi access is inhabited by an ambiguous figure who may be a drone pilot.
HUD graphics intermittently flash across the screen – they might be the visualisations seen by an F-35 pilot, but occasionally they are filled with consumer products – a pram, a spa, recliner chairs – so they may alternatively be the home shopping network.
Giant, floating billboards twirl across the sky. Sometimes soldiers appear, sometimes scientists. At one point an F-14 Tomcat flashes through the screen, a nod to the 1987 Sega Master System game Afterburner. If the imagery is baffling, dense and difficult to unpack it is because the network of production between games, industry and war is less a single chain link than a dense chain mail.
In video games, players mold the narrative, reforming the system to suit their purposes. But this is sometimes difficult in a creative realm with a visual culture that is often self-referential and heavily influenced by the conventions governing representations of the military in history and pop culture.
Enshrining military politics
For example, Campbell Simpson, a writer for the gaming website Kotaku, reported that “Battlefield I isn’t a game, it’s a history lesson”. I think about this as I return to one of Battlefield I’s narrative vignettes, which takes place on the shores of Gallipoli. In it I play the role of Frederick Bishop, a message runner who lands amongst the carnage of Cape Helles from the doomed collier SS River Clyde.
Surely, I wonder, this role is a homage to Mark Lee and Mel Gibson’s characters in Peter Weir’s Gallipoli.
I have asked the same question before about Mark Lee’s Archy Hamilton, the golden-haired runner machine-gunned in no man’s land at the Nek and the strikingly-similarly blonde interlocutor murdered in artist George Lambert’s 1924 masterpiece of war art The charge of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade at the Nek, 7 August 1915.
I’m reminded that the River Clyde, that modern day Trojan horse from which I leap as Bishop, disgorged its victims at the Hellespont, mere miles from the city of Troy. It was also the site of another great naval landing – the thousand boat bridge built by Xerxes in the 5th century BC to invade Europe. Further up the peninsula, Australian troops landed at Anzac Cove under the watchful gaze of a promontory they named “The Sphinx” after its resemblance to the Egyptian wonder.
Kotaku had it a little wrong. Battlefield I is not a history so much as a scaffold built from the cultural myths to which we have been conditioned in order to find purpose in the act of war. Perhaps more than any game before it, we are made to understand the horror of total war - the tone is not triumphant, though it is certainly valedictory.
Simpson writes that:
the player doesn’t win. There’s no medal ceremony and kiss from a pretty girl for the player in the missions, most of which end with friends and comrades dead and dismembered on the battlefield… in a very self-aware, un-game-like nod to the fact that wars don’t play out like the movies say they do.
This is true. Battlefield I doesn’t glorify war per se, but it reinforces nationalist narratives with zeal – the endgame sequence informs us that the Turkish heroes of Gallipoli went on to found the Republic, and that “tales of heroism and mateship were pivotal in forging [Australian national identity]”.
As an experiment, as Bishop, I attempt to exact vengeance on the inept British officer who has ordered me to my certain death, only to discover that in the virtual world, treason to the Anzac legacy is as impossible to commit as it is to contemplate in the real.
This, in short, is how military politics are enshrined in games.
Still, the great history lesson to be learnt from video games is that narratives are constantly in the processes of being written. New generations of artists and players find ways to reconcile themselves to the meanings of war and new ways of questioning the messages propagated by the system.
Homer played out the great narratives of the Illiad in the poetic medium of his time. And so it is with the great war stories of the 21st century, whose characters are partially recorded in this world, and partially written by us in a virtual one of our own making.
According to JP 1-02,United States Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, a military journalist is "A US Service member or Department of Defense civilian employee providing photographic, print, radio, or television command information for military internal audiences. See also command information. (JP 3-61)"
Military journalists are part Public Affairs, defined by JP 1-02 as "Those public information, command information, and community relations activities directed toward both the external and internal publics with interest in the Department of Defense."
Command information, therefore, is just one of the responsibilities of Public Affairs set by Department of Defense policy. DoDD 5122.5 sets forth these Principles of Information:
E2.1. INFORMATION It is DoD policy to make available timely and accurate information so that the public, the Congress, and the news media may assess and understand the facts about national security and defense strategy. Requests for information from organizations and private citizens shall be answered quickly.
In carrying out that DoD policy, the following principles of information shall apply:
E2.1.1. Information shall be made fully and readily available, consistent with statutory requirements, unless its release is precluded by national security constraints or valid statutory mandates or exceptions. The "Freedom of Information Act" will be supported in both letter and spirit.
E2.1.2. A free flow of general and military information shall be made available, without censorship or propaganda, to the men and women of the Armed Forces and their dependents.
E2.1.3. Information will not be classified or otherwise withheld to protect the Government from criticism or embarrassment.
E2.1.4. Information shall be withheld when disclosure would adversely affect national security, threaten the safety or privacy of U.S. Government personnel or their families, violate the privacy of the citizens of the United States, or be contrary to law.
E2.1.5. The Department of Defense's obligation to provide the public with information on DoD major programs may require detailed Public Affairs (PA) planning and coordination in the Department of Defense and with the other Government Agencies. Such activity is to expedite the flow of information to the public; propaganda has no place in DoD public affairs programs. DODD 5122.5, Sep. 27, 2000
JP 1-02 defines propaganda as "Any form of communication in support of national objectives designed to influence the opinions, emotions, attitudes, or behavior of any group in order to benefit the sponsor, either directly or indirectly."
The effort to counter enemy propaganda, therefore, both directly and indirectly benefits the sponsor. It has been a function of Psychological Operations (PSYOP) and not Public Affairs. JP 1-02 defines Counterpropaganda Operations as "Those psychological operations (PSYOP) activities that identify adversary propaganda, contribute to situational awareness, and serve to expose adversary attempts to influence friendly populations and military forces. (JP 3-53)"
Each branch of service has regulations that further define the roles of military journalists, but in a time of war, for example, Doctrine for Public Affairs in Joint Operations (JP 3-61) "provides joint doctrine for public affairs support during joint operations and US military support to news media in conjunction with military operations."
JP 3-61 states, "PA must be aware of the practice of PSYOP, but should have no role in planning or executing these operations."
The responsibilities of Public Affairs vs PSYOP are, therefore, fundamentally different.
JP 3-61 of May 14, 1997 contained no references to adversary propaganda. JP 3-61 was updated May 9, 2005 to include 16 references to adversary propaganda, which includes this revision:
"Public affairs counters propaganda and disinformation by providing a continuous flow of credible, reliable, timely, and accurate information to military members, their families, the media, and the public. This capability allows PA to help defeat adversary efforts to diminish national will, degrade morale, and turn world opinion against friendly operations. PA must be engaged in operational planning, have visibility into domestic and international press reports, as well as relevant intelligence, understand common adversary propaganda techniques, and be very aggressive by anticipating and countering adversary propaganda—putting accurate, complete information out first so that friendly forces gain the initiative and remain the preferred source of information. Gaining and maintaining the information initiative in a conflict can help discredit and undermine adversary propaganda. ... PA operations keep military members and their families informed about operations, events, and issues to counter adversary propaganda efforts, and reduce stress and uncertainty, and other factors that may undermine mission accomplishment."
The impact of this conflicting update means that the military journalist is required by doctrine to never "influence the opinions, emotions, attitudes, or behavior of any group in order to benefit the sponsor, either directly or indirectly" while at the same time "help defeat adversary efforts to diminish national will, degrade morale, and turn world opinion against friendly operations" and "to counter adversary propaganda efforts,and reduce stress and uncertainty, and other factors that may undermine mission accomplishment".
The military journalist is required by doctrine to participate in counter propaganda efforts, even though the same doctrine defines those efforts as a function of PSYOP, which is something Public Affairs should never execute, according to the same doctrine.
Military journalists must rely on the Combatant Commander's responsibility, IAW JP 3-61, to "Ensure planned ground rules for releasing information to civilian media apply equally to military journalists and broadcasters."
Then military journalists are unable to release information until it is cleared by a designated release authority, a Public Affairs Officer, whose responsibility is to coordinate and synchronize efforts with PSYOP. Despite the information being releasable according to the DOD Principles of Information, the official policy of "Maximum disclosure with minimum delay", and does not violate Operations Security (OPSEC) or threaten national security, any number of subjective factors arising from public perception cause a military journalist's information to be withheld from public release, some of which are detailed in DODI 5230.29. According to which, "All information submitted for review to OSR must first be coordinated within the originating DoD Component to ensure that it reflects the organization’s policy position."
An additional contradiction in doctrine then arises when news does not reflect "the organization’s policy position." Added to which, all news that is released must reflect the organization's policy position, despite doctrine prohibiting information "in order to benefit the sponsor, either directly or indirectly" and other doctrine encouraging the "free flow of information."
The Army's policy for military journalists is further clarified in FM 46-1: "Not all news is good news ... the Army and its operations will be both positive and negative. ... PAOs cannot control media coverage or guarantee positive media products. DoD policy is that information will not be classified or otherwise withheld to protect the government from criticism or embarrassment. Information can only be withheld when its disclosure would adversely affect national and operations security or threaten the safety or privacy of members of the military community. ... It is DoD and Army policy to take an active approach to providing information. The Army will practice the principle of "maximum disclosure with minimum delay", even though this will sometimes result in the publication of stories which are not favorable to the command. ... Because the Army is an agency of the U.S. government, its internal audiences, local community members, and members of the American public as a whole, have a right to know about its operations. More importantly, the Army has an obligation to keep these audiences informed. ... Public affairs operations should employ an active approach. PAOs must take the lead in contributing to accurate, credible, and balanced coverage by practicing maximum disclosure with minimum delay."
Yet the same doctrine states, "Public affairs operations should be planned and executed to influence the presentation of information about the force by providing truthful, complete, and timely information that communicates the Army perspective", despite conflicting doctrine that denounces propaganda to "influence the opinions, emotions, attitudes, or behavior of any group in order to benefit the sponsor, either directly or indirectly".
In other Army doctrine explaining an Information Operations Estimate, FM 3-13, "IO-cell members—especially the PSYOP, civil-military operations, and public affairs (PA) representatives—identify how best to influence the attitudes and actions of the civilian populace..." and in a Commander's Guidance example, "Use PA to favorably influence the population in the AO and worldwide. Emphasize the lead role of the ASA and tell the truth: that we are here to assist a well-trained army accomplish a worthwhile mission." The Public Affairs Officer must help, "ensure an integrated strategy and a unified effort to communicate the Army’s perspective and to favorably portray tactical and operational objectives."
One distinctly effective way (of many) that suppresses military journalism in conflict with this "perspective" or "organizational policy" is taught outside of official, high-level, DoD policy at the Defense Information School, where military journalists and Public Affairs Officers are trained:
Command Messages: "plain or secret language" that "communicate the command's position in everything we do" which are designed for informing and "persuading – through accurately provided information – those publics to support and accept the action." This is a "Command Message (your organization's policy or position)"
Another distinctly effective way that suppresses civilian journalism in conflict with these "command messages" is to employ:
Media ground rules: Guidelines that media must adhere to if they want to continue getting support from the military. One of 20 media ground rules, as of October 15, 2009, that applies equally to civilian and military journalists in the CJTF-82's Area of Operations (AO) in Afghanistan, for example, is "During interviews, no questions will be asked about the politics of the military. (e.g. Iraq war, equipment, readiness, funding, etc.)" Most ground rules are justified by Operations Security. Funding?
These policies remain despite the Commander in Chief, Barack Obama's Open Government Directive that conveys the, "Government should be transparent. Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing."
The U.S. military journalist, therefore, is a journalist whose job, at the highest level of accountability, is defined by an obligation to fully inform the public without design to directly or indirectly benefit the military, but who must also fight subjective policy, ambiguous definitions, and conflicting doctrine designed to deceive the public with hidden political agendas.
The military has been increasingly spending billions to do so, in which Sheldon Rampton, research director for the Committee on Media and Democracy, calls a "massive apparatus selling the military to us."
- ^"DOD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms".
- ^"command information".
- ^ abcdeJP 3-61
- ^"Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs (ASD(PA))"(PDF). September 5, 2008. Archived from the original(PDF) on March 4, 2011.
- ^"Principles of Information". Archived from the original on December 31, 2002.
- ^JP 3-53
- ^"Doctrine for Public Affairs in Joint Operations"(PDF). Archived from the original(PDF) on 2011-07-28.
- ^"what are information operations".
- ^ ab"Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs - OASD(PA)". Archived from the original on June 24, 2003.
- ^THOM SHANKER; ERIC SCHMITT (December 16, 2002). "Pentagon Debates Propaganda Push in Allied Nations". The New York Times. Archived from the original on August 9, 2016. Retrieved September 25, 2016.
- ^"Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs (ASD(PA))"(PDF). September 27, 2000. Retrieved September 25, 2016.
- ^"Security and Policy Review of DoD Information for Public Release"(PDF). August 6, 1999. Archived from the original(PDF) on December 4, 2008.
- ^"Public Affairs Operations"(PDF). May 30, 1997. Archived from the original(PDF) on July 28, 2011. Retrieved September 25, 2016.
- ^"Information Operations: Doctrine, Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures"(PDF). November 2003. Archived from the original(PDF) on March 24, 2004. Retrieved September 25, 2016.
- ^"Command Message Development"(PDF). Archived from the original(PDF) on July 16, 2011.
- ^"Regional Command East Media Ground Rules"(PDF). October 15, 2009. Archived from the original(PDF) on July 4, 2010.
- ^Peter R. Orszag (December 8, 2009). "Open Government Directive m10-06"(PDF). Office of Management and Budget. Executive Office of the President. Archived from the original(PDF) on December 9, 2009. Retrieved June 15, 2016.
- ^"Pentagon sets sights on public opinion". NBC News. AP. Feb 5, 2009. Retrieved June 15, 2016.