UK paperback

A blue-on-blue situation

‘Friendly fire’ and virtual war

Written for today’s Guardian.

Since Jean Baudrillard declared in 1991 that the Gulf war was best understood as a simulation, technology has advanced to the point that the virtual is now more realistic than the real. Such is the disturbing impression one has from watching the just-released cockpit video of the attack on a British convoy by American pilots during the Iraq war in 2003, which killed one soldier and injured four others. As the glowing aquamarine lines and symbols of the aircraft’s HUD (head-up display), lazily rotating and scrolling as the aircraft banks, are projected over the desert landscape outside, it resembles nothing so much as a blurrier and not so pretty imitation of a videogame that many British children might have got for Christmas.

Ace Combat X ((It’s subtitled “Skies of Deception”, which is horribly appropriate.)), running on the handheld PlayStation Portable console, is a high-speed approximation of modern airborne warfare, with licensed models of real planes (including the A-10 Thunderbolt involved in the Iraq assault): chaotic dogfights and ground attacks take place against lovingly rendered, near-photorealistic landscapes, under the virtual light of setting suns. Amid the soundtrack of radio chatter and techno-rock music, the game has one fortunate difference: blue and red icons make it impossible to confuse your own forces with the enemy.

The US military has long exploited videogame technology for training purposes, and even released its own game, America’s Army, based on actual training procedures, as a recruitment aid. Now Predator drones in Afghanistan are controlled from thousands of miles away by joystick-wielding officers over a video link. Has the widening distance between action and result – the virtualisation of the first, and the screening-out of the second – led to a dangerous lack of emotional affect ((The word “affect” was replaced by the Guardian with “reaction”, which does not mean the same thing. There appears to be some journalistic allergy to the noun “affect”, either born of ignorance or assuming ignorance among readers – even though, in this case, I thought I had made sure of being understood by supplying the unnecessary qualifier “emotional”. I was careful to do that because, as it happens, the word “affect” was also edited out of my 2003 interview with William Gibson (end of paragraph 18, originally read “the Ballardian ante on the affect went up”), even though it was a direct quote from the author. Sigh.)) in the military? It could be so, but if we demand that soldiers kill on our behalf, we might not be justified in demanding also that they adopt what we consider the appropriate emotional posture at all times.

An analogous kind of virtualisation has in any case long been present in the tradition of military euphemism – as “friendly fire” itself is the opposite of a friendly thing, and a “blue-on-blue situation”, as the radio controller announces it, is not the Mediterranean horizon in summer but the killing of allies. This incident was not too virtual but insufficiently virtual. In a modern online wargame, an incident of “friendly fire” will have your fallen comrades swearing at you over the headset, but they’ll come back to life, or “respawn”, for the next round of battle. In that way, at least, the engineering of war to match its virtual version still has a long way to go.

Bonus spot-the-difference quiz related to the video dialogue:

arty shell 1   arty shell 2

Arty shell                             Arty shell

  1. 1  lamentreat  February 7, 2007, 8:18 am 

    I’m curious about the word “affect.” The way you use it here seems to mean something like “capacity for empathy”. This meaning is also present in Ballard’s great formulation “the waning of affect” which I guess you’re alluding to in the second example. But I’ve seen it used in a more specific way about the specific emotional quality *given off* by someone, as in this example from John Lanchester’s LRB World Cup blog:

    “Also, I’m pleased for Jurgen Klinsmann. At least I think I am. He is a likeable man but there is something odd about his affect; hard to put
    your finger on but it’s there.”

    I’m not saying one usage is right and the other wrong, in fact I like them both, I’m just curious as to the relation between the two. (Sorry to comment on a footnote rather than the main topic – am particularly interested in this word.)

  2. 2  lamentreat  February 7, 2007, 9:06 am 

    correction to above: I meant “capacity for emotion”

  3. 3  dsquared  February 7, 2007, 10:17 am 

    The allergy, I think, is a terror of being mistaken for someone who doesn’t know the difference between “affect” and “effect”. Or possibly, a subeditor who has seen the two confused so many times that he or she automatically zaps any noun use of “affect”.

  4. 4  Steven  February 7, 2007, 11:51 am 

    Of course it’s possible that I used “affect” wrongly myself, but I was trying to allude economically to the Sun‘s criticism of the pilot’s flippant tone as they were discussing the targets.

    The “Ballardian ante” line was spoken by Gibson, so I guess he had that quote in mind.

  5. 5  lamentreat  February 7, 2007, 12:13 pm 

    No I think you used it exactly right. It’s as if the two uses mean the same thing, but in one the emotion is static (the capacity to feel) and in the other it is dynamic (the feeling in motion from one person to another).

    Since when does blue = “us” for the US military, I wonder. Since the red was “The Reds” in the Cold War?

  6. 6  Steven  February 7, 2007, 12:48 pm 

    That’s a good question. It reminds me of Red vs Blue, even though that doesn’t supply an answer either…

  7. 7  Gwynn Dujardin  February 7, 2007, 2:02 pm 

    I was struck by the choice of blue inasmuch as a “blue state” here is a Democratic one (or as W would say, a Democrat one). I would think it would have to do with meanings associated with “true blue” (yes, versus the “red peril”).

  8. 8  Steven  February 7, 2007, 2:04 pm 

    Is it also the color code of republic vs monarchy?

  9. 9  Gwynn Dujardin  February 7, 2007, 2:57 pm 

    Huh. Dunno (would like to). I was wondering whether the choice also had something to do with the aesthetics/ideology of *air fight, in that while the red enemy is plain to see, blue planes would presumably be less distinct . . . That is, atmospherically camouflaged, a player/fighter might feel more elusive, and hence more confident in assailing the enemy. At one with “the firmament,” the true-blue patriot can fly and fight untroubled by the veracity/legitimacy of his mission. Clear skies ahead: fire away.

    Shameless pop culture reference of the day (but surely an animation precedent of some kind?): Snoopy’s airborne dog-fights with the Red Baron.

  10. 10  Graham Giblin  February 7, 2007, 3:42 pm 

    Ask Oxford says “from the use of blue to indicate friendly forces in military exercises” which I’m guessing may be the reason UN soldiers wear blue caps.
    On the original matter, my three boys have every type of virtual gaming system in existence and they love killing (virtual) things with them. This has always worried me. I keep saying “I think F-Zero is good…” What I say to them is that it is not the visual content of the games that bothers me, it is the underlying message of which they can’t be aware while they are fully consciously engaged with the images on the screen. What is slipping unconsciously underneath are concepts like, “shoot first, shoot randomly, use all the force you have; shoot first or you will be shot; it is acceptable to destroy the ‘alien’ and the ‘not us'”. These, I say to them, are lessons that must surely become deeply entrenched because they are not filtered in any way or troubled by thought or consideration of morality in the game of survival, goal-reaching and, as Bush would say, winning.
    Naturally they tell me that I’m talking nonsense, that they don’t want to kill anyone, in fact quite the opposite. They tell me that perhaps their playing the game is a safe outlet for their aggression. They may be right. They are very well-socialised and not aggressive in person. They also tell me about the mental and intellectual acuity they gain from playing them.
    Still I have that niggling feeling about what is slipping through,unconsidered.

    There is a video of some US fighter planes calmly wiping out several Iraqis who have just left a mosque (which the pilots were careful no to hit) upon which another pilot exclaims “Oh, dude!” A bit like a video gamer, really. If you really like snuff movies look here and here

  11. 11  Richard  February 7, 2007, 4:56 pm 

    wiping out several Iraqis who have just left a mosque (which the pilots were careful no to hit)

    This is a side-note, but it’s been bothering me for years. US forces and media seem to think that offences against symbolic architecture (most notably mosques at the most important shrines of Islam) are much more serious than randomly or semi-randomly killing humans. As far as I can tell, the rationale for this attitude is that they think this is what the Other thinks: they’re being ‘sensitive’ by not bombing the mosque, just the people.

    I’m uncertain about whether this is true or not; whether Muslims worldwide will be more offended by the destruction of the Shrine of Kerbala than by the destruction of the town of Kerbala, for instance. I have a niggling suspicion that it’s a simple projection onto the Other of feelings that do not meet American standards of objective rationality: in other words, classic Orientalism. Symbolic architecture certainly seems to be important in America.


  12. 12  dsquared  February 7, 2007, 8:09 pm 

    [Ask Oxford says]

    which reminds me that presumably the annual Boat Race is a blue-on-blue situation.

  13. 13  Steven  February 7, 2007, 11:18 pm 

    Ah, now for some reason you have me thinking of all kinds of lewd meanings for “blue-on-blue situation”, involving nuns etc.

    Graham, I haven’t kept up so assiduously with that topic since I began Unspeak, but my first book was about videogames, and I’m sceptical that they have any greater pernicious effect on The Kids than 1950s cowboys’n’Indians TV serials & so on. Also some of them do toy quite intriguingly with ethical complexities in a way that they didn’t much 15 years ago. But see Lt Col David Grossman for the opposite view.

    Richard, interesting point about buildings. We were told, weren’t we, that the Al-Askari mosque bombing was the last straw for Shia in Iraq? There’s an interesting book on the deliberate targeting of symbolic buildings: The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War by Robert Bevan.

    Re Red vs Blue: the British, of course, were Redcoats during the American War of Independence, while quite a lot of the Americans seemed to wear blue when in uniform, and George Washington’s Commander-in-Chief ribbon was blue. That can’t be a coincidence.

  14. 14  Graham  February 8, 2007, 2:56 am 

    Yes. As I was suggesting, on the face of it my theory does not test well against reality. Therefore there must be something wrong with reality, because my instinct says the theory is correct… On the other hand, perhaps it would be preferable to refine the theory. Although in individual cases violent video games may not create emotionless killing machines, they may establish an underlying (still unexamined because unconscious) social context in which shooting the Other first and without passion is acceptable. That is, there may be a base shift in cultural values, as opposed to a noticeable affect, necessarily, in individal behaviour. Or maybe my concern is just unwarranted.

  15. 15  Jeff Strabone  February 8, 2007, 3:02 am 

    Having used ‘affect’ as a noun at my own blog less than a week ago, I would like to reassure Steve that his use was eminently blog-worthy. In fact, I used it twice, which may qualify me as an expert on the question of affect in early twenty-first-century blog culture:

    Lyrically, the album belongs to Byrne’s absurdist flat-affect period, so flat that his vocals are all spoken declarative sentences.


    But flat affect and non sequiturs tell only half the story.

    The OED is pretty clear. Among other definitions:
    Disposition or constitution.
    I. Mental.
    1. a. The way in which one is affected or disposed; mental state, mood, feeling, desire, intention.
    esp. b. Inward disposition, feeling, as contrasted with external manifestation or action; intent, intention, earnest, reality.
    c. Feeling, desire, or appetite, as opposed to reason; passion, lust, evil-desire.

    On another note, Reader Richard has raised a question about the attention given to ‘offences against symbolic architecture’. The particular bombing of the al-Askari Masjid in Samarra on February 22, 2006, mentioned by Steve, did seem to mark a tipping point with regard to Shia restraint versus retaliation.

    I just did a Lexis-Nexis search of the New York Times for ‘death squad’ and ‘Iraq’ for 2003 to 2007. There were 283 such articles: 207 of them since the bombing, 76 for the three years before. Even more interesting: of 61 articles with the phrase ‘Shiite death squad’, 54 of them were written since the bombing; the first such article appeared on May 27, 2005.

    It was definitely a turning point, if not in Shia retaliation then at least in journalism. (I think the former.)

    More generally, an attack on a masjid is akin to a violent hate crime. Here in the States, we have sentence-enhancement laws that provide for more severe penalties for violent acts classified as hate crimes, as opposed to non-hate murders, assault, and whatnot. (It’s hard to imagine a murder or assault not motivated by hate, but so be it.) The reasoning, I’ve always inferred, is that a crime against a random X endangers all the X’s in the world. Killing one’s lover or lawyer is a crime against one person. Killing an X is a crime against millions and is directed at immiserating millions and depriving them of security.

    If we accept that reasoning, then a Sunni bombing of a beloved Shia site is a crime against all Shias, as well as against Shia culture. Likewise, the July 18, 1994 bombing of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina in Buenos Aires did not just kill eighty-five people; it wiped out the archives of the Jewish community in Argentina.

    Finally, and I do apologize for the length, Steve said something striking in his original entry:

    It could be so, but if we demand that soldiers kill on our behalf, we might not be justified in demanding also that they adopt what we consider the appropriate emotional posture at all times.

    This remark is so completely counter-intuitive yet so right. The public debate, so far, assumes that soldiers protected from the negative affect that can follow from their actions will kill more eagerly and, by implication, more irresponsibly. The conventional wisdom ultimately argues that the perpetrators of violence, i.e. soldiers, should suffer for their actions. Steve has not said that he thinks they should or should not be shielded from the emotional consequences of performing violence. What he said, and it strikes me as both brilliant and decent, is that we ought not demand that they suffer for what they do in our name. An excellent point, Steve.

  16. 16  Graham  February 8, 2007, 3:07 am 

    BTW, in the blue-on-blue video, the pilots were badly upset when they found out they had fired on the Brits. I wondered why they might have been so affected.
    It can’t have been because they had killed someone. That’s the job.
    So was it because they were going to get into trouble; was it because they had stuffed up a manoeuvre (like dropping a long pass from the quarterback that would have won the game); or was it because they had killed one of US rather than one of the OTHER? Just wondering.

  17. 17  Chad  February 8, 2007, 8:45 am 

    Apologies in advance, I added this feed a few days ago and perhaps my line of inquiry is a bit presumptive, being a visitor; ah yes, I had to look through the Firefox history, it was about the “Active Denial System.” The google blurb was intriguing and I tooled around here for 15 minutes.

    May I humbly point out that as the analysis went on about blue on blue, that in the remarks regarding our obligatory shrug, that “we’ve” assumed these were necessary jobs of the soldiers, we “ought” not “make them suffer” for “what they do..” Ought is a wide trap, any neutral set of eyes can plainly see that.. The assumption comes into the unspoken “necessity” of what they do. They need to protect the innocent lives they’re charged with trying to democratize. I’ve only seen a few such gunship movies, and after following the specious back history of the 2003 incident.. All of the extras in our convenient black and white snuff films are exponential variables in our geopolitical analysis, our carefully calculated equations.. Soon enough we’ll start being so neutral towards plainclothes casualties where surely our plainclothes enemies were hiding, that we’ll start finding ourselves saying “Well.. At least they saw the gunships coming.. The poor 9/11 victims didn’t even see the planes, or know they were a threat! Poor plainclothes casualties, we all wish Al-Qaeda had hit _______” (right wingers, name a celeb; left wingers, name an evangelist)

    I love how world opinion only counts as a reason to attack the media, how badly this or that slanders our name in the world, but our collective decision, the tacit approval of our collective action, have to be understood. Instead of preemptively attacking what our infallible intelligence tells us*, shouldn’t we demand more precision, and wouldn’t we praise ourselves and our soldiers, for nonlethal methods, paralysis and tear gas instead of wholly bombing small congregations? I guess we’ll “ask [those kinds of] questions later, and [let them] shoot first [ productivity, in the “job” at “their company,” eh]?

    You all must know more about war strategy than I’ve crash coursed in the last few years.. of course questioning Bush, entailed that I wasn’t the type to be interested in any wars at all.. So answer me a side question: Why can’t the U.S. start building power- and water- and commerce-generating infrastructure, close to the base, and take a defensible position there?.. Why the need for playing “Press Your Luck” with IED’s, or kicking in the local poor shmuck’s door just in case he was making one?

    Isn’t the unspoken message of the United States, that all people of the world deserve the chance to live like Americans, and deserve the respect (as long as they cooperate with the authorities) Americans are not just morally but legally entitled to? And wouldn’t building something WORTH having an army there to protect, that the Iraqis could claim as theirs to inherit, that would give them incentive to preemptively rat out insurgents, be worth whatever military disadvantage exists “just sitting around watching and waiting?” At least, COULD it have been done that way, building first and drawing Al-Qaeda to us, before the attacks got so numerous (weekly) that even a lemonade stand is too risky a liability?

    (* BTW.. in that MassacreOfCivilians movie.. notice how “numerous individuals” were leaving the mosque.. then “cleared” by command.. Individuals entailing a rebellious volition and therefore inherent responsibility, and numerous being more than three but not such a multitude or even a bunch, wherein by statistical accuracy, if poor little Hassan or Aliah happen to be running along, it’s just one out of, what, a numerous six or seven?.. and it’s FIFTY AT LEAST.)

    Nice to meet ya, hope I didn’t kill the thread. Now please, tell me I’m an idiot, console my hysterics, tell me there was no other way to do it or look at it, as we ought to. But if the individual soldiers misrepresent or mischaracterize a situation so as to engage, get a medal and get back to base, they bear some responsibility. And if they make conscientious attempts to not harm civilians, but are told to disregard and engage anyway, their commanders should be held liable. We ought not to accept needless casualties, however sanitized or pixellated they were to us at the time or in retrospect.

    There, I can sleep tonight.

  18. 18  Steven  February 8, 2007, 9:27 am 

    Thanks, Jeff. It’s nice to know that “affect” is such a high-class blogmeme.
    Although I should point out that killing one’s lover, or even one’s lawyer, is not just a crime against one person but a crime against all lovers and all lawyers, indeed against society itself, which it is why it is the State or Crown that prosecutes. (Given that, the distinction between ordinary crimes and “hate crimes”, as you point out, seems quite subtle.)

    But your analogy between hate crimes and destroying buildings seems quite apt. The Bevan book I referred to reports that the ICTY found that the deliberate destruction of buildings could be “an index of genocidal intent”.

    Graham: to make a couple of crude points: 1) did soldiers in general have more problems shooting “The Other”, or on the other hand getting upset when accidentally shooting their comrades, in the numerous large wars that took place before videogames were invented? (I haven’t read Joanna Bourke’s An Intimate History of Killing, perhaps someone here has.) 2) Were people in their twenties (the largest demographic slice of the contemporary videogame market) the most vocal supporters of the current war in Iraq?

    Chad, I largely agree with your concerns. My point about affect, as Jeff understood, was not at all to make an unspoken assumption about the rightness of the war or its strategic priorities, or to say that mistakes or incompetence, if any be demonstrated, should have no consequence; simply that I don’t like to see our media launching a witch-hunt against a single pilot on the basis that he didn’t take what they declare to be the appropriately sombre or sober emotional attitude towards his duty – which was the basis of the Sun‘s denunciation of his behaviour. The Sun, which has now named and printed a photograph of the pilot in question (but not, interestingly, the air controller who assured him there were no “friendlies” in the area), would be more righteous in directing its ire towards the people who created that situation in the first place and sent the soldiers into it. I mean, of course, primarily Bush/Cheney and Blair. But, as it happens – and which is what makes the Sun‘s campaign even more pusillanimous – the Sun was a staunch and unwavering supporter of the invasion.

  19. 19  Graham Giblin  February 8, 2007, 10:52 am 

    Steven, I read your comment as saying that if we require others to do our killing for us, to be, if you like, our professional hit-men, that we should not expect un-hit-man-like attitudes from them. I think that extends also to those of us who opposed sending them to kill for us, which I imagine you were also suggesting.
    I thought Chad was very insightful in noticing ‘The assumption [of] the unspoken “necessity” of what they do’.

    I really wasn’t trying to make a point about why the pilots felt bad, or connecting it to video games. I really was just wondering. But to answer your questions, a good proportion of twenty-somethings were pro-invasion. An Australian poll for March 2003 shows 18-34s were 49% pro, 39% anti. But over-50s were 54% pro and 37% anti. So…

    As far as US and OTHERS goes, of course it has been an age-old – probably prehistoric – practice to demonise the enemy, to dehumanise them so that you are only killing things and not people. As I said, the theory does not test well against reality.

  20. 20  Steven  February 8, 2007, 11:31 am 

    if we require others to do our killing for us, to be, if you like, our professional hit-men, that we should not expect un-hit-man-like attitudes from them

    Yes, that’s a very nice way of putting it. And I agree that it applies to those who did not support the war as well as those who did. In an oddly inverted way, it’s perhaps analogous to trying to legislate against gallows humour among doctors.

  21. 21  Jason Thompson  February 8, 2007, 7:38 pm 

    Back to the interesting “affect” point – it’s worth noting that, in the psychological literature on this topic, there’s some ambiguity as to the precise interrelationship of the terms “affect”, “emotion”, and “feeling.” One useful definition, proposed by Nathanson (1992), suggests that “affect is biology, feeling is psychology, emotion is biography.” In other words, “affect” represents a neurological event, “feeling” the resultant internal experience of that event, and “emotion” the internal (and external) expression of that experience triggered in association with memories of similar experiences. Personality theorist Silvan Tomkins argues that there are only nine basic affects, each corresponding to a specific physiological gesture (“joy”, for instance, connects with “smiling”); that sound mental health depends upon the maximization of “positive affect” and the minimization of “negative affect;” and that affect should also be clearly expressed in order to make it readily identifiable.

    But even if we accept the possibility that the range of basic “affective” states is neurologically finite (which seems reasonable), the notion of innate correspondences between “affect” and “emotion” is more suspect – especially when we consider examples such as the American military. Steve’s comment that the video-game nature of modern warfare might be leading to a worrisome lack of “emotional affect” in the military conflates the biological basis of a soldier’s subjective experience (or lack thereof) in battle – that is, his “affect” – with the corresponding expression of that experience, based on his social and cognitive associations between the experience and others it may resemble. One of the pilots feared he might be going to jail for the “friendly fire” death; another wept. In this case, the link between internal event (the affect of “shame”, we might postulate) and its corresponding expression in fear and grief suggests that the pilots were not disengaged, like video-gamers, from the human reality of their actions. But, as Steve is right to question, other pilots, soldiers, or military commanders may not necessarily display such “affective-emotional” coherence. I wonder, for example, what was happening in President Bush’s brain a few weeks ago, when he shed a tear on television for a fallen Marine – for whom and what reason was he crying – and whether in his case the “emotion” of grief connects more to the “affect” of personal shame than fellow-feeling….

  22. 22  Chad  February 8, 2007, 9:21 pm 

    THANK you.. Pusillanimous! The irony of the Sun. Understood.. the soldiers are the order-takers, not the order-makers, and demonizing them is unfair and lets the intelligence, commanders, politicians etc. off the hook. I got so wordy because it just seemed like there was a rationalization.. I was worried because I admired the.. insightful discussions I’d seen on unspeak.. and any self-respecting intellectual has to be above dehumanizing the civilian casualties, or generalizing them as deserving, or somehow guilty by association, or just flatly tragic, shrug, insignificant.

    I still wonder if anyone has comments on the strategic suggestion I made?.. Building infrastructure, proprietary to the Iraqis, then defending it?..

    I’m a 30-year-old American democrat with a 3 month old daughter. I was roped in with the WMDs, wasn’t paying enough attention. Over the last three years I’ve had a crash course in Noam Chomsky and military history, and have wild-eyed Floridian friends who constantly engage me with, “Don’t you think America is the greatest society in the world?” and “The arabs thought process is totally different, they don’t respect individuals, they don’t care about their lives” and “Okay, what would you do to keep us safe? Appease them? Wait til we’re attacked again?”.. all of which is why I’d love to see the Dems actually help build a [secular? maybe?] modern Islamic democracy, or whatever they’d like, so that we can actually have some allies there who would help prevent another al-qaeda attack.

    Cost of 9/11 commission’s provisions: $50 billion.
    Cost of Iraq thus far: $1.4 trillion.

    Number of Americans that CAN’T tell you how many billion are in a trillion: probably around 250 million.

    Help us Obi-Wan, you’re our only hope.

  23. 23  Chad  February 8, 2007, 9:38 pm 

    And regarding Bush’s affect.. remember Skull and Bones had several ritualistic methods of extracting and invoking various affects for the glory of the Order.. too bad Kerry apparently couldn’t summon up the same. Well, maybe not too bad, gave them the default vote (and the rest of the country a political voice again) last November.

    Hell, the wife (Cuban heritage) and I have been talking about evacuating this giant ignorant xenophobic bullseye for years now, maybe for Brazil, maybe Costa Rica.. we’ll see.

    Do you think later on he shed a tear in his near-beer?.. (Randi Rhodes,, one of her favorite asides, Bush and his “near beer.”)

  24. 24  abb1  February 8, 2007, 10:32 pm 

    @22: Iran is a modern Islamic democracy. Algeria and Turkey are Muslim countries functioning as modern secular democracies. So what? What’s so special about that? Political arrangement with its pluses and minuses, like any other.

    Democracy is only as enlightened as a majority of its population at any given moment; I’d rather have a nice king than someone elected by your Floridian friends.

  25. 25  Steven  February 8, 2007, 11:30 pm 

    Hi Jase!
    Well, the “affect” plot thickens. In fact, the question of whether soldiers were somehow emotionally deadened by virtuality arose in my piece because it was the question asked by the commissioning editor who approached me to write the article. I gave the only answer I felt appropriate in the next sentence.

    As to what Bush’s affect or his expression of it tells us, well, that is a whole psychological study in itself. There was a great piece somewhere recently about how Bush habitually smiles when asked about death and destruction, and it’s something more than a nervous smile, indeed approaching, as some might put it, a smirk; but I can’t immediately find the one I’m thinking of.

    Chad, you reminded me that you had asked:

    Why can’t the U.S. start building power- and water- and commerce-generating infrastructure, close to the base, and take a defensible position there?

    It’s an excellent question, to which I don’t have an answer. Why did the CPA spend so little of the Congress-authorized Iraq reconstruction budget on actual reconstruction, and then divert it to “counter-terrorism” operations instead? Another good question.

    Meanwhile, as abb1 points out, the best political arrangement in theory is that of a philosopher-king, although then the difficulty is merely transferred to that of choosing the right philosopher-king; and it didn’t work out too well in the end for Plato.

  26. 26  John Fallhammer  February 9, 2007, 5:31 am 

    Back to the red/blue thing, it occurs to me that if it really does go back to the War of Independence, then the rebels might well have worn blue to have the same colour as their French allies. Which would be mildly funny if true.

    I’ve been playing an online game recently and there is something rather icky about killing the NPCs (with a sword). I have to remind myself that they’re just data structures. It does rather remind me of my childhood, when we used to brutally slaughter eachother in the playground under the guise of Cowboys & Indians or English & Jerries.

    Incidentally, as I understand it, players don’t respawn. NPCs respawn; players get resurrected. Steven u n00b!!1 lololololol

  27. 27  Steven  February 9, 2007, 10:00 am 

    omg pwned!!!!!11oneoneoneone.
    Eh, but nope, “respawn” is what players are very often said to do too. (Particularly in your Counter-Strike-type fragfests.)

    Luckily it gives me an excuse to quote this wonderful sentence:

    It is also necessary to respawn if your character is a Pariah that performed an Explosive Murder or an Advocate that performed a Sublime Sacrifice.

    No doubt.

  28. 28  Steven  February 9, 2007, 1:37 pm 

    Fascinatingly, a Virtual Iraq is being used to treat soldiers with PTSD.

  29. 29  dearieme  February 10, 2007, 10:04 pm 

    “a terror of being mistaken for someone who doesn’t know the difference between “affect” and “effect””: a terror that I supect explains the rise of the drivel-word “impact”.

  30. 30  copernicus  February 12, 2007, 1:29 am 

    I’m not sure “friendly fire” is euphemistic because I don’t know if it’s correct to assume the word “friendly” refers to the quarter from which the fire is being directed rather than to those on the receiving end.

    As you can hear from the constant reference to “friendlies” on the video, the word “friendly” is used as a noun to refer to a member of one’s own forces.

    I think “friendly fire” is fire you (horrifically) direct on your friends and not fire you direct ironically, as the adjectival usage might suggest.

    As a phrase it has an urgent quality which one imagines would prompt an immediate disengagement if communicated over radio rather than a post facto euphemism to disguise the horror of what’s been done.

    On a different note, the opening line of the article over-eggs the pudding, just a teensy, tiny bit. I doubt you’d let someone else away with saying that.

  31. 31  Chad  February 14, 2007, 8:55 am 

    Hey all, checking back in.. I’ve had time to think about the philosopher king ideal but no epiphanies worth mention as of yet.. I guess in the end lots of things don’t work out, but look at the quality of life “multiplied” by the duration within the society, perhaps? So linear.

    And speaking of which, I decided to post again after copernicus.. because that line “the virtual is now more realistic than the real” seemed dramatic flair, I couldn’t help it but I remember imagining The Lawnmower Man or some revelatory scene from The Matrix. We all know what the final gist is, that the virtuality is sufficing in the individual minds of those taking orders, in absence of a real “handshake” sort of experience, boy that’s dressing it up a bit too.. without the visceral, real, phsically and emotionally and sensory engagement with the Others, with the experience. I’ve wondered why we didn’t start seeing more of those camera-guided bombs over the last few years.. Maybe they were just getting a little too close to that line of dissociation. Poor pawns of misguided foreign policy, who get blamed for the poor recipients, whom we couldn’t, can’t, and never will identify, to judge and mete the proportional injustice to the publicly declared level of necessity, of the operation.

  32. 32  Steven  February 15, 2007, 12:06 pm 

    Yes, the line was meant to be read in the voice of Lawrence Fishburne. ;)

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