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Spec Ops: The Line and the Morality of Drone War

Warning: major spoilers ahead. Spec Ops: The Line is one of the best games I have ever played and if you're a gamer, I highly recommend it. I'm going to spoil most of the plot, so if you haven't played it yet, be warned.

Let me start with some background. Spec Ops is based on Heart of Darkness, though only loosely. It is set in a Dubai which has been buried by incessant sandstorms (perhaps in a nod to future climate change). One Colonel Konrad volunteered his 33rd Battalion to oversee the evacuation, and deserted after high command ordered him to abandon the city and the refugees. The last anyone heard, the 33rd was attempting to lead a caravan of survivors out of the city, but the caravan was never seen; Dubai was declared a no-man's-land and the 33rd disavowed for treason. You play a Delta Force operative named Walker, whose team of three is sent into the city to search for survivors after a despairing transmission from Konrad gets picked up.

The gameplay is nothing special, just bog standard cover-based shooting that serves as a vehicle for the plot. But that story really got to me. It was so disturbing that I had to set the game down on occasion, but so compelling that I would pick it back up again minutes later. In short, it's the finest story work I've ever seen in a game, and (among other things) the most morally profound statement on America's wars today that I've seen in any medium.

The progress of events is altogether wretched. You start on the outskirts of Dubai in what seems like a generic war shooter at first. You meet some local brown people, they try to shoot you, then you kill them. But there is a looming sense that something is wrong. It turns out the Emiratis are being led and equipped by the CIA, who are fighting the remnants of the 33rd for control of the city. Soldiers from the 33rd mistake you for CIA and you are forced to kill them, much to the dismay of your squadmates. You fight your way across the city to a major staging point for the 33rd, where things get really horrible.

This is the game's turning point. You're facing dozens of soldiers, so you use a convenient white phosphorous mortar lying to hand (over the objections of one of your allies) to wipe them out. You select targets for the mortar by shooting a camera up in the air on a parachute, and then selecting targets using a grainy, black and white laptop screen. At the end of this scene you hit an armored personnel carrier with the phosphorous, and you burn a bunch of nearby figures in the process.

I figured that this group of figures was the main body of troops, as this is how it worked in a very similar sequence in the game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. But after you go down through the charred aftermath of your work, stepping around the few soldiers still moving, you find that that group of grainy white dots you saw and brutally burned to death were a bunch of civilians. Here's what it looks like:

This is, I think, mostly a critique of how games portray war these days in titles like Battlefield and Call of Duty, where the player gets to feel like a hero and save the day, or at least die in glory. Towards the end this becomes more and more explicit, as the game breaks the fourth wall. The loading screens say things like "This is all your fault," and one final line is clearly directed at the player: "You're here because you wanted to feel like something you're not—a hero." You can even make out Walker's silhouette on the laptop screen, an inescapable reference to the yourself as the gamer, as you massacre civilians with a few clicks of a button. It's a truly bold evisceration of the tropes of the entire shooter genre.

This is reinforced by a brilliant and subtle use of game mechanics. "Choice" in video games is typically expressed by some morality system, where you get good points for doing the noble thing and bad points for doing the evil thing, but you still get more power as you play through the game. Often the choice boils down to taking over world with a halo or with glowing red eyes. Spec Ops is the first game I've played where the choices you make only make you feel even more wretched and helpless. Save the civilians or the captured CIA man? One thing's for sure, nothing will be improved by either one. It's inspired, and deeply uncomfortable.

But on another level it is impossible to avoid thinking about today's wars. Much of the killing done by the American military these days is by remote-controlled drones, operated by people at computer screens halfway around the world, with their faces dimly reflected on computer screens. The Iraq War is mostly over, and it seems likely that the one in Afghanistan will follow soon, but drone attacks are everywhere. Here's one from 2011:
On March 17, 2011 a drone attack killed at least 40 members of a Wazir tribal Jirga, which was resolving a land ownership dispute among sub-tribes in Waziristan, a mountainous region in northwest Pakistan, according to local media reports. 
The reports claimed the Jirga was not the intended target and the predator was chasing a car before finally executing five people without any trial or due process near the Jirga. While this predator was hovering in the area, sophisticated cameras allegedly picked up images of a bigger gathering. Without appearing to have any intelligence or knowledge of its target, it fired four more missiles at the congregation.
Walker and the player are immediately bludgeoned over the head with the gruesome consequences of their own little war-by-video-game, but even his reaction is to shift the blame to someone else. (Remember, Walker and he team really were attacked by the 33rd, and kill the civilians only by accident.) Walker blames Konrad for the phosphorous scene, and you spend most of the game talking to and trying to find him, only to find at the end that Konrad has been dead for a long time. The guy on the radio had been a hallucination (Fight Club style), because Walker could not accept the guilt caused by his actions (NB this is only one ending):

One of the most troubling trends of the last generation or so is an increasing disconnection of the elite from the apparatus of death. Just last week we killed five civilians in Afghanistan. We went from the mass military of the Vietnam era to the volunteer force of the Bush era to the robot death machines of the Obama era. At every step the deadly consequences of the use of force has become more obscure, and the willingness of the elite to grapple with them (see for example Andrew Sullivan on Obama and drones, or a truly monstrous Robert Gibbs) has become weaker and weaker. Like Walker, they avoid responsibility; or just refuse to think about it.

Spec Ops is not just a simple allegory. It's much deeper than that. But it contains the most visceral, wrenching, morally serious demonstration of drone warfare that I've seen yet, and for that alone it deserves high praise.

For more (and I've only scratched the surface) see here, here, and here.


  1. Have you played Unmanned by MollieIndustria? You need to play it right now.

    (If the recommendation of a complete stranger on the internet isn't enough for you, it's about a day in the life of a drone operator. Including his drive to work.)


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