Having been effectively cancelled under a cloud of controversy and public pushback in 2010, the recent re-announcement of Six Days in Fallujah has revived the various talking points that surrounded the real-world military shooter. Yet, despite being set in the midsts of the Second Iraq War, and the ripples of America and Britain’s decision to invade and depose Saddam Hussain still being felt throughout the Middle East to this day, Peter Tamte, the CEO of publisher Victura, asserts through interviews with Polygon and GamesIndustry.biz that the game is “not trying to make a political commentary.”
It’s a quite staggering statement to make, more baffling than pretty much every other act of political denial that we’ve seen in the video games industry and a clear abandonment of a moral obligation when dealing with real world events. It might be true that the game narrows its focus to “the complexity of urban combat” and that viewpoint alone, but it leaves the game in a conflicted, contradictory position that is sanitised of the broader impact that the battle and the war had.
Let’s not forget that this war is not actually truly in the past for us. The Second Gulf War was a major factor in destabilising the Middle East over the last two decades, one of the triggers for much broader extremism through the region that led to the rise of ISIL in 2013, and the conduct of US troops was thrown back into the spotlight just last month when outgoing President Trump pardoned the Blackwater PMC contractors who had just been convicted for killing 14 civilians in Baghdad in 2007.
It was the deaths of four Blackwater contractors that triggered the First Battle of Fallujah in early 2004, after which insurgents strengthened their hold on the city leading to the Second Battle of Fallujah at the end of the year. US, British and Iraqi government forces waged a costly battle going house-to-house to try and secure the city, and it’s this that Six Days in Fallujah seeks to represent. However, the US also resorted to the use of white phosphorous as a weapon against entrenched insurgents. Doing so in a populated area is a war crime per the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, (which the US conveniently hasn’t signed) banning the use of air-delivered incendiary weapons against military targets in civilian areas. There’s no ifs or buts here, it just is.
Of course, Tamte doesn’t think that needs to be in the game. “There are things that divide us, and including those really divisive things, I think, distracts people from the human stories that we can all identify with,” he said in an interview with Polygon. “I have two concerns with including phosphorus as a weapon. Number one is that it’s not a part of the stories that these guys told us, so I don’t have an authentic, factual basis on which to tell that. That’s most important. Number two is, I don’t want sensational types of things to distract from the parts of that experience.”
He continues, “I don’t think players are going to be confused about the cost [of war]. I just don’t think that they’re going to walk away from this experience going, ‘We need more war.’ I don’t think that’s something that the Marines and soldiers want as a message. I don’t think that’s something that the Iraqi civilians want as a message. I think people do need to understand the human cost of war.”
Picking a specific perspective such as this might not distract from the story that Tamte wants to tell, and the game will focus on “tactical challenges, not moral challenges”, but it inevitably detracts from the truthfulness of a game that aims to recreate the battle. Worse, it seems to wilfully narrow the definition of what the “human cost of war” is to being that of US troops, the aggressors in this conflict.
The Red Cross estimate that there were 800 civilian casualties lost by inhumane means, but that’s nothing to say of the specific tactics that the US employed to bottle up the city in advance of the assault. While women and children were allowed to flee in advance of the assault, boys and men between the ages of 15 and 55 were refused and sent back to the city, putting them back in the firing line. Even then, not all civilians were able to escape, meaning that large scale artillery fire likely killed hundreds, as admitted to by a US Congressman, and could easily be mistaken for combatants in high tension room-to-room clearing – will that element be in the game? It’s not clear. Oh, and what of the fact that the rates of infant mortality, cancer and birth defects have increased in Fallujah since 2004? All of this can be linked to the use of enriched Uranium munitions by the US in the war. And again, what of the use of white phosphorous as an incendiary weapon that cannot be put out with water and burns its victims to death?
Six Days in Fallujah is simply the zenith of such denials that have plagued the games industry for decades. It’s come to the fore much more heavily in recent times, whether it’s The Division 2’s fight to reclaim Washington DC supposedly not being an increasingly apt political metaphor, and Far Cry 5’s satire of midwestern America being similarly apolitical (which denies the very point of satire). There was even the CEO of Activision (who publish Call of Duty) clutching his pearls at the very idea that games could dare to try and say something about politics. Of course, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare then went and referred to the infamous Highway of Death, but twists the real world US bombing of retreating Iraqi soldiers in the First Gulf War into an act committed by Russians.
Every single denial rings hollow; every denial is mocked and criticised; every denial is a simple attempt to avoid controversy and lost sales with certain demographics in the US.
There’s always been a tendency to whitewash the less than valorous aspects of history in the name of entertainment, and it’s a trait that’s shared with TV and cinema, highlighting the heroic stories of those who were undeniably fighting on the right side of history in WW2 through D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge, but averting their gaze to mass bombing campaigns that devastated cities on the other side. Pick the right viewpoints and moments, and you can easily avoid having to include such historical context, but that inevitably shapes the wider perception of war itself.
It’s through Hollywood that the US became the universal good guys of World War 2, just as it was through Hollywood directors engaging with the anti-war sentiment spread through wider cultural movements that much of the popular view of the Vietnam War was defined. We’re at a similar place now for the Second Gulf War and the wider ‘War on Terror’ through films like American Sniper, The Hurt Locker, and Zero Dark Thirty. Instead of meaningful critiques, one tells a morally simplistic view of the war and its protagonist, in which Americans are universally good and all of their targets are unambiguously bad, another is filled with unrealistic inaccuracies for the sake of drama, and the last was widely criticised for glorifying torture and validating its use in the hunt for Osama bin Laden – apparently, this was “very hurtful” for director Kathryn Bigelow and the film does not take a viewpoint on the issue, which sounds rather familiar.
Tamte asserts that people could play Six Days in Fallujah and then go to seek the wider context for themselves, and that could be true for some, but ask yourself this: how many people take the film Black Hawk Down entirely at face value, not recognising that it paints a caricature of the Somali militia fighting back (none of whom were portrayed by Somali actors) and that the role of the UN’s Malaysian and Pakistani forces were diminished to nothingness?
While there are numerous video games set in World War 2 itself, modern war games typically concoct a fictional battle, abstracting themselves from context and scrutiny. They’re accepted by society as a guilty pleasure, yet they perpetuate the same narratives that always paint the US as the good guys. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare featured a plot in which the US invaded a fictional Middle Eastern country that does in fact have a weapon of mass destruction, and while Killzone 2 might have had the trappings of science fiction, its story was a thinly veiled allegory to the invasion of Iraq.
The one real opportunity that Six Days in Fallujah will seemingly take to look up at the wider picture will be in the 10% of the game that depicts an Iraqi civilian trying to get his family out of the city during the battle. Surely this would be the opportunity to give people a view of the devastating atrocities committed, but instead, Tamte merely stresses that you won’t be given the opportunity to join the insurgents during this point. There’s seemingly no concern in how this side-story will depict the US soldiers from an outside perspective. Will they be glorious saviours? Will they be understandably twitchy and on-edge aggressors? Will this male Iraqi civilian, as mentioned above, be sent back into the war-torn city?
You’d have to expect the former, with no statements to the contrary. Tamte recalled numerous interviews with soldiers and families of soldiers who died in battle, saying “they don’t want their child or friend’s sacrifice to be forgotten. Even the ones who were very opposed [to the war in Iraq]. And I had conversations with many of them, as well as other members of our team – especially former military who are on our team [that] had conversations with many of these families in 2009 – and we heard one after the other, ‘We don’t want you to make a game about this, but we don’t want our son’s sacrifice to be forgotten.’ It’s a mixture of that. The reality is that most people are not aware of the battle for Fallujah.”
In choosing not to depict the less palatable aspects of the Battle of Fallujah, Six Days in Fallujah will be tantamount to another example of pro-US, pro-military propaganda. Not every game needs to make a political statement, but this game’s stated basis in reality and grounding in one of the most controversial times of recent history means it has a moral obligation to do more, and failing to speak to the truth and facts of the conflict will make it just as distorted a depiction of war as Call of Duty.