Ghost Recon, or Fighting Terror With Terror

Ken Hannahs writes: Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter and its reception shows a troubling acceptance of clandestine missions that, although given the chaser of good old fashioned American exceptionalism, we’re dealing essentially with a team of terrorists, fighting for the red, white, and blue.

Ghost Recon or Fighting Terror with Terror

Back in June, Kate Cox wrote an article called “We Are Scared Right Now: What Today’s Video Games Say About The World We Live In”. In it, Cox discusses how videogame trends are mirroring our population’s greatest fears by living them on a fantastic scale, multiplying and magnifying them.  She argues that as games continue to grow in popularity, the more we will see their presence in the national discussion.  I agree with Cox’s conclusion that games reflect our own fears, but I think games are also showing us just how much we’re willing to give up to attain some prophetic notion of safety.  

Western hypocrisy is our greatest weakness and our enemies’ greatest strength. Forged in some insoluble cauldron of chest thumping and bravado, we inform ourselves through well-trodden, circular paths of redundant illogic, building great temples of our might and right that fails to see anything that isn’t besotted with the promises of a democracy that even we have lost.  

In Ghost Recon, I am the invisible terrorist — the impetus behind that crush of humanity running around me, trying to avoid the barrel of my gun.

In the US public school system, the British empire is more often than not considered the antagonist throughout. We learn of their subjugation of the Indies and Africa, of the Caribbean and the Americas. In our school system, the lesson is often that imperialism is wrong, but I can’t help but feel that the lesson I was supposed to learn was much more pointed — that British imperialism is wrong, but that our American exceptionalism is completely different. Colonialism, we like to believe, is a completely different ballgame from "nation building," that barely opaque euphemism often used for propagating the US's latest puppet-government.  Where one is carried out by red-clad nannies in powdered wigs and bad teeth, Americans do it out of the graciousness of our hearts. We are there to help the disenfranchised, to free people from the ruthless rule of tyrants and murderers (the same that we usually have a hand in putting in power in the first place, mind). If you buy into what I am calling the “Clancy Doctrine,” the USA is like the equivalent to some sort of cybernetic Robin Hood, a paragon of democracy and of Being Badass. Having long abandoned Roosevelt’s doctrine of walking softly and carrying a large stick, we now strut around with a stick in one hand, and a dagger in the other. Videogames seek to emulate this — affirming American exceptionalism by glorifying the breaking Geneva Conventions and international law. 


In Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, I romp through sovereign lands, invisible in a billion dollar uniform, apparently sowing seeds of justice and democracy, but all my actions really seem to make me into exactly the thing I am supposed to stop. In Ghost Recon, I am the invisible terrorist — the impetus behind that crush of humanity running around me, trying to avoid the barrel of my gun. 

Perhaps this is what living in a post-9/11 world is for Americans. Perhaps modern military tactics have become so clandestine as to have become impossible to discern from the very thing we are fighting against. These are our military heroes in videogames: men who break international law with the same flippancy that you might jaywalk or loiter. Flash to E3 and watch as Sam Fisher rips information out of people before slamming his blade into their necks. Go back to Modern Warfare 2 and listen as the general tells you that “You will lose a bit of yourself, but you will save countless lives.” What we’re talking about here is brutality in the name of the nebulous demigod of democracy, beset by evilness all over the world.  We’re inundated constantly with the message that anti-terrorism is fought by terrorism and torture.  

I don’t mean to reduce this into some sort of “first-person shooters make you violent” white horse that some people enjoy riding into the battlefield of morality. Instead, I bring this up to point out the way in which we enjoy this constant deluge of images of western imperialism, pushing back the natives with superior technology and our undying belief that what we’re doing is the Right Thing. Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Future Soldier is not the first game to feature this sort of battlefield of binary morality, nor will it be the last — if anything, E3 is a perfect example of this genre of preponderantly propagandized shooters is becoming more popular than ever.  

Couched in the porn of bullet physics, blood spatter, and destructible environments lies the central message, differentiating Us and Them.

The question I’m left with is this: Where does terrorism end? In seeking to define the boundaries of the term, I’m left thinking that it’s all about what flag you recognize yourself under. This, of course, leads to a deeply unsettling feeling that what I’m witnessing isn’t so much entertainment as it is propaganda. Couched in the porn of bullet physics, blood spatter, and destructible environments lies the central message, differentiating Us and Them.

But Clancy and Co. don’t want you to think this way — in fact, they’ll do whatever they can so that you never feel as if you are doing anything that could be considered technically “bad.” So, they give you an evil warlord as a target. When the mission starts, you stop a woman from being assaulted. You are one of the good guys! Why they don’t just put an shimmering AR halo over your head and put devil horns on all your targets, I don’t quite understand. But then again, the grizzled general did say the suits were early builds, so maybe that piece of the augmented reality had yet to be implemented.

In the tutorial, you play as the leader of a ghost squad set to ambush a caravan carrying something terrorist-y, that must be stopped (obviously). Naturally, after mowing them down with your superior firepower in a shock and awe microcosm, you open the trunk to find (surprise!) a bomb! And so you run away in slow motion, but alas, not in time. You and your team die for your country, heroes.  

In the first actual mission, the team jet sets off to Bolivia from North Carolina to pick up a drug runner who has information regarding the terrorist plot that killed the people in the first mission. We are in La Paz to rescue a man named Paez — a man that, given slightly different circumstances, we would be here to kill.

Even before the first bullets are fired, the townspeople run from me with their hands over their heads in the cowering animation that will become a mainstay throughout the rest of my time with Ghost Recon. The first time you fire bullets, you take out gaggles of enemy combatants perched on rooftops in a crowded city square. You see your man, and you line up the shots. Then, you rain down hell. Explosions blossom and the bodies on the rooftops begin to fall. Collateral damage is imminent.  The unsuspecting citizenry must now deal with this terrifying new situation.

By the time we can finally get to Paez, there is already a breadcrumb trail of black smoke billowing in our wake. He has been shot, and so I sling his arm around my shoulders, and act as his crutch as we push on through city streets. We get to a market where another firefight takes place and where I accidentally shoot a woman who got caught in the crossfire. I still remember watching her hit the ground. She was wearing a white blouse and a red skirt and as she hit the ground, the man holding the gun continued to fire on me. The next second, the camera swiveled again, and I was back to seeing a wall of men, firing their guns. There were many incidents of collateral damage in this market, I’m sure of it, but none seemed so especially poignant as this.  

Perhaps it was just the way in which the camera moved so quickly after ending her life in a way that seemed to intone “it doesn’t matter,” but I couldn’t help but feeling that, for all the good I was apparently doing, I was doing just as much evil. Who would people at her funeral blame for her death? Were there people that counted on her? How many lives did I ruin from one misfired shot?

These aren’t questions that Ghost Recon asks. We have more important things to worry about.