'Iraq: The Video Game' is no game for the men and women actually 'playing' it


Backstory: You, a working-class kid from boonies, have enlisted in the military partly out of patriotism and partly because it looked like your only way up in the world. Suddenly, your president declares war, and you are shipped to a hot, dirty, far-away place where 61 percent of the population is under the age of 24, unemployment runs more than 45 percent, and anti-Americanism is endemic. Your stated missions are: 1) find and dismantle diabolical weapons of mass destruction; 2) capture or kill the unspeakable, elusive dictator. The game begins with incredible explosions and exciting displays of advanced weaponry; the enemy gives up or vanishes; symbolic acts of desecration are fortuitously caught on film; the grateful natives throw flowers at Humvees. All is well, except that your body armor seems not to have been included in your kit.

Just as you are thinking you might be home for the Fourth of July, the grateful natives switch from throwing flowers to pitching rocks and the occasional mortar round. And things start blowing up.

Fast-forward a year, and you are a seasoned, sleep-deprived warrior entering a good-sized town held by violent insurgents. You have just been told that your tour of duty has been extended for three more months (news that sent your mother to the emergency room). Last week, your girlfriend dumped you via e-mail; your best friend is now a double amputee. (In the meantime, the Evil One has finally been captured. Strangely enough, the war goes on, and terrorism flourishes without him.)

Let the games begin!

Play: Your goal is to kill or capture every well-armed insurgent in the city while exuding friendship to civilians and, incidentally, trying to stay alive. You are skillful and well-armed, except for the body armor, which is still AWOL. As you move carefully through the narrow, confusing streets of the town, you knock on doors, greet the inhabitants and conduct thorough searches.

Scoring: For every Kalashnikov rifle you find, you get a new life; for every grenade, a temporary "veil of invulnerability." For every insurgent killed or captured, you get a new life, and the enemy gets two new recruits. For every civilian you kill or injure, you lose three lives.

The Enemy: He is legion, and often indistinguishable from those around him. (You, however, are a walking, breathing target.) He may be a child or an old man, but is usually an enraged, armed young male who believes that if he dies in combat, he'll go to a paradise swarming with lascivious virgins. He thinks of what he's doing as defending his country. You will also encounter these men in groups, a context in which they are especially reckless. (Never forget that you are vastly outnumbered.) Further, the enemy may be hiding anywhere--in a closet, under a burkha, on the roof, in a minaret or a kindergarten. Remember: He knows every nook and cranny. You don't.

Hints: 1) Don't shoot solemn old men whose names begin with "Ayatollah" or "Sheik"--especially in front of a crowd. 2) Never, ever attack a mosque or shrine, even if it's being used as an arsenal. 3) Don't expect to shower or bathe. 4) Don't think too much about your president's use of the word "we"--as in, "We will stay the course." You know all too well that it's only you and your buddies and your families who are doing the staying. The same goes for "Coalition." Such thoughts will drive you nuts. 5) Don't think too much about being one of 130,000 Americans marooned in a seething, U.S.-hating population of 25 million.

Game Over: No such thing. You're trapped in a war that your president and his friends thought would be--well, just like a really big video game. Remember shock and awe? The photo op on the aircraft carrier? Never mind that the game they were actually playing was rather more primitive: kicking wasps' nests. Anyone who knew anything about the Middle East, or imperialism, or urban warfare--places like Sarajevo and Beirut come to mind--watched the game begin with horror and disbelief. Their objections meant nothing to the aggressive little boys who populate the White House, and so there you are.

You have been caught up in history. God help you.

Pray for our soldiers. Pray for peace.