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Playing Video Games With People’s Lives

April 12, 2010

Image courtesy of the NY Times. Click to see video.

One of the reactions that people are having to that video is that the behavior, judging by the audio, seemed kind of callous; and it seemed that there is this kind of deep remove, and lack of sense that there are actually people there. This gets into very complex terrain, because to some extent this is exactly what we as a society require the military to do. We require them to basically put people in situations where they are  able to kill people without being tormented by it for the rest of their lives.

That’s technology writer Clive Thompson being interviewed by On The Media. It’s one of the smarter things I’ve heard in the recent controversy over the Wiki-Leaks video footage showing a number of people being gunned down by American forces.

A common knee-jerk reaction to the footage is to lament the way technology has separated people from the act of killing, and judge the killers based on what they say and how they behave. But I think a far more troubling separation is the one between the wars themselves and people who go about their daily lives hardly giving a thought to the fact that we are fighting two different wars right now. Yes, war is horrifying. It’s good for us to be reminded of that, and graphic images like this are helpful in that regard. But that does not mean that we can effectively judge the behavior of soldiers in a particular incident like this one.

Phil Bronstein, writing in the Chronicle, has some very good insights to this controversy. He concludes that no amount of visual clarity can give us moral clarity in war:

So was any of the killing justified? War is a dizzying, murky, hyper-adrenalized maze. In the field of battle, there are facts to be had and truths to be revealed. But even with the magic of digital revelations sling-shot across all bandwidths, the answer has to be: depends. Depends on some things even second-by-second video can’t uncover.

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