You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices to-day than any of you to secure peace.
William Tecumseh Sherman wrote these words to the mayor and city council of Atlanta just before ordering for the city to be burned. A price cannot be placed on the loss of life wrecked upon the inhabitants of Atlanta, nor will we be able to suss out whether the ends justified the means in this or any other instance of brutality in war. What makes Sherman’s letter instructive is the finality with which he described war: “war is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.”
In Spec Ops: The Line, Captain Martin Walker is fighting a savage group of rogue soldiers that have turned Dubai into a police state and have killed hundreds of its civilian population in the process. When he confronts an enemy regiment too large for him to overcome, he orders his companions to use white phosphorous napalm against them. As the player, I can only control the location of the strikes, I cannot override Walker’s decision to utilize what many consider to be an immoral weapon. When I order the first strike, dozens of soldiers fall but dozens more start rushing toward my position. The soldiers appear in my cross hairs as mere white dots moving across the screen. I carefully track their movement and systematically order strikes so that they run headlong into them. I lose count of the soliders pouring out of the base. I am growing more and more confident with my napalm strikes and soon I am halting the advancement of the white dots well before they reach my position.
I notice a massive group of stationary white dots at the top of the screen–they are trying to trick me into thinking they are dead, but I know better. I see slight movements among them and I have been taking stock of every strike I have ordered. I know that I have not yet fired upon this position. I don’t think. I pull the trigger.
So much for Cory Davis’ claim that Spec Ops: The Line, would make me “think about pulling the trigger,” citing Apocalypse Now and Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness as influences. Quite the opposite–I was learning to kill the game’s enemies with impunity. I knew what would happen if I shot guys in the face: they would stop shooting at me, fall down, and leave their ammunition. Like some weird Pavlovian response mechanism, Spec Ops is training me to jog over the bodies of my dead enemies until I hear a “click.” I suppose the “click” is meant to imitate what it sounds like to place a new clip into an assault rifle, but I can’t be sure. I have never actually used one. This is what we do in shooters. We kill enemies before they kill us and we loot their bodies to ensure our own survival. Then we advance to the next level.
Still, I am being unfair to Mr. Davis. I can see how he wanted me to observe the humanity of my enemies in Spec Ops. I had to kill two soldiers who I had just overheard admiring the sunset I had to choose whether to aid civilian hostages or a CIA agent who could further my cause. I understand what Spec Ops is trying to do and I appreciate it. However, the majority of what I am doing in the game is the same thing I have done in literally every other military shooter I have played. I am shooting lots of guys with lots of different guns. And thanks to Spec Ops‘ 3rd person perspective, I can see my enemies’ movements even when I myself am huddled behind cover. As Captain Walker, I am doing what no other real life Captain has ever done–single-handedly winning a war. To cite Apocalypse Now much less Conrad’s Heart of Darkness seems disingenuous in light of all the rather mindless shooting and ammo-jogging I am doing. I cannot help but lose sight of the narrative’s attempt to acknowledge the brutality of my actions when I am lining up precision napalm strikes.
After ordering the final napalm strike, I must lead Walker to through the wreckage he and I are responsible for. There are dead soldiers everywhere and many more that are not yet dead, struggling to breathe due to the damage the white phosphorous has done to their lungs. The two soldiers who launched the strikes I commanded do not speak. They had objected to Walker’s choice of white phosphorous. A few minutes later we reach the top of a hill where a demolished shelter sits. We climb inside and find to find men, women, and children suffering from asphyxiation and horrific burns. The room was filled with dozens of civilians. This was the result of the final napalm strike I called for.
I agreed with the protests of my fellow soldiers. I did not want Walker to use white phosphorous but I soon found myself lining up shot after shot after shot. I didn’t know that my final shot had been aimed at a civilian shelter. I didn’t stop to find out, and by then I was shooting anything that moved. Despite the absurdity of most of what I did in Spec Ops, in this moment, I remembered General Sherman’s words, “war is cruelty”–I could not refine it. Spec Ops didn’t make me think about pulling the trigger, but it sure made me wish I had.