The WikiLeaks Hellfire Video vs. Video Games

The WikiLeaks release of classified U.S. military video depicting American helicopters gunning down Iraqis (which appeared to include children and two Reuters staff) was easily a milestone of modern journalism. Even though Reuters had reported the story aggressively, the deaths of Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh were easily forgotten amid the war’s constant newscycle in 2007.

The video below, combined with boots-on-the-ground reporting by WikiLeaks, has an unmatched power to shock, awe, and sicken:

A side-angle to all this is how chillingly-similar the released video is to today’s video games. This was a point Jane Mayer touched on in her excellent New Yorker piece on Obama’s increased usage of Predator drones:

Using joysticks that resemble video-game controls, the reachback operators—who don’t need conventional flight training—sit next to intelligence officers and watch, on large flat-screen monitors, a live video feed from the drone’s camera. From their suburban redoubt, they can turn the plane, zoom in on the landscape below, and decide whether to lock onto a target. A stream of additional “signal” intelligence, sent to Langley by the National Security Agency,* provides electronic means of corroborating that a target has been correctly identified. The White House has delegated trigger authority to C.I.A. officials, including the head of the Counter-Terrorist Center, whose identity remains veiled from the public because the agency has placed him under cover.

People who have seen an air strike live on a monitor described it as both awe-inspiring and horrifying. “You could see these little figures scurrying, and the explosion going off, and when the smoke cleared there was just rubble and charred stuff,” a former C.I.A. officer who was based in Afghanistan after September 11th says of one attack. (He watched the carnage on a small monitor in the field.) Human beings running for cover are such a common sight that they have inspired a slang term: “squirters.”

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The striking similarity inspired some soul-searching from this Redditor:

After watching the wikileaks video I found myself thinking back to the aerial segments of Modern Warfare and MW2. I’m not sure I’d want to play them again; the anonymity of the people you’re shooting seems a little too true to life for me.

Modern Warfare and MW2 are part of the highly-successful Call of Duty first-person shooter video games. One of the segments has the players manning an AC-130 Spectre gunship to wipe out the enemy:

Some interesting comments from Redditors on that angle:

a_culther0 22 points 9 hours ago[-]
I always believed the main point of those levels in the game was to illustrate that certain things in Modern War can be achieved with the push of a button. The AC-130 level in COD4 has essentially 0 difficulty; which in my eyes makes an excellent statement on its own.

awills 15 points 9 hours ago[-]
This is also how I read this scene. It’s actually the most realistic depiction of war in the entire game, because what you’re doing is remarkably similar to what it would be like in real life, just aiming at tiny targets and destroying them. Interestingly, it was also the most distancing from the actual results of your actions.

bumrushtheshow 35 points 9 hours ago[-]
…The grainy TV footage and shooting at tiny people made me question more than usual what the hell I was doing. I was blowing up “bad” people who looked exactly like the “good” people. I was clearly in the “bad” people’s country, with only vague justifications for why I was there blowing the place up.
I’ve seen some awful footage from Apache gun cams on Youtube. Ones where maimed “bad guys” crawl out of a burning truck, while hillbillies say “that one’s still moving, hit ‘im again” left me literally feeling nauseous. I thought of these throughout the AC-130 level in COD4.

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