This piece originally appeared on Tenth to the Fraser in Issue Zero of our print magazine, April 2016, and was originally presented as a part of the Wait for Me, Daddy celebrations.
When I was 11 years old, two blocks from my home, a stand of trees grew on a strip of land. You’d cross a few streets from our home, and it would bring you to the place that we called The Woods.
It wasn’t a forest or a nature preserve or a park. Just leftover, neglected, underdeveloped parcel of land, fringed by tall grass and old trees in the middle. I’m sure now it would appear to be a mere back lot but back then it represented a place of freedom, a wilderness.
When there was enough of us to form two sides, my friends and I would head to it with stolen broom handles, broken hockey sticks, and garbage can lids in our hands and we would play our games, wargames.
Absolute anachronology ruled. We were fantastic eternal chameleons warriors. Nazi one moment, then shining elf, knight of the Round Table next, a merry man of Sherwood Forest, or even a Nazi Elf. It was all possible in the Woods.
I don’t remember much about the reasons for our wars. We just wanted to fight it.
Meet me at the Wendy’s on G—– Boulevard, Suffolk, Virginia. That’s what Nichol told me.
In a cab between Baltimore and Washington, DC, I passed Fort Meade where the National Security Agency collects signal intelligence.
Radio towers loomed over the trees. I began to feel a tingling sensation in my testicles.
The taxi driver, aware of my agitated state, explained, “Sometimes, when birds fly between here and Langley (the headquarters of the CIA), they drop out of the sky and die. Microwaves.”
I thought, “He’s joking.” But my testicles believed him.
In Norfolk, Virginia, another taxi delivered me to a parking lot in the middle of an industrial park. There were trucks, warehouses, and the Wendy’s Restaurant. Before I could sit down, a tall man approached me. It was Nichol.
We got in his car. He drove about a kilometer then double-backed to a parking lot across the street. He said, “You’re going to have to leave all your electronics in the car.”
“Will it be safe?”
“Don’t worry. It’s perfectly safe.”
We walked into an industrial building with a blue glass facade and doors. In the lobby, stood two US Marines guarding another set of glass doors. We passed them and entered an empty room. At the end wall, one Marine stood aside to reveal a metal door with a keypad. Nichol punched in and I found myself in a lofty space with a battalion of soldiers, rows upon row, at computer workstations.
It was March 2004, less than three years after the Invasion of Afghanistan, one year after the Invasion of Iraq.
Back then, you could still imagine what it was like to have the dust of the World Trade Center in your lungs even if you never there. It was the dawn of the War on Terror and the roiling clouds followed everyone, everywhere, and it promised to go on and on. And at the heart of that forever war was the J9 Directorate of Joint Forces Command.
At J9, they conducted simulations. Wargames. They tried to know the unknown and fight the wars of the future. On this day, the Marines were in the middle of an experiment known as Urban Resolve. Urban Resolve attempted to combine human and drone forces to identify and kill targets in a crowded, complex environment like a city. It was a massive undertaking. It needed three of the world’s largest supercomputers to work: the one in Dayton, Ohio; the Space and Naval Warfare computer in San Diego; and the Maui High Performance Computing Center. The top-secret experiment was conducted in a virtual city that had the fictional name of Nair.
“NAIR?” I said. “Like N-A-I-R. Isn’t that an anagram for Iran?”
Nichol slapped his forehead.
“I told them to change the name.”
I have a confession to make. I’m obsessed with war. At the age of five in the 1970s, because I was afraid of nuclear war, I drew pictures of high-altitude drones, flying circumpolar paths at the ready to intercept ICBMs. When I was twelve, I joined my high school’s wargame club. At thirteen, I started playing Dungeons and Dragons.
My mother started to worry. She feared that the balloon of my imagination would slip its tenuous string off the wrist of reality.
For her, war wasn’t a game. Her family had survived Japanese occupation in Southern China. My mother says my grandfather shot down a Japanese plane with a shotgun. I don’t know if that’s true but I do believe her story about the time my grandmother and grandfather had to barricade themselves inside the family farmhouse from Communists. My grandparents then proceeded, through one open window, to shoot them.
You know, you could turn that into a wargame. I often think about what could be turned into a wargame. Maybe because, making a wargame is like writing. They’re connected.
- G. Wells created a game called Little Wars. Nothing made H. G. Wells happier than crawling on the floor surrounded by little tin armies. Tom Clancy liked wargames too. His first novel, The Hunt for Red October, was based on his experiences playing a naval game called, Harpoon.
Some writers are drawn to wargames because they offer small windows into vast worlds, and while they are governed by a strict set of rules and limits, the games nevertheless provide a landscape of possibility and freedom. They are frontiers.
Here’s a frontier, an infamous moment: the day two teenage boys in Jefferson County, Colorado, went into their high school, Columbine, and killed thirteen people and then committed suicide.
In the ensuing investigation, police discovered the boys played a video game called Doom, a first-person shooter. Some researchers believe the boys uploaded a map of the school into the video game. By inputting real-world information into Doom, Doom became a rehearsal space, a wargame.
The current, ongoing concern is games like Doom or newer ones like Counter Strike, have become too real.
Both terrorists and soldiers right now use these types of games to desensitize, to train and to practice for combat.
Of course, the criticism goes the other way. Critics say wargames are never real enough, that there remains a seductive chasm between playing at war and making actual war. It may look real. But it’s not real. That they lure us into war.
What happens when actual war stops being real?
A few months after my visit with Jim Nichol, I found myself under fire in a village called Medina Jabal. I was there with the 256th Brigade of the Louisiana National Guard. They were there to make an arrest of a local warlord and his body guards took issue. An M2 Bradley fighting vehicle pulled up beside me and started firing its auto-cannon.
At the time, I thought it was the best, most thrilling adventure I had ever had. And the reason, I felt that way, instead of totally scared, was I wasn’t really in Iraq. I was in Fort Irwin, the National Training Center, in the middle of the Mojave desert. Everything was real, the soldiers, the weapons, the village…but not the bullets and bombs. Just another big old laser tag game to get the 256 ready for Iraq.
But it was also the early days of military gamification.
At Fort Irwin, their supercomputer has completely digitized the battlefield. Every soldier had a doppelganger inside the Star Wars computer system.
It was the first step in fighting wars in a synthesized environment – part virtual, part real. The ultimate arc of develop would lead to troops, who could be in Arizona or Nevada or a facility in Troy, New York, controlling air AND ground drones on battlefields around the world, through devices that look like video game controllers acting on synthesised environment that could display a real battlefield with a virtual overlay. The wargame will be the war. Death will be one-sided. The balloon will slip away.
Six weeks after I visited the men and women of the 256, they left for Iraq. I remember at the time I was preparing a documentary about them and what they were doing in Fort Irwin. I stumbled across an article from a small paper in Louisiana. One of the men I had spoken to had died. The day the documentary aired, I checked the casualty list for US forces in Iraq and I found eleven of them were killed in action.
I am eleven years old. I plunge into the dark centre of the Woods. Saplings, giant fallen trunks, upturned roots, abandoned couches and rusted out cars.
Amongst all that, like a heart within a heart, there is a clearing with a pond edged by bulrushes. On the water floats lilies pad and among them swam candy wrappers and used condoms. In there, I play war.
I’m lying on my back, my head against a fallen tree trunk, imagining an enemy machine gun nest firing over me. I can hear the snap and ricochet of bullets but I can also hear the hum of traffic on the boulevard. A Cessna airplane flies overhead. The sultry chirps of grasshoppers and the rustle of bulrush reeds in the summer breeze. Real and unreal, the dead and the living, all of it thrums inside of me.