For Iraqis, War Is Not a Game

The video game “Six Days in Fallujah” preys on the real-life tragedy of the Iraq War for Western entertainment.

Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004
An Iraqi boy sits on the rubble of his destroyed home following a U.S. airstrike in Fallujah, Iraq, on Sept. 13, 2004. AFP via Getty Images
Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004

An Iraqi boy sits on the rubble of his destroyed home following a U.S. airstrike in Fallujah, Iraq, on Sept. 13, 2004. AFP via Getty Images

In an upcoming first-person shooter video game, Six Days in Fallujah, you can relive one of the bloodiest battles ever conducted by the U.S. Army. According to the gameplay trailer, which the game developers Victura and Highwire Games released a few days after the 18th anniversary of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the gamer is placed in the boots of a U.S. Marine: You find yourself barging, uninvited, through the homes of innocent Iraqis in a quest to clear Fallujah of insurgents in the Second Battle of Fallujah.

Also known as Operation Phantom Fury, the attack on the town, which took place in late 2004, a year after then-U.S. President George W. Bush’s “mission accomplished” speech, is now deemed controversial at best and a war crime at worst. The Second Battle of Fallujah led to the deaths of an estimated 800 Iraqi civilians and nearly 100 U.S. and British army personnel. The conflict—and indeed the entire war—was a deeply traumatic moment in history that continues to haunt many Iraqis. A once prosperous nation has been left in economic disrepair, with collapsing infrastructure and a colossal civilian death toll.

Preying on these real-life tragedies for entertainment is morally reprehensible, and the opportunity to play as U.S. soldiers in Fallujah and conduct virtual crimes only compounds the ongoing trauma suffered by Iraqis around the world. The game should never be released.

It is impossible to retell the story of Fallujah without the context of the battle’s atrocities, especially after the developers admitted in a press release that “the events recreated in Six Days in Fallujah are inseparable from politics.” (This only came after fierce backlash followed their initial statement that they were “not trying to make a political commentary.”) Despite their superficial acknowledgment of the game’s political nature, the developers have failed to understand the repercussions in re-creating the events of Fallujah for entertainment purposes. Simply put, a game is never just a game.

Six Days in Fallujah’s initial publisher, Konami, recognized the game’s inherent flaws and ceased production more than a decade ago after widespread criticism from veterans of the Iraq War, politicians, and gamers. But Peter Tamte, the mastermind of the game, never let go of the idea. Now, the new developers, led by Tamte, have converted this period of history into a simulation, whitewashing U.S. military aggression into acts of “sacrifice and courage.” It’s perhaps not surprising that no Iraqi developers were part of the production team and the game’s developers only interviewed 26 Iraqi civilians.

Preying on real-life tragedies for entertainment is morally reprehensible.

Within days of the release of the gameplay trailer, more than 16,000 people, mainly Iraqis, signed a petition calling for the game to be canceled. It’s not hard to see why the game is traumatizing for Iraqis. One particularly nauseating scene in the trailer shows the gamer busting into a dimly lit room to the shrieks of a harmless Iraqi family quivering opposite the heavily armed Marine. As a British Iraqi myself, within a flash, I was taken back to the harrowing stories of my own family in the country, who lived in perpetual fear as their homes were repeatedly raided by U.S. soldiers.

Countless Iraqis did not survive such raids, as former U.S. Marines have acknowledged. “I was an artillery officer and we fired hundreds of rounds into Fallujah, killed probably hundreds of civilians,” former Rep. Duncan Hunter, a retired U.S. Marine who fought in the First Battle of Fallujah, told the podcast Zero Blog Thirty. “[We] probably killed women and children.”

The game’s developers have tried to justify why its perspective focuses on the people committing those atrocities—U.S. military personnel—but their explanations fall flat. “Very few people are curious what it’s like to be an Iraqi civilian. Nobody’s going to play that game,” Tamte, now the CEO of Victura, has said.

The game’s press release does claim to allow you, for one mission, to “assume the role of an unarmed Iraqi father trying to get his family out of the city.” Yet what is not mentioned is that the U.S. military barricaded many such fathers inside the city. Before the operation, leaflets were dropped on Fallujah asking for only women and children to leave. As a result, men trying to escape were barred since the military had, according to an AP report, “instructed U.S. troops to turn back all males aged 15 to 55” as “it believes many of Fallujah’s men are guerrilla fighters.”

The historical omissions intended to make the game palatable to a Western audience run deep. The Second Battle of Fallujah was marred by excessive violence and tragedy. It was made infamous by the use of white phosphorus, a chemical that instantly combusts on contact with air and burns flesh to the bone, by U.S. forces, which only admitted to it a year after the battle after repeatedly denying its use. In 2005, U.S. military officers said they “fired ‘shake and bake’ missions at the insurgents, using [white phosphorus] to flush them out.”

Yet Tamte said, “I don’t think that we need to portray the atrocities.” To this day, children who survived the battle continue to suffer from the effects of the incendiary weapons, and, according to a scientific review, babies born in Fallujah years after the conflict had high rates of mortality and birth defects—including being “born with two heads, no head, a single eye in their foreheads or missing limbs.”

Some consider the use of white phosphorus in Fallujah a war crime, including Iraqi human rights groups and Iraqi families who, represented by the now-defunct firm Public Interest Lawyers, unsuccessfully attempted to sue the British Army for its role in the battle. They argued that the use of the incendiary weapons to target people went against the 1980 Protocol on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Incendiary Weapons (Protocol III), as well as the Chemical Weapons Convention. And Washington had previously condemned former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s use of the weapon against Kurdish Iraqis and classified it as a “chemical weapon.” Only after persistent questioning was a Pentagon spokesperson forced to admit that “it would not be out of the realm of the possible” that civilians were killed by white phosphorus in Fallujah.

Although the use of white phosphorus is described during the documentary segments of the game, these truths are neglected in the gameplay itself, which smooths over historical reality to fit the confines of a first-person shooter that simply can’t do justice to the stories of the Iraqis who suffered.

For Iraqis, there is no off switch.

John Phipps, a U.S. veteran involved in the events portrayed by the game, criticized Six Days in Fallujah, saying, “War crimes were committed by U.S. soldiers, and a lot of Iraqi civilians died, who didn’t need to die. Their deaths were completely avoidable and completely meaningless.” Recalling his experiences, Phipps continued, “This was an illegal war to start with. … We never should have been there. There were a lot of heinous atrocities committed, especially in Fallujah.”

And those who have gone to war know better than most that a game often reflects reality. Prior to battle, some U.S. soldiers played first-person shooter video games to hype themselves up and prepare for war. Much like a video game, the killing of Iraqis was then turned into a score by soldiers themselves, especially snipers, taking pride in their “confirmed kill” count, with Marines celebrated as “combat heroes” with “exceptional confirmed kill count.” The military even encouraged the practice of using video games to improve their warfighting skills. Indeed, Tamte had previously developed such training systems for the military.

This culture helped create individuals like U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, the protagonist of Clint Eastwood’s biopic American Sniper, who took pride in his Iraqi kill count (reportedly over 255). It’s a self-perpetuating cycle: American Sniper then led to a rise in anti-Muslim threats in the United States, and many moviegoers left theaters declaring sentiments such as, “[N]ow I really want to kill some fucking ragheads.” Six Days in Fallujah could have a similar effect.

Six Days in Fallujah, which is designed to provide a simulation of the conflict, blurs the line between what’s virtual and what’s real, especially since modern warfare is conducted with gamelike ease through drone programs. U.S. military pilots are able to control airstrikes in the Middle East from the comfort of their own cities in the United States, dropping bombs across the world with as much ease as a video game without witnessing the consequences.

And although U.S. drone strikes may have failed in Fallujah, the technology took off during Barack Obama’s presidency, when strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq were conducted from bases in Nevada. Of course, this further dehumanizes civilians. As one drone operator has said, “It is a lot like playing a video game.”

At the end of the day, after marching through the animated rubble-strewn streets of Fallujah, the gamers will be able to put down their controllers and kiss their loved ones good night before crawling into their own beds.

For Iraqis, there is no off switch, and as the effects of the war continue to ripple through civilians’ daily lives, they deserve better than having their trauma flattened into 2D narratives for Western entertainment. Their lives are not a game.

Ahmed Twaij is an independent Middle East analyst and an advisor to the Iraqi nongovernmental organization Sanad for Peacebuilding. He is also a photojournalist and has worked with a number of international humanitarian and human rights organizations. Twitter: @twaiji