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Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim

islam from inside ☰

A Most Dangerous Game

A Pointless War

Added August 09, 2003

Afghanistan tactical map

It's late and the room is dark except for the flickering light cast by the television. I should be in bed but the endless analysis and commentary on the trade centre attack and America's unrelenting military response mesmerizes me. On the screen is an ochre-tinted map of Afghanistan and the countries that border it. An orange tinge seeps into the room as the map expands and bleeds past the edges of the tube. Tiny word boxes pop-up on the map as an unseen commentator talks. Each box contains short descriptive phrases and point-form summaries about Afghanistan's bordering nations and their military significance to the United States in this crisis. I notice that by the tv's projected light, my skin is the color of Afghanistan's desert sands, and as I watch the strategic overview, with its tiny moving icons of planes, destroyers, missiles and troops, a feeling of unreality, of a disturbing absurdity washes over me.[1]

I had this feeling earlier in this crisis as well. A news program played an endless loop of the trade centre crash footage - a horrific, surreal viewing experience in which the planes high speed hammer-blows demolish the trade center towers again and again. As a follow-up, hastily assembled computer graphics were used to illustrate the flight-path taken. Icons of tiny cartoon-like airplanes moved jerkily across the screen and crashed into cartoon trade center towers followed by comic book style explosions.

Watching this, I wondered if it was possible that the terrorists storyboarded their attack strategy in a similar way - planning their attack route with sketched out icons. Or perhaps they used monopoly style game pieces and a map of Manhattan. This would be entirely appropriate, I thought - after all, when you map out strategies in games you do not have to factor in human suffering.

When we play a game like Monopoly, we do not question what effect our land purchases, our strategically extravagant rental rates, and our accumulation of key properties would have on people in the real world. We play to win - morality is not part of the game. On a game board you factor out human consequences in favor of strategy. The human consequences only get in the way of creating winning manoeuvres. Is it possible the terrorists worked out their game plan in this manner - focusing on a "winning" strategy in which the trade centre towers were merely a symbolic game piece to be removed from the board.

Today we have elaborate computer games which allow the administration of vast simulated realms and kingdoms (games like Tropico, Age of Empires, Civilization etc.). In these games, human factors such as a population's material and social needs and desires are a part of the simulation. Strategy is more complex than in most board games as you must balance conquest with your 'virtual' citizen's needs. While you dispatch marauding armies to nearby kingdoms, you must also struggle to keep your own population content and controlled so that they support your military conquests, suppression of rebellions, destruction of enemies, theft of resources and other acts of empire building and maintenance. These human factors are simply additional volatile parameters that must be managed effectively to keep them from interfering with the games main objective - dominance. The human parameter adds spice to the game, but is not its focus.

Now, as I watch the war unfolding on tv, conveyed through colorful maps and cartoon icons, I feel a sense of dread creep over me. Map based overviews give way to live footage of Afghan refugees, demolished buidings, demonstrations in the streets, grainy nightime images of cruise missile strikes, press briefings by White House and military staff, and emotional expressions of support for the war from American citizens.

Then, an “expert” on terrorism explains the possible measures that can be taken “to smoke out” the terrorists. He goes on to explain how this will be a first step of a global plan, a long battle to eliminate terrorism, and expounds on necessary tradeoffs between civilian casualties and the determination needed for achievement of desired objectives. Is it possible, I think, that the terrorists spoke to each other about similar tradeoffs. Another map is on the screen now. It is heavily overlaid with little icons and arrows, but I'm no longer paying any attention to the important strategy it purports to illustrate.

I start to wonder if the life of nations is simply a great game in which the players struggle to position their pieces for maximum advantage, leverage, and gain. Certain players have the advantage and dominate the board, others struggle to maintain their moderately favorable positions, some struggle to simply remain in the game, and a few try desperate and audacious strategies to change the course of play. The idea seems absurd and yet I cannot shake it. Like one of the virtual citizens in a computer simulation, I feel as if I am, at this juncture in history, only a resource to be managed so that I do not disturb the momentum of the great game.

I do not think the principal players in such a game actively seek to do evil. But they are playing for their own advantage and so they make whatever moves they deem necessary to achieve this advantage. Each one seeks to protect and to advance their position and in this way the game progresses through endlessly complex dynamics - forever different, but, at root, forever the same. They don't seek to do evil, but for the sake of the game, they accept the cold calculations resulting in the evil that is done.[2]

Perhaps that is one of the faces of real malevolence - that some play this world like a vast, infinitely intricate strategy game. We are all resources in this game. Depending on our individual stances, we are utilized, mobilized, managed, positioned, deployed, manipulated, ignored, silenced, or removed. The game is played. Pieces are moved. Power plays are set into motion. The board shifts and changes. People suffer. People die. Our humanity fades. But it's all just part of a game - a most dangerous game.[3]



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  • 1 – About this Article

    Back in September 2001 when the U.S. was preparing for its attack on Afghanistan, there was saturation coverage of the preparations for war. Endless commentaries on the details of the weapons to be deployed and the strategies to be used, combined with the analysis of "experts" on the region, filled the network channels with minute by minute coverage of the unfolding situation. Once the war began the reporting became obsessively focused on the technological and strategic details of the campaign, it's whiz-bang weaponry and hi-tech equipment. After several nights of watching this mind-numbing and dehumanizing coverage I turned off the TV and wrote the “Most Dangerous Game” article. It was published in the Globe and Mail's Facts and Arguments section.

  • 2 – Continuity and Coherence

    At its best, our era is not graced with serenity. These are event driven times, full of motion, movement, turmoil - an antithesis to contemplation. For us, for our time, the future rarely extends its horizon beyond the next month, or week, or day. And so we tend to hang on every oscillation in stock prices, anticipate the turn of fortune that the next market update may herald, and, in troubled times, diligently follow the ever-shifting state of the world. We watch incessantly, intently, so focused on each advancing tick of the event-clock that past and future are seemingly banished to the cloudy, unfocused edges of peripheral vision. The principle of cause and effect in human affairs recedes into irrelevancy, and like a bewildered amnesiac we dwell in a disconnected, decoupled, never-ending present.

    And so we are in danger of being left with no point of reference with which to judge events and insufficient context with which to understand them. With vast amounts of knowledge at our fingertips, with technology that borders on magic at our daily command, with mountains of information at our disposal, we seem nevertheless destined to repeatedly encounter disaster and horror around the world and to meet it by dealing out the same. Over time, as the never-ending present we dwell in grows increasingly nightmarish, increasingly brutal, we will shake our heads in confusion and wonder how all this could come to be - and we will never know if we cut ourselves adrift from the sources which would help us to understand and solve our problems. Past and future - cause and effect - continuity and coherence.

    Only the noise and clamour of the present remains - the cold horror of sudden death by terror, the hollow rhetoric of leaders, the strategies of war, the crushing blows of armies, the moment by moment media reports. The energy of events overrides all historical perspectives except those that pertain to tactics and propaganda. Between the endlessly broadcast opinions of "experts" and the images of hi-tech air to ground assaults, our society's signal to noise ratio has become so feeble that little that is meaningful or coherent can be discerned. Reflection and thoughtfulness are drowned in a sea of endless noise.

    Yet between the the din of conflict and the clatter of the media, there are many voices of tenderness, humanity, patience, truth, and mercy. These voices are present among every group, every religion, every culture, every language. They do not have weapons of terror or the power of empires at their disposal, their efforts occur in the spaces between events, often drowned out by the incessant shouting of the powerful. But their simple and quiet traces are worth more than all the posturing and clamoring of this era's demagogues. They do not cover over, conceal, or shrug off what has gone before. They seek to illuminate the present with the light of the past and show the possibilities of hope for the future. They do not cause suffering - they relieve it. Their voices speak with determination from all shores of the world. These are the voices worth listening for.

  • 3 – Situation Under Control

    Look to the past to see the future reality. As economic difficulties arise, as resources are drained, as weariness of long sieges set in, as others move to make their power plays, the game which once seemed so enticing, so certain to bring victory - which gave a heady a sense of driving the future, of creating the future, will tire even the strong - perhaps make them wish to withdraw from this particular round of the game, or perhaps cause them to play ever harsher hands to maintain dominance.

    Everything's always under control....until it spins out of control. The war on terror can be efficiently managed, Afghanistan can be managed, the whole world can be managed, just as Enron and others thought they could manage their crooked finances - just before sudden collapse - just before the bubble bursts or deflates, just before endless blood is spilled and the all political gain is reversed.

    This war on terror is not a simple company management situation - there are so many variables - so much volatility - so many possible outcomes, so many competing ambitions, so much ruthlessness, so many unsavory alliances, so many grudges, so many high-level crooks, so many lies, so many false justifications, so much ill-feeling, so much greed, so much corruption, so little human concern, so little truth - how impossible it is to control the outcome of such complex dynamics. The unscrupulous and repugnant nature of the means used is sufficient to predict the ultimate failure and collapse of the desired end.

    -Irshaad Hussain

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