A Quiet Evening at Home: Desert Strike

By David Fox

Newspapers are strewn around the room. The TV is on in the corner, tuned to nothing at all. On the carpet a child lies lazily, feet in the air. He has a copy of Mean Machines; he may be reading.

Why is the television on?

No answer.

I turn down the fire and take up a newspaper. I read – no forgiveness – just pain:

‘The coffin was light when Lisa Applegate buried her husband. His tank was struck by a silver bullet – a sabot round fired by another Abrams tank. The sabot is a two-foot steel dart tipped with dense depleted uranium. It travels at a mile a second. His tank burned for two days. His body was sucked through a three-inch exit hole by a vacuum created as the bullet passed through. The only sign of Applegate was a charred hip bone.’

He’s laughing by my elbow – ‘Listen to this’ – the child begins to read:

‘General Killbaba has come to power in a notorious Arab state. He is using his military might to threaten the West with countless terrorist activities. After using many unsavoury acts, such as melting prisoners in vats of acid, it’s no wonder he’s top of the Allies’ hit lists. Enter a smooth-shaven, top gun pilot with Ray-Bans...’

We saw it on television. We heard it on the radio. Now children play it on computer. I heard an American voice say: ‘We call ourselves the grid-square removal service, since our 12 rockets can take out a square kilometre of the map.’

In Desert Strike – the game – there’s no mention of oil (except burning) and nothing about the New World Order. My child is just back from holiday in Miami. As he plugs in his Nintendo entertainment system he is singing the Prince song:

‘Grenade launcher roars in a television sky.
Tell me how many young brothers must die.
Dance on, dance on, dance on, dance on’.

While in Miami he was driven around in a car that knows the way. It has its own computer called Travtek and it can speak – telling you where you are and guiding you to your destination. If you take a wrong turning it tells you and re-routes you. He says that it talks in a Stephen Hawking voice and can find Howard Johnson’s motel at Disney World. However, it couldn’t recognise a black working-class district. Why come back from Miami with a story like this? Are children swallowed up by the new images – their concentration span down? Is the narrative gone? Why come back from Miami with a story like this? We watched the television but our children have their eyes and ears on a different screen. I heard someone called a child psychologist saying that some children believe in a real space behind the screen where the battle is fought. When you reach a new level you’re rewarded with a new space. Well, not the children I know – but there’s certainly much evidence to believe that the Pentagon shares a similar view.

‘Desert Strike is essentially a full-scale war with all the sights and sounds crammed into an 8 Megabyte card.’

My kid turns the page.

‘No helicopter combat sim can do without the thumping of the rotor blades, the chain gun rapping into concrete, the tense metallic whistle of an incoming missile. Desert Strike is best played with the volume full up so that cutting up an APC becomes an obscene orgy of noise punctuated by that final satisfying explosion’

‘The graphics are outstanding, with intricate detail on all the landscape features and some amazingly realistic hostile hardware that fully captures the spirit of the campaign.’

I’m watching two children playing Lemmings – thousands of little men march off a cliff. Some hold their heads, which then explode. It’s a humorous little game – no need to be alarmed.

Something not on my TV, though I expect it will be a game soon: the ground attack began with ploughs mounted on tanks and earthmovers to bulldoze live Iraqi soldiers into trenches – a hitherto unprecedented tactic. Not a single American was killed during an attack which made a body count impossible. Just a bit one-sided to incorporate into a game?

‘Two types of missiles and the devastating 30mm chain gun are on offer to slice and dice the enemy and by crikey you will need them... Go to it soldier, and blow the dictator a hellfire kiss from us.’

Finally we’ll have to get used to these games as the US continues to exploit their virtual monopoly in the ‘security’ market. As the games get more real I hope we’ll begin to see causes as well as effects. At the beginning of the real war which left perhaps 200,000 dead, stock markets soared and the price of oil fell. The company share price of the makers of the Patriot missile rose by $5.25 on the day after it was first seen in action on TV. This is hardly surprising, given the cost of the weapons needed to fight a real war:

F-117A Stealth Fighter: $55m
Tornado GR1 Bomber: $40m
Challenger Tank: $10m
Tomahawk Cruise Missile: $3m
Warrior APC: $2m
Patriot Missile: $800,000
Milan Anti-Tank Missile: $19,000
Tank Shell: $1,000
Machine Gun Bullet: $0.75

‘Personally, I enjoy driving through a residential area, guns blazing, towards an unsuspecting tank, then turning down another street and lifting a hostage from a roof under heavy fire. Desert Strike lets you fulfil your wishes and more besides.’ (Review in Sega Pro)

‘No words could match the visual impact of what happened next, as captured by the video camera on the Stealth’s nose. The AT&T building came into sight in the pilot’s cross-hair target. He centred the cross on the roof and fired. As the plane shot by overhead, a blast of black debris gushed out of the windows and door, under tremendous pressure. It was over in seconds. On the screen it looks remarkably similar to the famous scene in Star Wars.’

And now another New Year has begun and it’s two years since the Gulf War, America, ever the concerned parent, is giving Iraq another ‘spanking’. The war of the rich against the poor is on in earnest. Children will be dying there once again of Marasmus and Kwashiorkor through contaminated water. Indoors and ‘safe’ our children play on their Christmas Megadrives. But they’re so close to the truth. Do they look up and see that the glow beyond their screens real cities with people burning?

‘Scud missiles being intercepted by Patriot missiles over Saudi Arabia and Israel brought an air of video games or fireworks display to the screen. A new language was brought into being to soften the reality. Bombing military targets in the heart of cities was “denying the enemy an infrastructure.” People were “soft targets”. Saturation bombing was “laying down a carpet”. The idea was to suggest that hardly any people were involved in modern warfare, only machines.’ – Phillip Knightley, Guardian

‘It was an hour before midnight that we noticed in the very distance – and it must have been 100 miles away – a dull, pink glow that suffused the horizon. What it was we could not tell from the 17th floor of our building in the heart of Kuwait City. But somewhere near Basra the Allies struck something that burned cruelly in the night.’ – Robert Fisk, Independent (Jan ’93)