Taking The Shot

In the nightmare, it’s always dark, and quiet.

That’s how I know it’s not real. The reality was likely a mass of flash-bangs, burning trash, explosions, screams, and certainly gunfire. But in the dream, it’s silent except for the sound-effect gunshots and the first-person breathing. I move with my head locked in position, not bobbing or swaying. The helicopter lands in the courtyard. I move through the doorways, up the stairs, checking rooms with precision. And then I see the target.

And this is when I realize, each time, that the man is Bin Laden.

Do I take the shot?

In the weeks following the “killing of Bin Laden,” as everyone from the Wall St. Journal to the Discovery Channel refers to the events in Abbattobad, I’ve been wracked with ambivalence. Not ambivalence in the sense of “I don’t care,” but in the true sense that I hold so many conflicting thoughts and beliefs in my head at the same time that I can’t find the red ”You are here” spot on my moral roadmap.

But the rightness and wrongness of it all is largely a political issue. One that will no doubt fill toothless coffee shop conversations and wine-soaked dinners for years to come in my privileged, white, American middle-class life. What keeps me up at night is a personal angst, not a societal one.

On hearing of Bin Laden’s demise, I thought the following things, in order:

1: Finally. Rot in Hell.
2: What have we become, as a nation, that we’re assassinating people?
3: What does it mean for me, as a Christian, to be celebrating anyone’s death, no matter how evil?

As details emerged, I tried to imagine myself in the role of the shooter. And that’s when I realized—videogames have made me a less moral person, or at the least, a less mindful one.

I have been in that room in Abbattobad, with the gun in my hand, thousands upon thousands of times. To be sure, I have neither the physical or mental capacity to actually be a SEAL, any more than I could be a brain surgeon or a quarterback. But I have put myself in his shoes, time and time again. I have, in fact, simulated nearly the precise encounter in military shooters for almost 20 years.

And if there’s one lesson I’ve taken away from games, it’s that simulation works.

As a fledgling pilot, I spent twenty hours simulating my Cessna 172 for every hour I spent in the real-world cockpit. This didn’t give me the “feel” for flying, but it did allow me to spend the actual cockpit time solely focused on that missing piece. The checklists, procedures, techniques, math, navigation and even to a large extent the instincts that made me a competent pilot all came from the sim.

Back when I used to drive, I played a lot of racing sims. The first time I had the chance to take a car around an actual racetrack at a SSCA parking lot event, my understanding of line, heel-toe-braking, and traction were completely dialed in, allowing me to focus on all the things the sim doesn’t teach you.

Alan Bean, Lunar Module Pilot for Apollo 12, once commented that the actual landing on the moon part was almost dull, because they had been through it in the simulator so many times.

Simulation works in the military, too. There is no doubt in my mind that somewhere on the Mid-Atlantic coast, there’s a 3D model of Bin Laden’s compound. There planners, perhaps even the actual operatives, worked their way through architectural renderings of the facility, learning the firing lanes and hiding spots. They likely ran through drills in the real world as well, simulating the moments of an unpredictable encounter as best they could, to eliminate variables.

So it’s easy to put myself in the ersatz shoes of the shooter. I can close my eyes and imagine myself full of adrenaline—and maybe a little fear—as I move into the room. Something I’ve been trained for. Something I’ve been visualizing over and over on the long ride to the compound. Something that is in fact my very reason for being. The door opens, and there’s the target. In that chaos, in that dirty, musty room in my head, any number of things can happen. Does the man Bin Laden do something threatening? Reflexively, I pull the trigger.

But what if he puts his hands up? Or runs? Do I risk trying to tackle the man, cuff him and get him to the copter? I think I still take the shot.

And this bothers me.

It has nothing to do, honestly, with where on the scale of evil the man is. It doesn’t even have to do with whether I have been told to take the man alive or shoot him on sight. I still think I take the shot, because that’s how I, Julian, have simulated these kinds of encounters, over and over and over again. Because I, Julian, a Christian, Husband, Father, Middle-aged and bald epileptic nerd who runs 10 minute miles on a good day, am in fact a trained killer of men.

What I’m not, obviously, is someone trained to do the actual job on that chaotic night. I am not a trained resolver of high-intensity combat situations. Not a trained negotiator. Not trained to do the complex and highly nuanced job of achieving the mission objectives. My only training is to clear the room and pull the trigger.

There are no handcuffs in Counter-Strike.

Individuals have tremendous power to change the world. Bin Laden certainly did. As did the brave young adrenalin-soaked soldier who evaluated a complex, fluid, unfolding situation and fired. We shape the world every day through our actions, through our choices. We shape the world in our reactions to events like Bin Laden’s killing, whether it’s through introspection, prayer or jingoism.

There’s no point in me moralizing and handwringing about the acts of May 2nd, 2011, or about state-sanctioned assassination or American Hegemony or the beneficent death of monsters. Not until I get my own house in order. I imagine that will be my life’s work.


“And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone ... .” John 8:9

Comments

LarryC wrote:
Spoiler:

I got hit with the broadside of what now appears to me decades of American debate when I said that ToE was "just a theory," which it is. I didn't realize that I was painting myself as an opponent of the theory just by saying that. Sometimes I think it'd be beneficial if I parsed my English a little worse.

Spoiler:

I think the problems you will run into when you say that include, for one, the difference between the scientific meaning of "theory" and the way the word "theory" is used by laymen. When you use a phrase like "just a theory," it implies the doubt of the layman's usage.

Because the debate is emotionally fraught, it is difficult not to be defensive.

EDITED for clarity and to mention this is a question for the writer and for everyone else.

(after reading the article this is the question I have)

Rabbit wrote “2: What have we become, as a nation, that we’re assassinating people?”

Are you surprised that nations have been using men and women to kill in order to carry out agendas and protect interests?

This is one of those times where I find myself so far right in my ideology I almost come full circle. IMO, Bin Laden sealed his fate with 9/11. It was largely a matter of where and when, not if. Maybe some combination of hunting and video games has utterly desensitized me or maybe I'm just emotionally bankrupt on this issue. Were I a member of SEAL team six I would have shot everyone in that compound that dared to resist and not thought twice about it. I'm fairly confident I would not feel any remorse about it. I consider myself to be a Christian but in the case of Bin Laden, I'm willing to ignore the "Thou Shall Not Kill" provision.

Maybe it's nothing more than some misguided sense of primitive justice but as far as I'm concerned everyone in that compound (minus the children) was complicite in hiding Bin Laden.

I'm sure the emotional "off" switch is different for everyone, for me it's with my children. I'm a pretty passive and non-violent guy, yet completely confident that if anyone hurt my son or daughter I would easily turn into an extremely violent individual. I've always told my wife that if anyone were to ever hurt our kids, they better hope the police get to them before I do.

Great article Rabbit. But it's not just games that perpetrate the whole "kill em all, let God sort it out" mentality; it's mass media in general. The only difference is in games you don't hesitate while taking out the bad guy. At least in action movies the hero at first tries to spare the villian before ultimately blowing him away when he goes for his back-up weapon.

I also agree with some of the other posters like Bear who have no compunction about celebrating the end of Bin Laden. When you actually start calculating how many American kids you'll have to butcher to achieve "victory," you've officially handed in your membership card to the human race. I didn't go into the streets chanting USA that night, but I had no more moral angst over what happened than I would if I heard the local animal control officer had to shoot a rabid raccoon. Scratch that - I'd actually feel sorry for the poor woodland creature.

rabbit wrote:

Because I, Julian, a Christian, Husband, Father, Middle-aged and bald epileptic nerd who runs 10 minute miles on a good day, am in fact a trained killer of men.

I disagree.

The reason that you've got these weird juxtaposed thoughts running through your head is that you're not a trained killer of men. You're a trained killer of simulacra.

Cutting the heads off Barbie dolls does not put you on a par with a medieval executioner.

Jonman wrote:
rabbit wrote:

Because I, Julian, a Christian, Husband, Father, Middle-aged and bald epileptic nerd who runs 10 minute miles on a good day, am in fact a trained killer of men.

I disagree.

The reason that you've got these weird juxtaposed thoughts running through your head is that you're not a trained killer of men. You're a trained killer of simulacra.

Cutting the heads off Barbie dolls does not put you on a par with a medieval executioner.

Can't a soldier be thoroughly trained without having yet seen combat?

wordsmythe wrote:
Jonman wrote:
rabbit wrote:

Because I, Julian, a Christian, Husband, Father, Middle-aged and bald epileptic nerd who runs 10 minute miles on a good day, am in fact a trained killer of men.

I disagree.

The reason that you've got these weird juxtaposed thoughts running through your head is that you're not a trained killer of men. You're a trained killer of simulacra.

Cutting the heads off Barbie dolls does not put you on a par with a medieval executioner.

Can't a soldier be thoroughly trained without having yet seen combat?

No more than a pilot can be thoroughly trained without having flown an aircraft. We have level D simulators that are about as realistic as it gets for flight training, but until you've felt that gust of wind knock your aircraft sideways, and your heart-rate double, I don't think you can really know how you'll react.

wordsmythe wrote:

Can't a soldier be thoroughly trained without having yet seen combat?

At BEST violent games could possibly desensitize you to violence, but that's a far cry from being a trained killer.

Valmorian wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:

Can't a soldier be thoroughly trained without having yet seen combat?

At BEST violent games could possibly desensitize you to violence

I think this is ultimately what Julian was saying - but I may be wrong as my grasp of wabbit is wascally.

SallyNasty wrote:

I think this is ultimately what Julian was saying - but I may be wrong as my grasp of wabbit is wascally.

Oh I agree, but as in many other situations, the simulation is not the reality. I've seen and participated in some VERY violent video game situations, but I still get squeamish when I see someone get injured in real life.

Coldstream wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:
Jonman wrote:
rabbit wrote:

Because I, Julian, a Christian, Husband, Father, Middle-aged and bald epileptic nerd who runs 10 minute miles on a good day, am in fact a trained killer of men.

I disagree.

The reason that you've got these weird juxtaposed thoughts running through your head is that you're not a trained killer of men. You're a trained killer of simulacra.

Cutting the heads off Barbie dolls does not put you on a par with a medieval executioner.

Can't a soldier be thoroughly trained without having yet seen combat?

No more than a pilot can be thoroughly trained without having flown an aircraft. We have level D simulators that are about as realistic as it gets for flight training, but until you've felt that gust of wind knock your aircraft sideways, and your heart-rate double, I don't think you can really know how you'll react.

That is not the definition of "trained", that is the definition of "experienced" or "veteran". Soldiers can be "trained" without the experience of real combat. Sure, in a first firefight you gain valuable skills quickly, but you better be trained going into it.

wordsmythe wrote:
Jonman wrote:
rabbit wrote:

Because I, Julian, a Christian, Husband, Father, Middle-aged and bald epileptic nerd who runs 10 minute miles on a good day, am in fact a trained killer of men.

I disagree.

The reason that you've got these weird juxtaposed thoughts running through your head is that you're not a trained killer of men. You're a trained killer of simulacra.

Cutting the heads off Barbie dolls does not put you on a par with a medieval executioner.

Can't a soldier be thoroughly trained without having yet seen combat?

Can a soldier be trained without experiencing combat? From my experience as an Army NCO, I would say yes. However, a recruit still needs to undergo weeks of strenuous real-world training and experience dangerous situations like live fire exercises.

I think Rabbit has a valid point, but he should have used the phrase "feel like a trained killer."

MisterStatic wrote:
Coldstream wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:
Jonman wrote:
rabbit wrote:

Because I, Julian, a Christian, Husband, Father, Middle-aged and bald epileptic nerd who runs 10 minute miles on a good day, am in fact a trained killer of men.

I disagree.

The reason that you've got these weird juxtaposed thoughts running through your head is that you're not a trained killer of men. You're a trained killer of simulacra.

Cutting the heads off Barbie dolls does not put you on a par with a medieval executioner.

Can't a soldier be thoroughly trained without having yet seen combat?

No more than a pilot can be thoroughly trained without having flown an aircraft. We have level D simulators that are about as realistic as it gets for flight training, but until you've felt that gust of wind knock your aircraft sideways, and your heart-rate double, I don't think you can really know how you'll react.

That is not the definition of "trained", that is the definition of "experienced" or "veteran". Soldiers can be "trained" without the experience of real combat. Sure, in a first firefight you gain valuable skills quickly, but you better be trained going into it.

Sorry, I wasn't clear. I firmly believe that part of training is real-world experience. Training *is* experience, in many ways. A pilot absolutely needs to fly the real thing with an instructor in the cockpit. A soldier absolutely needs to go out to the field and fire the real weapon, drive the real vehicle, and direct a real squad with instructors at his side. A doctor absolutely needs to perform real surgeries, intubations, and emergency interventions with an instructor attending physician by his side.

So in the purest sense of the original question, I would have to agree that it is possible to be trained without having seen real combat. However, I would argue that it is not possible to train a soldier with mind-based simulation alone, which is exactly what gaming is. I truly believe that the full sensorium of training is necessary, which is why the military spends stupendous amounts of cash performing training exercises that are as close to the real thing as possible without actually putting real ordinance into flesh. If they could train soldiers purely by sitting them in front of a screen, it'd sure as hell be happening. I can only assume that Rabbit's description of himself as a "trained killer of men" was artistic hyperbole for the purpose of demonstrating his point, rather than a statement that he actually believes that video games have made him capable of pulling the trigger on another human being.

Coldstream wrote:

Sorry, I wasn't clear. I firmly believe that part of training is real-world experience. Training *is* experience, in many ways. A pilot absolutely needs to fly the real thing with an instructor in the cockpit. A soldier absolutely needs to go out to the field and fire the real weapon, drive the real vehicle, and direct a real squad with instructors at his side. A doctor absolutely needs to perform real surgeries, intubations, and emergency interventions with an instructor attending physician by his side.

So in the purest sense of the original question, I would have to agree that it is possible to be trained without having seen real combat. However, I would argue that it is not possible to train a soldier with mind-based simulation alone, which is exactly what gaming is. I truly believe that the full sensorium of training is necessary, which is why the military spends stupendous amounts of cash performing training exercises that are as close to the real thing as possible without actually putting real ordinance into flesh. If they could train soldiers purely by sitting them in front of a screen, it'd sure as hell be happening. I can only assume that Rabbit's description of himself as a "trained killer of men" was artistic hyperbole for the purpose of demonstrating his point, rather than a statement that he actually believes that video games have made him capable of pulling the trigger on another human being.

Agreed.

I am an infantryman that now works with training simulations to augment training. Virtual environments offer a lot of training capability but it would be pure silliness to suggest use of them as the only method of training.

There is however, a similar mental process one goes through in the simulated world. I think Rabbit was referring to this mental "take the shot" decision. It is not far-fetched to suggest that the practice of making that decision over and over in our games results in some form of a trained decision process. Some have even argued that this may desensitize the modern Soldier to the impact of a decision to kill.

How many of you have played any of the Burnout series?

How many accidents do you get into when you're actually driving?

Valmorian wrote:

How many of you have played any of the Burnout series?

How many accidents do you get into when you're actually driving?

Or GTA games.

Quintin_Stone wrote:
Valmorian wrote:

How many of you have played any of the Burnout series?

How many accidents do you get into when you're actually driving?

Or GTA games.

In all fairness, I do run over a lot of pedestrians and fistfight with the police.

I do so little real driving these days, I can't play Burnout before driving on the highway. I get the gremlin on my shoulder telling me to sideswipe someone who passed me.

Every time I see a tanker, I think, "$99,995". Every time.

Valmorian wrote:

How many of you have played any of the Burnout series?

How many accidents do you get into when you're actually driving?

Fair point, although it's not as though there are actually people in the real world who call themselves "burners" without irony and cause horrific car crashes for large cash prizes. It has about as much to do with real driving as Mario Kart does, or as Unreal Tournament has to do with the Vietnam War.

There very much ARE actual people in the real world who are tasked with hunting down and assassinating terrorist leaders in a military setting, and therefore I think it's a subject to be treated with a tad more gravitas.

hbi2k wrote:
Valmorian wrote:

How many of you have played any of the Burnout series?

How many accidents do you get into when you're actually driving?

... It has about as much to do with real driving as Mario Kart does, or as Unreal Tournament has to do with the Vietnam War.

I think he's drawing an analogy.

Here's the thing: Most people drive in real life much more than they play Burnout or Mario Kart. The prevailing motif int heir minds is going to be the daily commute more than the blue shell. That's why I brought up this:

wordsmythe wrote:

I do so little real driving these days, I can't play Burnout before driving on the highway. I get the gremlin on my shoulder telling me to sideswipe someone who passed me.

I walk to work and generally bike or take public transit instead of driving. Because of that, there have been times when I did considerably more virtual driving than real driving, and it did start to show when I had to actually drive somewhere. I didn't run anyone off the road, but it came to mind much more readily than I'd like.

wordsmythe wrote:

I think he's drawing an analogy.

I get that; I just don't think it's a particularly apt analogy.

Although I've definitely shared the very bizarre experience of having to deal with subconsciously thinking about just exactly how I could run a dude off the road for maximum damage when driving IRL right after a marathon Burnout session.

hbi2k wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:

I think he's drawing an analogy.

I get that; I just don't think it's a particularly apt analogy.

The point is that your behaviour behind the wheel of your car doesn't necessarily mirror the behaviour you are "training" for whenever you play racing games. And those two activities are arguably closer than killing in a game as opposed to real life.

I don't think the majority of gamers that enjoy racing games are secretly participating in illegal street races.

My goodness this thread has had an incredible amount of parsing.

I was the 2nd platoon leader for this company in 2001, and fought in the ShahiKot valley during Operation Anaconda (featured in the latest Medal of Honor, and I have to say the terrain looked pretty damn close, even if the rest was pretty Hollywood).

Anyway, interesting video for those who have not been in a real firefight themselves:

Combat in the First Person