civil-military divide, video games

Life is Strange: You can’t un-know what you already know

Gone Girl

The last episode of Life is Strange came out last week, and I rushed to finish it so as not to have the ending(s) spoiled by the internet. I didn’t think I’d be so engrossed by the game when I first read about it from eastern Afghanistan, but I honestly can’t remember the last time I’ve been so sucked into a game’s story. After each episode – and this one is no different – I suffer from a morose melancholy for a few days. From the moment the credits roll, I stumble through the drudgery of work and life, thinking about what happened and trying to make sense of it all.

I remind myself, on a number of instances, that’s it’s only a game. But that doesn’t really work.

It’s been a great journey. One that led me to think about the way we interact with one another, suicide, and how veterans are portrayed in the media.

I’m not reviewing the game here. I can’t really be objective about it because I loved it so much. There aren’t many games I would describe as beautiful, but that’s the word that comes to mind.

Like a lot of fans of the game, I’m sad that it’s over. As much as I love narrative based, choice-and-consequence games, once I finish them, they kind of lose their magic for me. I can achievement-hunt and explore the world, but I’ve already exhausted my path.

When I played Mass Effect, I played it as I think I would if I were actually Commander Shepard. When presented with choices, I chose what I thought I would choose in that circumstance. It’s for that reason that in my story, Commander Shepard never had a love interest. It’s generally frowned upon to sleep with your subordinates, as it goes.

Once I destroyed the Reapers (the only right choice), I thought about going back and replaying the game and playing as a totally different “character.” I liked the idea of doing it, and I even started, but I think I only lasted about an hour before I grew bored with it. It was hard for me to role-play the game as someone I’m not.

It was the same for Life is Strange. The decisions I made as Max were the decisions I think I would have made if I were walking in her shoes. Now that it’s over, I’m already thinking about how I can replay the game, to try to experience it some more. I can explore different decisions, or play as a different kind of Max, but that really doesn’t appeal to me.

I know how the story goes, and I can’t un-know what I already know.

Which leads me to the whole point of this post. A friend once described part of the problem with the civilian-miltiary divide as one that stems from the fact that once someone joins the military, they never really get out. Sure, they can separate from service, but instead of becoming a civilian, they are more likely to identify as a veteran, an identity separate from being a civilian. They’ve been militarized, and you don’t really ever become de-militarized.

Once you’re in, even when you get out, you can’t un-know what you already know.

When I finally finished Tactics Ogre last year, I wrote about how even though it felt good to finally beat it, the final playthrough was tainted by the first, some twenty years ago. The way I experienced it the first time was canon – I can’t go back and change things. And even if I do, it never feels quite right.

When a young man or woman chooses to join the military, that doesn’t become undone when they come home. They can never go back to “normal,” whatever that even means. You can’t un-know what you already know.


civil-military divide

Volunteering to Not Volunteer

Full Metal Bitch

When I was in college I met lots of smart and ambitious young men and women who struggled – like most people – to figure out what it was they wanted to do for a career. Being one of the only veterans they knew, I’d ask them if they ever considered military service. I’d usually get a range of replies that all led to the same answer: no.

If you are a young man or woman and physically capable of serving in the military and you happen to be of prime fighting age during a time of war, is it a duty to volunteer?

We talk about draft dodgers of the Vietnam era. In the future, will the candidate running for President who is an Iraq or Afghanistan veteran challenge the non-veteran on why they chose not to volunteer when they could have?

It just seems to me that in a country where so few are eligible to serve due to education, drugs, criminal history, or physical fitness, that those who could, should – especially if we are actively engaged in war.

It’s a hard argument, I know. It’s the “I don’t want you to do the dishes, I want you to want to do the dishes” argument.

civil-military divide

Veterans: When I ask you about things, can you not be a condescending dick about it?

“Yeah, I think I know a thing or two about coconut bundt cake!”

The other day, when someone asked on Facebook, “Anyone else feel immense relief when arriving home alive after a long road trip?” I responded with:

I was referring to long, dangerous road trips I’ve been on while deployed, and the relief felt when you get back to the relative safety of the base.

While I was just having fun, the incident got me thinking about how veterans tend to frame everything they touch through the prism of their service. The “Condescending Army Commercial,” a spot on parody by College Humor released in 2009 is a spoof of an actual series of Army commercials that ran under the theme of “Strength for Now, Strength for Later.” In the official Army commercials, they focus on a veteran after he or she leaves the service and is back in the civilian world. When they’re faced with challenges, they are able to lean on their prior service and military experience to relate to their civilian peers.

In those commercials, after the veteran thinks back to his or her military experience, they always seem to respond in a subtely condescending tone, as if to say, “yeah, this ain’t shit compared to what I’ve been through.” The folks at College Humor picked up on that condescending tone, and thus the brilliant parody.

This isn’t just a parody of Army commercials though. Some veterans, whether it be at the workplace, college, or on social media, have a tendency to respond to any event through the prism of their service, even when it really isn’t relevant. I watch veterans constantly crowbar their service into conversations where it just sits there, awkwardly.

My favorite part in the parody is the end, where the bearded guy says: “Hey man, when I ask you about things, can you not be a condescending dick about it?”

To which, our veteran replies in a condescending tone: “Yeah, I think I can not be a codescending dick about it!”


civil-military divide

Answering “The Question”: Did You Ever Kill Anyone?

There are a number of tropes involved with being a veteran. One of them says that if someone asks you if you ever killed someone, you are supposed to be offended. Like most veterans, when I was inevitably asked this question by some unsuspecting civilian, I indeed found myself offended, mostly because I thought I was supposed to be. As time has gone on, however, I’ve found that I’m less and less offended by the question and actually think it’s a pretty relevant one. The fact that we (veterans) berate others for asking it says more about our own self-righteousness than it does about the civilian population’s insensitivity or poor understanding of the military.

If you had to boil down to a single thing exactly what it is that makes the military unique, I think you would get past marching and rank and uniforms and eventually arrive at the fact that the military enjoys society’s most generous monopoly on violence. The fact that you can join the military and potentially be given carte blanche to kill is fascinating, considering that under most other circumstances, killing will likely see you killed in return or thrown in jail. It is not strange, therefore, that someone who upon learning that you served in the military – especially in the combat arms – would be curious to know if you ever killed someone. In my experience, that question usually comes after a couple of cursory questions like “where did you serve” and “were you overseas.” Then, in whispered tones, that person will ask if you ever killed someone. Sometimes they’ll even obscure the question a bit, saying something to the effect of “did you ever, you know, have to use your rifle?”

Thinking on it, I’ve never found myself truly offended by it, but being plugged into the veteran sphere, I know I am supposed to be.

No, instead I’ve always found the question more awkward than offensive, in the same vein of being asked about your sexual history. I don’t think I’ve ever demured from the question, instead rattling off a non-answer, speaking in generalities of things my unit had done or circumstances in which I fired my rifle.

Part of the awkwardness of responding to the question is the fact that by giving an answer you are destroying the mystery of your military service. A non-answer, as I like to to give, keeps the mystery alive. Answering in the affirmative and in detail may reveal the monster that some believe you to be. And to admit that you had not strips away that one thing that truly makes military service unique to other professions.

For most veterans, there is, in fact, a definitive answer to the question: no. Most service members will never fire a shot in anger while deployed, and of those who do, many of them will never know the result. Then, there are those who know that they did in fact kill. They may be eager to share and relish the opportunity to talk about it in living color and in great detail. Or, and as the trope begs us to do, there are those who will demure to the question because it is somehow inappropriate to talk about it. The act of killing is supposed to be deeply personal, regardless of how intimate or impersonal the actual act may have been. Whether the act excites your or repulses you, the only socially acceptable response is deflection.

I’m of the mind that as a group (veterans), we do a disservice to ourselves by closing ourselves off and telling people what they can and cannot say to or about us. That is exactly what we do, though. If everyone calls us heroes, we raise opposition and say no, not all of us are heroes. If the media paints us as rage-induced, PTSD-fueled ticking time bombs, we push back and say “not all veterans.” On the issue of “the question” we say it is innapropriate to ask. All of this policing of what is appropriate and what is not fuels the chasm called the civilian-military divide that we love to regurgitate into. My take on it is that the divide is an imagined structure that exists only in the military mind, because your average citizen does not spend much time in his den pontificating on how distant he feels from his military (nor should he).

All this, and the fact that it is only through “serious talk” that veterans truly come to terms with their service. Boozy reunions and war stories make for a good time, but do nothing for the psyche. If someone wants to ask if you ever killed someone, maybe we should just answer the question and let them deal with the consequences. By infusing that question – which is only a natural one to ask – with the power that we do robs us of our ability to think and act for ourselves, instead allowing our reaction to be guided by how we’re told we’re supposed to react. Let’s just get over it.