Veterans Drifting to the Dark World of Conspiracies

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I’ve been thinking about how to accurately communicate this for awhile now, and the best I can come up with is to be blunt:

The veteran community has a problem with losing our own down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories that gets them in trouble.

I’m not talking about the sometimes antagonistic ramblings of conservative or liberal veterans. I’m talking about the ones who go off the deep end, who jump over the White House fence to warn the President about the “atmosphere collapsing.” I’m talking about Navy veteran Chris Dorner and his wild manifesto. I’m talking about your war-buddies who casually call for the internment or genocide of all Muslims on social media. The ones who lash out at you or call you naive if you disagree with them that 9/11 was an inside job.

Over the past few years, I’ve watched a number of my buddies – intelligent, good people – start drifting towards the dark edge of the internet. At first, this manifested itself innocently enough – angry rants about the civilian-military divide or the cheapening of modern culture and the indifference of the media towards things that matter. Over time, that morphed into links to “false flag” operations and whispered hints and giddiness at prepping for a coming inevitable revolution.

At first, I ignored it mostly, understanding that some people tend to gravitate towards conspiracy almost like a hobby. Growing up, it is fun to explore conspiracies like aliens at Roswell or the search for Bigfoot or Loch Ness Monster.

It hit home for me when a personal friend and combat veteran started drifting down that path. I spent years sporadically trying to convince him that he was not the “chosen one” to warn people of a coming apocalypse.

When I spoke with someone about my friend, they said what I was describing sounded a lot like the plot of the 2006 film BugWhen I finally got around to watching it, it felt like some of the dialogue was lifted right out of the mouths and Facebook postings of veteran friends. I wish the exchange below was available online, because it is delivered brilliantly in a manic, quickly strung together manner. In the scene, Peter, a war veteran who believes he is being tracked by the government, is explaining to Agnes what he believes is going on – this is his world:

Peter Evans: Listen! Listen! If you want to know what is going on, you have to listen to me! You have to! Because you don’t know the fucking ENORMITY of what we’re dealing with! Listen: May 29th, 1954, the consortium of bankers, industrialists, corporate CEO’s and politicians held a series of meetings over three days at the Bilderberg Hotel in Oosterbeek, Holland… they drew up a plan for maintaining the “status quo.”

Agnes White: What’s that?

Peter Evans: It’s “the way things are” – it’s “the rich get richer, the poor get poorer.” They devised a plan to manipulate technology, economics, the media, population control, world religion, to keep things the way they are. And they have continued to meet once a year, every year, since the original meeting. Look it up! Under their orders, the CIA had smuggled Nazi scientists into the States to work with the American military and Calspan, developing an inter-epidermal tracking microchip.

Agnes White: A what?

Peter Evans: It’s a surveillance tool. It’s a microchip that’s been implanted in the skin of every human being born on the planet since 1982. The test group for the prototype was the People’s Temple! And when the Reverend Jim Jones threatened to expose them, he and every member of his church were assassinated!

After it was revealed that the White House fence jumper was an Iraq War veteran and may be suffering from PTSD, the Minutemen quickly assembled and began to fire warnings off about linking PTSD to violence – in this case, jumping over the White House fence being considered a violent act. When it was revealed that Mr. Gonzalez was trying to warn the President about the “failing atmosphere” so he could “get the word out” my mind instantly raced back to friends I see posting links to off-the-wall blogs with 5,000 word diatribes about this or that conspiracy.

Last year, I posted about the movie Jacob’s Ladder. In that film, a group of Vietnam veterans believe they are being chased by demons. They become paranoid and only find solace in one another because together they are able to confirm the existence of the demons. While that film isn’t about conspiracy or even veterans per se (it’s a psychological horror) it captures some of the zeitgeist of what I think is going on in a small segment of the veteran community.

The stuff folks find online and take to believing becomes real when other veterans egg them on and agree (and click ‘like’) – a special few who “get it” while the rest of us remain brainwashed.

What really bothers me about this phenomenon is that it seems uncrackable. Anytime I’ve tried to intervene or explain I’ve been either lashed out at or dismissed as naive. I think there is an easy reaction to explain it all away as a function of mental illness, and while that may be the case for some, I’m not convinced that drifting towards conspiracy means someone is mentally ill. I’ve seen too many well-adjusted, successfully transitioning veterans slide in that direction.

The purpose of writing this is a hope that by acknowledging that “something is going on,” something can be done. I really don’t know what it is, but my hunch through experience is there is a link between military service and drifting towards conspiracy. I’ve always thought that one of the things that makes military service so special – and what makes the transition to civilian so difficult – is the feeling of being important and the center of attention when you’re in the service. Once you get out, you really don’t matter much anymore (in a grand, geo-political way) and conspiracy is a way to keep you “in the game.”

From here, it’s left to the experts to figure out what is actually happening.

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How a 1990s Strategy Game Predicted the Birth of ISIS

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Okay, that was a ridiculous headline.

But I’ve been thinking lately about Civilization II, a game that I spent countless hours playing in my attic room during summer vacations. I enjoyed taking a civilization from its infancy and growing it into the space age, trying my best to satisfy my bloodlust through war while being sure to keep some other civilizations alive to keep things interesting.

As the game progresses, from the stone age through medieval times to the present and beyond, I was always perplexed by the emergence of the ‘fanatic’ unit type. Usually towards the end of the play-through, when my civilization was technologically advanced and beginning to explore space, ‘fanatic’ units began to populate. They were a kind of dismounted infantry. They sucked at fighting and were easy to destroy. But they were annoying, destabilizing, and a distraction.

They came from governments that shifted to the ‘fundamentalist’ type. The fanatic units were aggressive and cared little for self-preservation.

As a teenager, I never really understood why such ‘backwards’ units would emerge. In the years before 9/11, I always pictured them as the Jake Busey-from-Contact type of fundamentalist, not the al Qaeda/ISIS variety. Still, they were attacking my mechanized infantry with waves of untrained ‘fanatics’ and it was annoying.

It’s interesting now to think of the ‘fundamentalist fanatic’ as a reaction to the civilization that’s sending men to the moon, but also working towards keeping the “other” civilizations at bay and away.

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Saving Catiua

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Catiua’s suicide.

I’m still slogging through Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together. I’ve finally reached a point in the game that I remember reaching the first time I played it and abandoned it. I know I am nearing the end. Or, at least, I think I am nearing the end. When I played originally, I followed the Law route (which means you know what I did at Balamusa). I eventually got to the part where Catiua kills herself in front of you. It was pretty heavy stuff for the the fifteen year old me. Shortly thereafter, I stopped playing.

The other day, I finally rescued Catiua only to see her kill herself again. The game let me save just before the dialogue and I was presented with a couple of choices on what to say, which hinted at alternate outcomes. I took a deep breath, and before I continued with the game, I decided to reset it and see what would happen if I chose a different dialogue option.

Given the two options of dialogue, I chose the “other” one, which kept the conversation going a little longer opening up a second pair of dialogue options. I chose the option that I thought most natural, and she killed herself a second time.

I reloaded again, a lá All You Need Is Kill / Edge of Tomorrow and went through the dialogue again, choosing the “other” option again, which resulted in Catiua collapsing and apologizing, and most importantly, not committing suicide.

A new cut-scene appeared and Catiua joined the party. I saved the game and went to lunch.

There, I started to regret resetting the game (twice!) in order to make sure Catiua joined. One of the things I love about Tactics Ogre (and Mass Effect) is how your in-game decisions have lasting effects. The in-game dialogue options hinted to me that there may have been a way to save Catiua – whom I assumed always killed herself on the Law route from my first play through over ten years ago. As I finished my lunch, I felt guilty for having made the wrong decision that led Catiua to kill herself and not accepting that fate and replaying it for a more favorable outcome.

The game, now, feels a bit skewed. I’ll finish it out, and once complete, there is an option to go back and make different decisions to “see what happens” and fully explore the game. That’ll be the first thing I do. But I feel a bit like an impostor.

The whole episode is similar to the death/saving of Shadow in Final Fantasy VI, which gets a great write-up over at the A.V. Club. In the era of GameFAQs, it is getting harder and harder to be surprised in video games anymore. Perma-death and game-changing decisions are still too easy to avoid or double-back over. Despite resetting the game to get the result I wanted, I know I would have enjoyed this part more if I would have accepted the consequences of my initial decision, which is why I did what I did at Balamusa, by the way. It’s also why I will forever “Tell them I held the line…

It’s all a bit complicated. I thought it interesting and I wanted to get it down here before I forgot about it. There’s so much to say about Tactics Ogre – a very adult game, way before it’s time.

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