Islam, science fiction, and space mosques

This was different, and cool.

The Muslim world is not commonly associated with science fiction. Religion and repression have often been blamed for a perceived lack of creativity, imagination and future-oriented thought. However, even the most authoritarian Muslim-majority countries have produced highly imaginative accounts on one of the frontiers of knowledge: astrobiology, or the study of life in the universe. Islam, Science Fiction and Extraterrestrial Life: The Culture of Astrobiology in the Muslim World by Jörg Matthias Determann (I.B. Tauris, 2020) argues that the Islamic tradition has been generally supportive of conceptions of extra-terrestrial life, and in this engaging account, Jörg Matthias Determann provides a survey of Arabic, Bengali, Malay, Persian, Turkish, and Urdu texts and films, to show how scientists and artists in and from Muslim-majority countries have been at the forefront of the exciting search. 

New Books Network | Jörg Matthias Determann, “Islam, Science Fiction…

During the interview, Jörg mentions the SpaceMosque as part of an art exhibition. It is also very cool!

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The Habibis Podcast: Games, Media, and Arabic

The best content is the content that intersects your key interests. This one hits two of them right on the head – video games and Arabic.

From their description:

WHAT IS THE HABIBIS?

The Habibis is three game developers drinking some good Arab Tea for what should be about fourty minutes, inshallah, each week, inshallah. Fawzi Mesmar, Osama Dorias, and Rami Ismail discuss games and media and life as Arabs living all around the big world.

Not sure how I discovered this one, but I’m a new subscriber. I listened to the episode below, titled “A Different Language Than We Speak.

The Habibis talk about games, lots of indie games, and how Arabic is a diverse language.

The Habibis | A Different Language Than We Speak

At about the 40:00 mark they dive into a great conversation on the diversity of Arabic dialects.

Everyone’s in a bubble. It’s good to have content that bursts it from time to time.

Also, I’m encouraged to hear that Nier: Replicant is good – it’s next on my queue.

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Alephia 2053: Arabic Dystopian Anime

The storyline, set in 2053 in the fictional Arab state of Alephia, follows a group of undercover agents plotting to take down hereditary ruler Alaa Ibn Ismail and his oppressive regime, described as the most tyrannical in the world.

Alephia 2053: Animated thriller strikes a chord in Arab world | Arab Spring: 10 years on News | Al Jazeera

Very cool. Rare to get something like this in Arabic (for free).

Full film here.

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Video Games as FICINT

A lot of talk about “FICINT” or ficitional intelligence lately. This is good. Things are moving so quickly these days it’s hard to make logicial conclusions about what’s coming next.

Long-time readers will know that I’m a gamer – it’s my hobby. More than any other medium, I’ve found inspiration to think, write, and reflect, through games. I’d argue that games have always been loaded with meaning and narrative, but it’s true that as the gaming industry and community has matured, the plots and topics embedded have as well.

I never really thought of games as FICINT, but over the years I’ve written a number of pieces pulling directly from games as a way to think about mental health, stolen valor, suicide (and here), the military’s role in a zombie apocalypse, the RPG elements of military service, the importance of “staying alive,” military deception, the absurdity of war, soldiers vs. warriors, decision making, and grand strategy. I’m sure there is more, but that’s off the top of my head.

And I’m not alone. There are plenty of writers who are finding the intersection of war, warfare, and gaming. See this recent article in WOTR on the video game Eve and what it may teach us about the forever war. One of my favorite authors in this space is Matthew Gault, who also is a part of the Angry Planet podcast.

I always get the impression that when folks write about gaming and its relevance to anything outside of entertainment, it isn’t taken as seriously as film or literature. Maybe that is changing, but it’s changing very, very slowly. There is still a bias against gaming, and to many, it’s still considered a thing for children.

The reality is, we’re more than thirty years into a still-growing field. Three out of four Americans play video games. The video game industry is expexted to surpass $181 billion globally in 2021 (compared to $34 billion for the film industry).

When I joined the military in 2001, most soldiers played video games. Sure, there was a cadre of older soldiers who had joined in the 1990s (or earlier) who weren’t really into it, but the shift was already taking place 20 years ago.

The men and women joining the military these days have only lived in an era of “next-generation” video game platforms. Even the original Playstation and Xbox were before their time.

We’re at a perfect point to leverage games to help us understand the world around us. It is relevant.

There have been plenty of FICINT-like pieces written using Star Wars or Game of Thrones as a frame of reference. Those are taken seriously.

Why not games?

As an aside, my original intent for this post was to lament the fact that I’ve only recently gotten interested in the gaming photo community. I was first introduced to it through Dead End Thrills, which captures gorgeous screenshots. As I was looking at relaunching CTG, I wanted to find a space to share more gaming stuff that wouldn’t clog the blog. That’s what I use Instagram for. There is a whole community of gamers who are sharing screenshots. It’s also another way to expand the reach of the blog and hopefully bring in folks who might not have an inroad to ‘critical thinking on war and warfare.’

And the reason for the lamentation is the fact that I’ve missed so many great opportunities to share. Fallout 4, Red Dead Redepmtion II, Death Stranding, the Last of Us II. All done, and games that I’m not likely to go back to for awhile.

Thankfully, the Mass Effect Trilogy remaster will be coming with a photo mode.

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VR gaming to combat suicide

I love this.

“The unique part of this VR training is that it’s voice-activated, so you’re required to say things out loud that maybe you’ve never had to say before,” said Master Sgt. Shawn Dougherty, a VR training facilitator at Travis, in a press release. “Actually saying phrases like ‘do you have a gun in the house’ or ‘are you thinking about harming yourself.’ We’ve seen over this week, even with squadron leadership, saying uncomfortable phrases like that, they actually say them quieter than other phrases that they’re more comfortable with. “ Dougherty said the training is helpful because it allows airmen to “get those reps” asking those questions so that they are more familiar if they have to ask them in a real-life situation.

The Air Force is using virtual reality to try to stop its suicide epidemic

This, in my opinion, is way better than simply being on the receiving end of another suicide awareness brief. Gaming has a role in training.

This generation is a generation of gamers. We have the tools and the technology to be more interactive. This is a step in the right direction.

Reps, reps, and more reps.

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“Toxic mentorship” through Boss and Snake

“The Boss” is Snake’s mentor, for those who know their Metal Gear lore. She is a legenedary soldier and the “Mother of Special Forces.

In a few of the early scenes in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, this mentorship relationship takes center stage. It becomes the proximate drama that drives the story: a mentor who betrays her country versus her disciple sent to stop her.

What became clear to me, though, during these scenes, is just how “toxic” this mentorship has become.

Toxic leadership is a well-known phenomenon, especially in the military. Army doctrine (AR 600-100) defines toxic leadership as “a combination of self-centered attitudes, motivations, and behaviors that have adverse effects on subordinates, the organization, and mission performance.

Usually, we’re talking about toxic leadership in regards to a leader who has direct influence over subordinates in an organization. His or her toxic behaviors can be destructive to the organization. Effects can include lowered morale, decreased productivity, lower retention and more.

If you have served with a toxic leader, which I am willing to bet most people would attest, you know how difficult these periods can be.

But what if it is your mentor who is toxic? And worse, what if your mentor “wasn’t always that way” but has changed over time?

Our mentors are supposed to be the ones we go to for advice. Usually, our mentor is not our direct supervisor or even in the chain of command. It’s someone we can return to over time to check-in with, making sure we’re on the right path. The ones who can be honest with us and give us unvarnished feedback.

What does toxic mentorship look like? It’s hard to say. Conversations with mentors can seem different than conversations with your boss.

Many of us have experienced this. The advice given might seem a little more raw or cut-throat. Sometimes, this feels like you are being let in on a secret, or maybe as a mentee, you’ve reached a point where you can “handle” this level of advice.

Have you ever left a mentorship session or hung up the phone thinking, “Hm, that was not what I expected.”

And in truth, maybe the advice just is a little more raw. Maybe you are being let in on a secret.

Sometimes, though, people just change.

A toxic mentor – especially in a military context – might be someone who implores you to demonstrate loyalty to an individual as opposed to a unit or a specific mission. Or to engage in potentially destructive behaviors or practices that would otherwise be off-limits.

In the below three scenes, we witness Boss’ mentorship to Snake degrade from one of sage advisor, discussing the intricacies, contradictions, and challenges that professional soldiers face, to demanding individual loyalty from one of her “disciples.”

The Boss’ mentorship begins at 4:30.

Scene 1: In this CODEC call, the Boss is reintroduced to Snake. It is clear that they have a long-standing mentorship/mentee relationship and then offers some sage advice on patriotism, loyalty, and what it means to be a career soldier. To this point, it seems standard fare.

Toxic mentorship begins at 1:14

Scene 2: In this scene, the Boss states that she is defecting to the Soviet Union. She is also bringing two “Davy Crockett” nuclear warheads as a gift. Snake feels betrayed by his mentor, and to add injury to insult, she breaks his arm and tosses him over the bridge.

“What is it going to be? Loyalty to your country, or loyalty to me?”

Scene 3: Soon after arriving on the mission to eliminate Boss, Snake gets ambushed – by the Boss. For some context to the below, Snake is wearing the Boss’ bandana, which fell with him when she tossed him off the bridge. They exchange some words, and as Boss is leaving, Snake demands answers:

Snake: Why’d you defect?

Boss: I didn’t. I’m loyal… to the “end.” To my purpose. What about you, Jack? What’s it going to be? Loyalty to your country, or loyalty to me? Your country, or your mentor? Your mission, or your beliefs? Your duty to your unit, or your personal feelings?

You don’t know the truth yet. But sooner or later, you’ll have to choose. I don’t expect you to forgive me. But you can’t defeat me either. You know me too well. Just look at that bandana. If you can’t put the past behind you, you won’t survive long. If we meet again, I’ll kill you.

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The Best Years of Our Lives

A couple of months ago I was listening to an episode of the Angry Planet podcast that featured a conversation with Gregory Daddis about his book Pulp Vietnam (now on my reading list). The conversation meandered towards depictions of the American war experience, the military and ‘homecoming’ in film. For the most part, we’ve reached a place where these depictions have become mostly cartoonish or simply exploitative (10 second “surprise homecoming” videos on the nightly news). There are exceptions, of course, but it is rare that the true essence of “what it’s like” is captured in media.

Anyway, Daddis mentioned the film “The Best Years of Our Lives” as one of the best in this category (homecoming). I had never heard of it, and I am endlessly fascinated with the subject, so I made a note to check it out.

Produced at the end of World War II, the film follows the story of three veterans who return home at the war’s conclusion to the same Midwestern hometown – a grizzled infantry NCO who is actually a wealthy banker with a family, a dashing officer and bombardier who comes from a poor family and lived in a shack, and a young sailor who lost both his hands in an accident during the war. The film follows the three through their homecoming experience over time. The elation of being home and free, the dissatisfcation with “regular life,” depression and flirtations with alcoholism, and the frustration of trying to get things going.

The film was a commerical and critical success – winning seven Academy Awards while also selling out theaters during its release.

Given its contemporary popularity and critical success, how could I have not have heard of it?

It’s not a war movie. It’s not about combat. It’s about people and family – the veterans and the folks around them – and the real struggle that they all face when veterans return home.

It’s odd to me that perhaps the best film to capture “what it’s like” – even now – came out right as the big war ended nearly 80 years ago. It kind of makes sense though. It was still so raw and new, there wasn’t time to mythologize the war as it would be shortly thereafter. Things were still too fresh and the only way to tell the story was the way it was being experienced. Anything else would have been a fantasy.

It’s 2021 now. We’re twenty years removed from the start of the Global War on Terrorism. So many men and women have run through that gauntlet (and still do today). Personally, I’ve been so wrapped up in the machinations of that grind that it’s easy to forget what’s going on.

The movie holds up. I found that the characters are more relateable today than most of the archetypes depicted in other media – film, games, literature, whatever.

For a much better synopsis of the film, here is a 2007 review by Roger Ebert.

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The “Mother of Special Forces”

Photo of Col. Aaron Bank (credit: arsof-history.org)

Hm. This was a bit surprising. The ‘Boss’ is considered the “Mother of Special Forces” in Metal Gear lore.

“Voyevoda.” Relevant conversation between Johnson and Kruschev begins at 4:06

Fiction, of course. The actual “Father of Special Forces” is Col. Aaron Bank, who died in 2004. Anyone who has gone through special operations training has spent time wandering the halls of the building that carries his name – Bank Hall – at Fort Bragg, NC.

I love how the front door to Metal Gear lore seems legitimate, and then once you step inside it just gets bonkers.

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Clash of Loyalties

I came across this short video on the Iraqi film “Clash of Loyalties.” It was part of Saddam’s effort to shape perceptions of the Iraqi state, this one with an eye towards an international audience. It’s a bonkers story. The film features British movie star Oliver Reed who spends much of his time boozing in Baghdad bars during the shoot. The whole thing was shot during the Iran-Iraq war and Saddam insisted that filming continue to project a sense of normalcy.

The film is about the early days of Iraqi state formation and features well-known figures of the time, including Percy Cox and Gertrude Bell. It’s a fascinating story that has really only been told through books, mostly memoir. T.E. Lawrence is the more well known orientalist of the day because of the Arab revolt in the Hijaz, but the political scheming of Cox and Bell would have a more significant and long-lasting impact on Iraq and the region.

The political intrigue stems from “who” would control Iraq – a struggle between the British colonial service’s Cairo office and India office with little thought towards the Iraqis themselves.

Looking at it now, the episode looks very similar to a combatant command rivalry. 

The film was never released in the West, but through the magic of the internet, you can watch it on YouTube. It’s mostly in English, but there are some drawn out scenes fully in Arabic. 

Watching the movie, it felt like the British got a fair portrayal. The personalities of the key figures (Cox, Wilson, Leachman, and Bell) were all exagerated for sure, but the gist of the film accurately portrayed Iraq (and the proto-Iraqis) as a canvas for British imperial interests. Wilson, who preferred a more militant approach versus Bell and Cox who preferred a gentler, scheming approach, in the end were all working towards improving the Crown’s prospects in Mesopatamia. 

In going down this rabbit hole, there are a number of good articles on the film – mostly interviews with the director Mohamed Shukri Jameel (Vice, Esquire). 

Lastly, I just want to point out there is a shot of a fantastic map board used by one of the British officers – complete with a sling.

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An unrelenting desire to accomplish the mission

Isaac appears at the 1:30 mark.

I recently finished The Last of Us Part 2. It took me a half a year due to time constraints (moving, new job/routine). I probably would have written more about it as I did with part 1, but I didn’t relaunch CTG until October and wasn’t in the writing groove yet.

Anyway, while playing the game, I grew fascinated with the character “Isaac.” He is the commander of the “Washington Liberation Front” and a former Marine. I’m not going to get into the story, but you can watch the video above. He only appears in two cutscenes, although he is discussed at length in dialogue throughout the game. The scene above is the first of the two scenes, and the inspiration for this post.

What interests me about Isaac is his seeming resignation to his fate and the impossibility of his situation. It’s hard to tell, but he seems reluctant about everything he is doing. He is in command, but nothing he is doing is working. Truces, assaults, – they all fail. Yet he persists.

You initially find him seemingly torturing a captive for information. But Isaac himself seems tired of it.

“Don’t let him fall asleep.”

In the conversation with Abby, Isaac speaks with exhaustion, shoulders slouched. He has a plan and a way forward – he sees a path to victory – but he needs everyone on board. And everyone (Abby included) has their own personal issues that they need to take care of. Isaac knows his soldiers and knows he needs Abby to accomplish his mission. This is when he shows a little empathy to her and also appeals to her sense of duty to the team. 

“We need you.”

Just enough to get what he needs and keep the machine running.

That exhaustion and resignation coupled with an unrelenting dedication to accomplishing the mission strikes me because it’s something I’ve seen before. Commanders, good men and women, placed in impossible positions of leadership, trying to move heaven and earth to meet an objective. It’s a position that grinds you down and can make you do things you wouldn’t otherwise do – because of the mission.

I can’t tell, but the vibe I got from experiencing the game the first time was that Isaac was probably a good person. Before the outbreak, I imagine he was a good man. But this situation tore him down.

No grand discoveries here. Just an observation.

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