A US Veteran’s Perspective On The Problems With Six Days In Fallujah

Last week, Highwire Games and Victura announced that Six Days in Fallujah had been resurrected from its cancellation back in 2009. For those unacquainted with the game, it was originally marketed as a tactical shooter set during the Second Battle for Fallujah, which took place during the Iraq War in 2004.

Since the game was reannounced, Victura CEO Peter Tamte has gone on the record to say that Six Days in Fallujah isn’t interested in politics. The developer has also stated that it heard testimonials from over 100 people who were involved in the war, including US marines, Iraqi insurgents, and Iraqi civilians, although the exact split between these demographics – as well as the depth and veracity of the stories heard – hasn’t been made clear.

In order to learn more about this, we sat down with US military veteran John Phipps to discuss the context of a game like Six Days in Fallujah using a real war as its source material. Phipps was in Iraq in 2004, and fought during the Second Battle for Fallujah that the game is based on.

Phipps explains that the original pitch for Six Days in Fallujah back in 2006 was to deliver a realistic wartime experience – a means of transporting you to the battlefield and providing you with an idea of what it was like to be there. In his eyes, this is an intriguing premise, but it’s ultimately pointless – a “realistic war experience” isn’t something that can just be captured in a video game.

Right off the bat, Phipps expresses concern about statements that the CEO in charge of Six Days in Fallujah made in recent interviews with Polygon and GIBiz.

“What’s interesting is that on the official website for the game it says we’re going to show you the Iraq war through the lens of soldiers, marines, but also an armed Iraqi civilian,” Phipps says. “Which I thought was intriguing, right, because you can’t really tell the story of the Iraq War without telling the stories of the civilians who were there. But in the interview with GIBiz, he flat out stated nobody cares about the life of an Iraqi civilian. I’m paraphrasing but that’s almost exactly what he said. He said nobody’s gonna play that game, but people do want to experience what it’s like to be in combat. That struck me as incredibly callous.”

The exact quote, taken verbatim from the interview, reads, “Very few people are curious what it’s like to be an Iraqi civilian. Nobody’s going to play that game. But people are curious what it’s like to be in combat.” Phipps is correct.

“Speaking as somebody who was in Fallujah in 2004, this was an illegal war to start with,” Phipps explains. “We never should have been there. There were a lot of heinous atrocities committed, especially in Fallujah. That’s not to say that all troops are war criminals, I don’t believe that for a second. Most of the people I was there with were genuinely decent people who wanted to try to do right by people. But that’s not to say that there weren’t acts of completely hideous atrocities there, because there were. War crimes were committed by US soldiers and a lot of Iraqi civilians died, who didn’t need to die. Their deaths were completely avoidable and completely meaningless because we should never have been there. And so to say that, “Oh, who cares about an Iraqi civilian’s perspective on the Iraq War” – I mean, it’s their fucking country. You should want to portray that. Nobody cares? Make them care. If you are so dead set on making this game, make them care.”

Tamte has explicitly stated that Six Days in Fallujah is not being written to convey a political statement. He’s also said, “I don’t think we need to portray the atrocities.” In Phipps’ eyes, a reluctance to discuss the politics and atrocities of the Iraq War is a reluctance to focus on the reality of what transpired during it.

“War is inherently political,” he explains. “So to say you’re going to make an apolitical video game about war is nonsense. Show me a war that wasn’t started because of politics. You can’t. War is politics. It’s just a different form of politics.”

Phipps goes on to explain that the concept of transporting people to the battlefield for a realistic wartime experience is “presumptuous, insulting, and wholly unrealistic.

“Because my experience of war was screams, and people crying, and a lot of people getting shot. People getting killed, people I know getting eviscerated 30 feet away from me. Going to sleep every night wondering if I would wake up in the morning because you’re sleeping in an area with no cover and direct fire can come raining down at any time, which it often did. It’s years of PTSD, and physical therapy, and mental health therapy. Broken families, bereaved mothers. People who have lost husbands, wives, sons, daughters, cousins, brothers, sisters.

“The experience of being at war doesn’t end with the battlefield. 15 years later there are still things I think about, like all the Iraqi interpreters we made grand promises to – ‘Work for us and we’ll get you US citizenship.’ We abandoned a lot of those guys. We have had so many stories about the US military told in this medium. When are we going to tell the stories of the other people who were involved in the war, namely the civilians who were caught in the middle? It all goes back to politics.

“You say, ‘Well, we don’t want to talk about how the politics of the war started.’ But when we went there, we disbanded the Iraqi Army and created the insurgency ourselves. The majority of the insurgency were not religious extremists, they were soldiers who had just lost their jobs to an invading army. No shit they were going to fight us. What did anybody expect?”

Phipps says that he isn’t going to explicitly state whether Six Days in Fallujah should or shouldn’t be made. However, he also notes that he doesn’t believe anybody should have any confidence that this story is going to be told properly. “Just as they have the right to make the game they want to make, guys like me have the right to speak up and say, ‘Well this is bullshit and here’s why’.”

It’s worth noting that Phipps doesn’t think that this is an issue exclusive to video games – it’s a problem that can be seen in the entertainment medium as a whole. In his eyes, one of the main reasons as to why these stories aren’t handled well is because of an industry-wide reluctance to cast groups of US soldiers as the bad guys.

“But there were many instances in Iraq where we were,” Phipps says. “We were an antagonizing invading force. There are absolutely stories of individual heroism and self-sacrifice you can tell on the part of the US military, I’ve seen them in real life. Instances of true bravery, valor, and concern for your brothers and sisters on the battlefield, and also for Iraqi civilians.

“The thing is, [in] the US military, none of this stuff is shared with you. For example, going into Iraq, all the US military knows is that we have intelligence saying Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction. The military-industrial complex is the problem here.”

This is important – Phipps isn’t saying that the accounts of US soldiers exhibiting concern or displaying bravery are invalid. He’s simply stating that this only paints a fraction of the larger picture in more ways than one.

“You also need to be telling the stories of the Iraqi civilians who were just trying to survive and who were fighting back against an invading force,” he explains. “And if that means casting some US military units as the bad guy in a video game then so fucking be it. That’s life. It’s something that happened. If somebody were to invade the US tomorrow, we’d all pick up a weapon and fight.

“In that case, we are the Iraqi civilians – somebody has come into our country. It doesn’t make the entire insurgency evil. A lot of those people – all they knew about the situation was that a foreign army had come to their soil. Tell those stories.”

The reluctance to give Iraqi civilians equal focus is harmful for more reasons than one. With the current state of the video game industry, it’s important to also draw attention to the fact that publicly claiming your game is “apolitical” tends to attract a certain audience. Phipps thinks that the language Highwire has used to promote Six Days in Fallujah so far has been specifically couched for said audience.

“I’m saying this without having played the game,” Phipps says. “What I will say is that I think, depending on how the Iraqis are portrayed, there’s a real danger of furthering the stereotypes of ‘Arabs bad, brown people bad, the enemy, everybody’s a religious extremist’ when that’s just far from the truth. I think the whole project is ill-advised. I definitely think that for the crowd this game seems to be marketed to, it has the potential to be one big instance of confirmation bias for that crowd, who view Middle Eastern people, Arabs, and Muslims as terrorists and enemies to be destroyed. Again, I am saying that without having played the game. But based on what I’ve seen so far and what has been said from the developers, I don’t trust them to portray this the way that they need to. I really, really don’t. And I don’t think anybody should blame me for feeling that way.”

Phipps cites The Last of Us Part 2 as a game that successfully captured the kind of stories he’s talking about here, blurring the lines between heroism and villainy. In his opinion, there’s an opportunity for telling a similar story in a game like Six Days in Fallujah, where equal weight is attached to the perspective of each side. At the same time, he doesn’t believe that history is a subject video games should be tackling.

“If you want a history lesson, go to school,” Phipps says. “Open a book. Video games are absolutely an art form but they are meant to tell stories. They are not meant to actually educate you. There is no video game on earth that can educate you as to what it was like to be in Fallujah in 2004. There never was and there never will be. I think this is gonna blow up in their faces. I really do.

“At the end of the day, I think this is gonna be another Call of Duty clone that tries way too hard to tell a story that just isn’t complete. I don’t think there’s gonna be anything particularly special [about it] other than how offensive it is to the truth of the Iraq War. If you really wanna tell this story you need to give the Iraqi civilians equal time. We both know that’s not gonna happen.”

Phipps also tells me that he has “a ton of veteran friends,” and that he “doesn’t know a single one of them who thinks this is a good idea.”

Most of all, this is because, in his eyes, the Iraq War was not black and white. Phipps states that there was good and evil on both sides and you can’t just brush that off, especially given that this was an illegal and completely unnecessary war.

“You can’t just say, ‘Well, we’re not going to get into how the war started’ because that is the entire story of the Iraq War,” Phipps says. “That is the reason that things got as bad as they did. Because we didn’t need to be there and the Iraqi people rose up against a foreign invader. That’s not something you can blame them for. Yes, we fought them, I fought them – but I was over there getting shot at. I wish I’d never been there, but I was. If you’re gonna try to tell an accurate story about the Iraq War – specifically the Second Battle for Fallujah, which is what this game covers – then you need to talk about the fear, the regret of US soldiers there. Most of us didn’t wanna be there at all.

“You need to talk about Iraqi civilians losing their homes, their families, their children, and the anger that they feel as they pick up a weapon and fight the only physical manifestation of their grief they can, which was us. You have to be willing to portray the US military in a negative light. And that’s OK. It’s OK to do that. This fear that the industry has – and again, it’s not just [the games] industry, it’s the entertainment industry in general. This fear we have of portraying US troops as the bad guys, or doing wrong, or being less than virtuous is ridiculous. People are virtuous and moral and just – organizations aren’t. Organizations are a reflection of the people that make them up and the US military is a melting pot of good people and bad people, just like society. It’s no different. So of course you’re gonna have good apples and you’re gonna have bad apples. It’s great to focus on the good apples, but you also need to focus on the bad apples because a lot of heinous shit was committed by US troops in Iraq and it directly shaped what happened on the battlefield. If you don’t tell those stories, you’re only telling about 25% of what actually happened in Fallujah.”

Phipps obviously recognizes the existence of other shooters, but explains that Call of Duty is more known for its multiplayer than campaign. He doesn’t trust Treyarch to tell him an epic, touching war story, and it never has.

“Call of Duty is very upfront with you about what it is and what it’s trying to do,” Phipps says. “There’s nothing wrong with that. This, however, seems incredibly and intentionally disingenuous to somebody like me.”

To Phipps, the closest a game has come to actually capturing the horrors of war was Spec Ops: The Line, which did not explicitly detach itself from politics or claim to represent a realistic wartime experience.

“For example, their depiction of white phosphorus as something that is not only a weapon that’s a violation of the Geneva Code, but also something that is just a horrible way to die,” Phipps says. “It melts you. It not only depicted the effects of white phosphorus on the human body, but the psychological effects it has on the people in the area and the soldiers who are in the opposing part of the military using it, and the scars it leaves on your mental state. I think Spec Ops: The Line is a game that tried its best and was successful in getting that point across on multiple fronts. Obviously, it’s still not going to replicate the experience of being on a battlefield – the only way you’re gonna get that is to go join the military and make your way to a battlefield. But as far as the entertainment medium goes, Spec Ops: The Line is the closest it’s come.”

When I asked Phipps for a closing message, something that everyone who is looking for context about what this game represents should know, here’s what he had to say:

“Understand that there’s almost never any kind of black and white in war these days. In terms of the Iraq War, there were crimes committed on both sides. But none of this would have happened if we hadn’t gone in the first place. So people can be as nationalistic and flag-waving as they want. That’s great.

“But at the end of the day, people are going to square with the fact that Iraq was our fault. All the US soldiers who died there, it was our fault. All the Iraqi civilians who died there, it was our fault. All the chaos that has been sewn throughout that country since 2003 is our fault. It’s all our fault. We were the bad guys. And the sooner we accept that, the sooner we can start to heal. We still have not apologized to Iraqi civilians for what we inflicted on them, and we really need to. The US government needs to formally apologize to the Iraqi civilians for all of the men, women and children who are dead for no reason, who should be alive right now. If you take nothing else away from this, bear in mind that all of this is 100% our fault.”

Next: Firewatch’s Composer Says The Soundtrack Was Designed To Represent The Player’s Smallness

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Cian Maher is the Lead Features Editor at TheGamer. He’s also had work published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Verge, Vice, Wired, and more. You can find him on Twitter @cianmaher0.

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