Fury over Medal of Honor game is off target

If the British defence secretary had played the game Medal of Honor himself, then he might have discovered that British troops do not feature in it.

Pep Montserrat for The National
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Britain's defence secretary, Dr Liam Fox, is no stranger to controversy, even if he seems oblivious to causing it in the first place - an unusual trait in a politician. His call this week for the banning of the latest version of the violent video game Medal of Honor which, in his words, "allows you to play the part of the Taliban and attack International Security Assistance Force troops in the area of central Helmand, where British troops are operating", predictably garnered more media coverage than the faltering western war effort in Afghanistan.

But this, as they say in Britain at that time of year when most politicians go on holiday, is the "Silly Season", so there would be a lot of attention given to the minister's musings, wouldn't there? Except that Dr Fox was being deadly serious. Responding to muted criticism that his intervention could be interpreted as verging on the hypocritical, Dr Fox stood by his comments. And offered more. "It is shocking," he said, "that someone would think it acceptable to recreate the acts of the Taliban against British soldiers, and hard to believe any citizen of our country would wish to buy such a thoroughly un-British game. I would urge retailers to show their support for our armed forces and ban this tasteless product."

In the same way that Dr Fox perhaps does not necessarily set out to cause controversy, it might also be unfair to claim that his outburst was deliberately engineered to play to the domestic gallery. I think he genuinely believes Medal of Honor to be grotesque and, looking at some of the clips from the game, I am inclined to agree with him. But Dr Fox might have been taken a little more seriously if he had watched the offending game himself. Then, he might have discovered that British troops do not feature in it.

Come to think of it, Dr Fox would have been taken a whole lot more seriously if he had made similar protests about another violent video game, Modern Warfare 2, released last year. This featured a cast of disposable characters including South American terrorists and others who can best be described as Iranian militiamen, the purpose of whom appeared to be to provide target practice for some very American-looking combat troops.

I know this because I discovered my 15-year-old son playing this game last week. In common, I suspect, with many parents, I do not like these games and usually know nothing about them until one suddenly intrudes. For years as parents, we tried to stop the import of these things into our home and tried to persuade our offspring that this sanitised version of warfare meant that the real thing was often viewed as some sort of glorified video game.

Clearly, we have failed, but I cannot recall Dr Fox or anyone else objecting to Modern Warfare 2. But then when I was growing up, I was a voracious reader of comics that depicted nasty Germans being despatched by brave British Tommies. Admittedly Victor comic was not nearly as graphic and realistic as today's video games. But unsurprisingly these comics, with their stereotypical depictions of Germans, eventually proved too much, especially as the Second World War had ended nearly half a century before.

A few Germans began to object, just as by now there must surely be a few Vietnamese growing tired of the 30-year-long Hollywood love-in with the Vietnam War - a war, incidentally, that America lost, a fact that rarely seems to illuminate the one-sided films that depict American valour. Dr Fox's objection appears to be that the (American) makers of Medal of Honor failed to nail their colours to the mast and do their patriotic duty. It is, it seems, perfectly acceptable to shoot Taliban fighters in video games, because this is precisely what Dr Fox - one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the Afghan war - has sent British soldiers to Helmand to do. It would not, of course, be acceptable to have as part of the game graphic images of "collateral damage" - the aftermath, say, of a stray bomb falling on an Afghan village - because that would depict allied forces as incompetent and callous.

I suspect that Dr Fox, and some of the other armchair generals who have committed British soldiers to an unwinnable war, would save their most florid objections for a warts-and-all documentary of the Afghan War, showing the real horrors of armed conflict. It is bad enough that British broadcasters show footage of the flag-covered coffins of British servicemen as they are returned home, because each time this happens yet more people ask why Britain is in Afghanistan in the first place.

At least the British allow the cameras to roll. In America, camera crews were banned from going anywhere near the funeral corteges of military personnel being returned from the Iraq War. George W Bush and his administration well understood the effect that similar images had had on the American public during the Vietnam War. Image, of course, is all. I well remember the suspicion with which Aljazeera was initially regarded in some quarters in America, because it dared to report not only from where the missiles were launched, but also from where they landed.

When I arrived in New York as the channel's first United Nations correspondent, I was challenged by US Homeland Security and asked if Al Jazeera was "a terrorist channel". Many, both in America and Britain, appeared to view those of us who had signed up to work for Al Jazeera as some sort of fifth columnists. Only later did I discover that during the Iraq War, the then British home secretary, David Blunkett, had argued in Cabinet for the "taking out of the Aljazeera transmitter" in Doha. Had that happened on the day I was there, the British government would also have taken out the US Commander of CentCom, who was in the building for an Al Jazeera interview.

I later wrote to Mr Blunkett, pointing out that my own Al Jazeera office was situated in Times Square in New York should the government wish to launch a missile attack against us. Back in May, Dr Fox described Afghanistan as "a broken 13th-century country" and made clear that Britain was there for purely domestic - and, some might say, entirely selfish - reasons. Terrorism had to be defeated in Afghanistan to ensure Britain's own safety.

Following a barrage of criticism from the embattled President Karzai, Dr Fox qualified his remarks by saying that the "broken 13th-century" bits of the country were those controlled by the Taliban. But his remarks had given a pretty clear sense of his priorities. This man is no bleeding-heart liberal. Talk to real military men, as opposed to "here today, gone tomorrow" politicians - military men such as my father, who served in the British army, and many like him - and you will get a rather different view.

For many of them, a grotesque video game that blunts the senses and dulls one's humanity is something of a side issue. Many of them were never persuaded to begin with, by either the Afghan campaign or the Iraq invasion. Military minds, as opposed to political minds, will see merit in military action only when there is a very tangible domestic threat, when there are clearly defined targets and timetables, and victory is achievable.

By and large, military people have experienced the full horror of war at first hand, unlike today's western political class, most of whom would not know one end of a rifle from another. As a result, their reflex is to avoid committing to warfare whenever humanly possible. Does Dr Fox rail against the evils of real warfare? No, he doesn't. Does he at least argue that all violent video games that depict war as bloody entertainment should be banned? No, he doesn't do that either.

His intervention, therefore, appears to serve only two possible purposes: one, to further entrench a belief in the Middle East that the British government is interested only in looking after its own interests, using force wherever necessary; and two, to dramatically boost sales of a depressingly brutal video game. Mark Seddon is a writer and broadcaster and former UN correspondent for Al Jazeera.