Living It

Andrew O’Hagan

  • Crossfire by Andy McNab
    Bantam, 414 pp, £17.99, October 2007, ISBN 978 1 84413 535 6
  • Strike Back by Chris Ryan
    Century, 314 pp, £17.99, October 2007, ISBN 978 1 84413 535 6

If you want to know what is happening in the mind of the average teenage boy you must follow the action of his thumbs, because the eager digits that might once have flicked through the pages of Hotspur or Penthouse are now more likely to be employed in a fight against universal evil in one of its modern guises. Last year saw the greatest ever increase in sales of computer games, to the point where the world’s biggest titles – Halo 3, for example – reliably bring in more cash than most blockbuster movies. In small bedrooms throughout the Western world, boys in woolly hats and Nike trainers are currently tackling the most intractable problems of the day, and it seems their arsenals are unlimited and their thumbs tireless.

Boys will be boys, and men will be boys too, but it’s arguable that both the skill and the ideology of the modern Western soldier have been, shall we say, sharpened by years of frenetic and dedicated service in the box bedroom. Halo is basically the story of a super-soldier who is fighting a theocratic nightmare called the Covenant, with the person at the video console, if he is skilful enough, framed as the ‘first person shooter’. Here’s how the game’s manufacturers describe the story:

Humanity has long been at war with the terrifying alien civilisation that collectively calls itself the Covenant. This monstrous conglomerate of warlike species sees Humanity as a form of heresy against their religion – a faith based on the single-minded belief that a Great Journey awaits its faithful … The horror is the Flood, a sentient all-consuming parasite that makes monstrous puppets of those it kills. The Flood will not stop until every last thinking creature is absorbed into its ferociously intelligent plan … even with our newfound allies, the Elites, and their valiant and honourable leader, the Arbiter, we are still hopelessly outnumbered and at the mercy of the will of the Prophets, and the single-minded force of the Flood. With time running out, all hopes for the Galaxy now lie in the hands of one soldier, Spartan 117 – the Master Chief.

Five hundred million games of Halo 2 were played online, and $170 million worth of Halo 3 was sold in the first 24 hours after its release. The ‘Covenant’? The ‘Great Journey’? The ‘faithful’? The ‘Flood’? The ‘Prophets’? This sort of thing is de rigueur, adding an evangelical thrill to the marriage of technology and annihilation that the console generation loves. Assassin’s Creed is set in the Holy Land during the time of the Third Crusade, and Ubisoft, its publisher, says it ‘merges technology, game design, theme and emotions into a world where you instigate chaos and become a vulnerable, yet powerful agent of change’.

Any worries about what Ubisoft called ‘theme’ could turn hysterical if one shifted too quickly from Assassin’s Creed to Eternal Forces (based on Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’s Left Behind series of books), a game set in New York in which the Antichrist attempts to achieve world hegemony. The game has proved popular with a generation trained – one way or another – in the mental rigours of holy war, and the enemy is a UN-style organisation bent on global peace. The Tribulation Force must use massive firepower to destroy the Armageddon-loving forces of darkness, some of which have Muslim names. One critic of the Christian fiction on which the game is based, the dean of a seminary, criticised it for representing an awful will to power on the part of man, ‘putting Evangelical Christians in the heroic role of God’s Green Berets’.

The puzzle of what these games do to – or reflect in – the mental habits of their young players has been a subject of fearsome debate in several American universities and in several British courts. Researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia have devised something they call P300 Response, a way of measuring the emotional impact of what players see. The researchers concluded that real-life violence troubled the players of these games much less than other children. Players who routinely blew up bodies and destroyed villages onscreen had lower P300 levels and were also more likely than others to exert maximum force and express minimum remorse when killing video opponents. University of Michigan researchers, concluding a lengthy study co-funded by the US Centre for Disease Control, say their work ‘clearly shows that exposure to virtual violence increases the risk that children and adults will behave aggressively’. The manufacturers deny this and so do many of the players.

British censors have just launched an appeal against a ruling that would allow the game Manhunt 2 to be released in Britain. The game lets players direct the progress of an asylum inmate with a split personality. You can choose to ‘be’ either ‘Danny’ or ‘Leo’: Leo is a psychotic killer, an expert in ‘combat, evasion, infiltration and assassination techniques’. Manhunt 2 was initially banned by the British Board of Film Classifications and then rescued by the Video Appeals Committee. The BBFC have now taken the matter to the High Court and the case is due to conclude before the end of January. The parents of a Leicester teenager, Stefan Pakeerah, murdered four years ago by his 17-year-old friend Warren Leblanc, allege that the Manhunt game influenced the killing.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow.

It may be the density of the shadow that fills today’s computer nerds with a thrilling dread. But it also fills them with a kind of experience, and one has to look at the boys and men of the modern military to see where the story begins its descent towards an ending. Many of the British and American forces now deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan grew up on computer games and their understanding of their mission, their power, their enemy and their equipment may be highly coloured by the virtual lives they have lived and the vivid, hardened sense of worlds changed and prisoners not taken. If you ask them, a great many young servicemen feel they are performing a duty of civilisation, an idea they did not learn simply by glancing over the adjacent shoulders of Bush and Blair.

The Marines of the First Recon Battalion were the first generation of American soldiers launched into open-ended conflict since Vietnam, and Generation Kill, an account published in 2004 by the Rolling Stone journalist Evan Wright of the battalion’s efforts to provide heroes during the blitzing of Iraq the previous year, gives a startling picture of tough young men up to their eyeballs in fantasy. ‘They were a new breed of warrior unrecognisable to their forebears,’ Wright says. ‘Soldiers raised on hip hop, internet porn and video games, a disparate band of born-again Christians, dopers, Buddhists and New Agers who gleaned their precepts from kung fu movies and Oprah Winfrey.’ Wright introduces us to a cast that includes Corporal Harold James Trombley, a 19-year-old who sits in the back of a Humvee ‘waiting all day for permission to fire his machine gun’. And when he does fire, the thrill of the fight represents a kind of ecstasy for him. Wright reports that ‘every time’ Trombley ‘gets a possible kill, he yells: “I got one, Sergeant!” Sometimes he adds details: “Hajji in the alley. Zipped him low. I see his knee explode!”’ By the end,

Trombley is beside himself. ‘I was just thinking one thing when we drove into that ambush,’ he enthuses. ‘Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. [Grand Theft Auto is an ultra-popular video game.] I felt like I was living it when I seen the flames coming out of the windows, the blown-up car in the street, guys crawling around shooting at us. It was fucking cool.’

A quiet revolution appears to have taken place – quiet because of headphones, perhaps – in the Jerry Springer generation’s attitude to violence and death. In the suburbs, the militarisation of domestic life is such that many enlisted soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan see their job as an adventure, a natural extension of their adrenal leisure. In Wright’s book, Lieutenant Fick,

a Dartmouth graduate who joined the Marines in a fit of idealism, shakes his head, grinning. ‘I’ll say one thing about these guys,’ he says. ‘When we take fire, not one of them hesitates to shoot back. In World War Two, when Marines hit the beaches, a surprisingly high percentage of them didn’t fire their weapons, even when faced with direct enemy contact. They hesitated. Not these guys. Did you see what they did to that town? They fucking destroyed it. These guys have no problem with killing.’

The problem with having no problem is that caution isn’t seen as anything other than cowardice, a rude philosophy that may have reached its zenith in the novels of Andy McNab. To say that this former SAS man’s view of the world is unhinged is only to observe that it constitutes an entirely accurate representation of the world as seen by many decorated soldiers. That is the reason men who don’t ordinarily read have come in great numbers to love the insiderish bravado of McNab and Chris Ryan. Their books are driven by stereotype and cartoon violence, by idiocy, prejudice and unreality, which is why they are inadvertent masterpieces of social realism, for in their garish video-game manners they enclose their subject. McNab and Ryan fully meet the present culture’s demand for the seemingly real, though it’s a reality centred on complete fantasy. Like Method actors, they have done their stint in the realm of the actual, have tasted the fare of which they speak, being former soldiers, decorated men who write under aliases. Who knows how many of the sentences in their books were actually generated by them, but that is not the kind of authenticity that matters in this kind of authorship. Each writer has been embedded with the fantastical elements of modern war – they have lived the virtual lives they write about – and that makes them the right kind of war novelist for this kind of generation. The only thing that could kill their books – reduce their relevance, vanish their massive audience – would be to make them better written. Their lousiness is their genius.

People have always liked a soldier who dreams of his typewriter. Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon are a staple of the National Curriculum, and Evelyn Waugh saw the possibility of comedy in the matter before anybody else, his William Boot a writer keen to make the rat-tat-tat of his typewriter fall into sync with the sound of gunfire over the hill. In America, a season in France or a period in the foothills of Spain was once thought to be a rite of passage for a first-rate writer of prose, and after the Second World War, every male contender – William Styron, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, James Jones, Joseph Heller – had done some service and wanted to write literary masterpieces filled with the perfumes of combat.[*] It is only in more recent times that the task of writing novels about battle has fallen chiefly to bad writers. It might describe changes in our habits, our needs, or in the nature of war itself, but writing about combat is now the province of people who adore the violence they capture.

If you’re in a novel by Andy McNab, you don’t have hair you have a barnet. You don’t eat dinner you stuff your face. You don’t visit the loo you take a slash. You don’t go to bed you get your head down. You don’t speak rot you talk bollocks. Things are not broken they are knackered, and into every life a rain of bullets must fall. The authorly persona lives in a world where everybody who isn’t his main protagonist is a tosser – especially writers, one imagines – and his warrior is always battleworn and often down on his luck at the start of the book. He knows things that nobody else can guess at and soon finds himself involved in a mission impossible. There is a single individual he loves, possibly a daughter, and he hates toffs – or ‘Ruperts’ as Chris Ryan calls them.

The average McNab guy will have seen things that are the stuff of nightmares, possibly in Northern Ireland; he will live in a desert storm of acronyms; he will speak pornographically about guns, rifles, rockets and weapons systems; he will deploy a freely offensive shorthand about everybody from the ‘Muj’ – the Mujahideen – to rag-headed Iraqi insurgents, knocking off a few corrupt Russians, useless journalists, greasy Serbs and ‘sound as a pound’ Scousers along the way. Sentimentality is the enhanced body armour of the British squaddie – it brings a tear to his eye to consider how we are all, in the end, just tossers together – and having a low opinion of yourself (while blowing people away) is considered a healthy aspect of the soldiering life. All the delusion is left to the top brass and the media, while the McNabian is wise in the real ways of the world as he chomps down on his shit sandwich. ‘Maybe that was why I’d never found it hard to get on with Africans, Arabs, squaddies, whoever,’ Nick Stone says in Crossfire. ‘They soon discovered I was like them – waist deep in the shit-pit and happy to get my head up enough to take a few breaths occasionally before I got pushed back down.’

Crossfire features a television reporter who is kidnapped in Kabul and may be beheaded online. Ryan’s new book, Strike Back, features a television reporter who is kidnapped in Beirut and may be beheaded online. The world of difference initially suggested by Ryan’s hapless victim being female is dispelled when you consider his book’s rugged hero, a McNabian squarehead called John Porter, former SAS man and now broken-backed vodka-guzzler under the arches of Vauxhall. All these men have a chance to thwart the Ruperts by fixing – via immense personal courage and a lot of guns and knives – the unfixable, getting in and out of foreign situations with an orange-flamed dexterity that would leave the characters in most video games gasping for extra battery power. And yet, along the way, these dreadful fictions are triumphant in catching the logic and the rhetoric of modern conflict. It’s as if one had discovered in 1942 that Bambi told you everything you needed to know about the reality of the Nazi threat. (What, are you denying it?) Here’s Crossfire’s burly sentimentalist Nick Stone looking at some pictures:

I opened the folder to see half a dozen colour eight-by-tens of a young Arab, maybe early twenties, sitting on wet concrete. He was held upright by a pair of over-inflated forearms … I flicked through the pictures with no idea if the man was dead or alive. His body was a mess of cuts, bruises and burns. His face was so swollen his eyes were forced closed and his lips were like plastic surgery gone wrong.

‘They were taken in Afghanistan,’ [says ‘The Yes Man’, Stone’s boss]. ‘An illegal prison. Freelance bounty-hunters, normally torturing their victims for information about the Taliban and al-Qaida.’

I shrugged. ‘There’s a lot of those guys about over there. It’s the new Wild West. Bad things are going to happen.’

‘Condratowicz [the captured journalist] was in Kabul at the time, ostensibly filming a documentary. I have to ask myself whether there’s more to that than meets the eye.’

One of the pictures was a wider shot of the room or cell. The door had a sheet of steel screwed over it and a jailer’s spyhole. The last one showed a tabletop with the legs removed, bolted to an oil drum. It looked like an oversized see-saw, but I knew this was no game. Two buckets of water stood next to it. A tap stuck out of the wall. A fat roll of clingfilm sat on a pile of empty hessian sandbags.

So there you have it. McNab’s fearlessly poor and clichéd thriller, while working itself up to a pornography of virtual violence, manages, nevertheless, to do something that no novel by a literary writer on either side of the Atlantic has so far managed: he describes waterboarding, a government-sanctioned torture, and he does so in a way that will leave no reader uncertain about what it means. Elsewhere, in the same scarred prose, he captures a truth about insurgents high on heroin; he reports on the mercenary power of private security firms; he refers to the kinds of deal that were done to promote peace in Northern Ireland. One creeps through many forests of childishness to reach the news, but it is there, dangling from the crooked boughs of McNab’s tortuous plot, and it embodies a few truths about our times.

Ryan’s hero is bound on the same wheel of fire, but his books are better written. Don’t shred your Tolstoy just yet, but Ryan is a less filmic and more novelistic writer, venturing to bring a touch of mental weather to the prose. Here’s Porter, the novel’s belligerent and bloodthirsty hater of wankers, making his way to a Lebanese town to meet (and hopefully destroy) an old enemy from his days in the SAS fighting Hizbullah. The man he is meeting is the guy who is holding the pretty journalist. He says they will behead her unless British troops are withdrawn from Iraq.

The Volvo swung left, down a slip road that took them into Sidon. It wasn’t much of a place, Porter noted. It was mid-afternoon now, and the skies were still grey and overcast, with just a few rays of sunshine breaking through just a mile or so out to sea. Although it nestled into a snug cove on the Mediterranean shoreline, there was nothing picturesque or charming about the town. No point trying to get this place into one of the travel supplements in the Sunday papers, thought Porter. Too many armies had marched through it for that … You could also see the damage to the quayside where the shells must have landed. Many of the traditional houses had been destroyed, their place taken by hastily built concrete shacks. Some of the roads had been broken up into rubble by the shelling, and nobody yet had the money or the inclination to fix them. Maybe they don’t reckon there’s any point, thought Porter. The next war will be along in a minute. There’s no point in making things easier for the Israeli tanks.

Ryan doesn’t make his readers go on long with this farewell to arms stuff: within pages we’re back into mortal combat. As with the computer games loved by many of his readers, and adored by many modern soldiers, these storylines are dependent on a bustle of verbs that lead in every instance to blood and explosions, desperate screams and increasing levels of difficulty: it is never long before we find things and people being zapped, fried, crunched, toasted and skewered, as the bad deeds of the world are comprehensively avenged.

Game over. Except not quite. Vengeance is a long march, beginning perhaps with children who enjoy the private spectacle of imagining themselves more hawkish than their parents. But it may be that September 11 brought those families together, teaching 1960s liberal parents how to go from carpet slippers to carpet bombing, joining at last in the mysterious lives of their beloved sons, those battle-hungry leaders of the world upstairs. President Bush visited a Texas rehabilitation centre early last November, where he spent time playing video games with two young veterans wounded in Iraq. The president is known to have said nothing to the boys about his experience of the draft, but he enjoyed the game, which offered the chance to join in a simulated firefight in Baghdad. The White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said later the president had been pleased to see several ‘cutting-edge virtual reality games’, the kind that are being used in these rehabilitation centres to help badly wounded soldiers recover from their experience.

[*] This may constitute one of the best arguments for conscription. Unlike McNab and Co, who wanted to fight, a previous generation of writers on war were simply called up. And this may explain the very different attitude to combat: for all the brilliance of the Sword of Honour trilogy, one never loses sight of the fact that Waugh was a man apart. Conscription brings people into the theatre of war who don’t strictly belong there, which is perhaps good news for war writing if bad news for esprit de corps.