[WARNING: This post contains spoilers for all four of the things mentioned in the title.]

About five years ago, I read Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness.  Then, last year, I played Spec Ops: The Line and Far Cry 2, which are based in part on that book.  And then, yesterday, I watched Apocalypse Now, the 1979 movie also based on that book, and which influenced both of those games.

As you may know, it has long been my contention that video games are an art form on a par with books and film.  And of these four works, it is my belief that one of the games–Spec Ops–is the best.  That said, it is also the most recent, and it uses the expectations built by the preceding tales to weave its narrative.

To begin with, I didn’t really like Conrad’s novella that much.  It wasn’t awful, but I didn’t see what was so great about it.  So there’s this guy, Kurtz; and this other guy Marlow, has been sent to find him in the Congo.  But, turns out, he’s gone nuts and is dying.  And the reason this happened to Kurtz is because being in the Congo was brutal, and he couldn’t take it.

It was never clear to me what the point was.  I guess it was that it was no fun being in the ivory business in the Congo, and that colonialism was awful, both for the colonized and the colonizers.  Well, yes–and I suppose that was more of a shocker in the era when “colonialism” was not a dirty word–but I didn’t really see any major moral depth to it.

Apocalypse Now is an adaptation of the story, set in the Vietnam War, in which Marlow is named “Willard” and has been sent by the U.S. military to assassinate Col. Kurtz who has gone mad.  And so he does.

A big problem I had with the movie was that it is really thin.  In the first 10 minutes, we are told that Kurtz is insane and ruling over a bunch of the natives.  And then, two hours later, we meet Kurtz and find out that, sure enough, he really is insane and ruling over a bunch of the natives. There is a strong implication along the way that the Vietnam war generally is also insane, but that wasn’t much of a revelation to me.

(Aside–the theme of “War Is Insane, And Makes Everyone In It Insane” was done much better, in my opinion, in the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai.  It ends with the line “Madness, madness”, which would have fit Apocalypse Now as well.)

Kurtz has no character development. Neither does Willard, really: he starts off as a battle-hardened, PTSD soldier and finishes it as an even more battle-hardened PTSD solider. I guess his crew-mates on his boat are supposed to show the ravages of war taking their toll, but they all had “doomed” written all over them from scene one.

I read on Wikipedia that they considered a different ending, where Willard joins Kurtz and fights off an airstrike on the base.  While seemingly impossible logically, that ending would make more sense thematically.  Personally, I would have liked to see an ending where Kilgore showed up and destroyed Kurtz’s base.  It would at least justify why they spend so much time on his character early in the movie.

(Another aside: Wikipedia also says that “Coppola decided that the ending could be “‘the classic myth of the murderer who gets up the river, kills the king, and then himself becomes the king — it’s the Fisher King, from The Golden Bough'”.  For the record–this is the version of the story I remembered, not the one in the 1991 movie of the same name I wrote about a few months ago. But that’s mythology for you.)

(Last aside: this post has too many asides.  One of them should be removed.)

I already wrote about Far Cry 2 in this post pretty thoroughly, so I won’t dwell on it overmuch.  The short version is that it, like Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now before it, is well done, but empty. Although, I suppose it does sort of do what I criticized Apocalypse for not doing, in that there is some vague hint of character development in the sense that the player’s character is being sent to eliminate the Jackal in the beginning and winds up siding with him at the end.

To recap, in Heart of Darkness, we have this guy Kurtz.  Nobody is quite sure what his deal is, and we gradually find out that he went crazy in the jungle because everything was brutal.  Then, in  Apocalypse Now, we have this guy Kurtz who everybody thinks went crazy in the jungle because everything was so brutal–and indeed, so he did.  And then in Far Cry 2, we have this guy the Jackal, who goes crazy in the jungle because everything is so brutal.

Now, you will immediately see where Spec Ops is really different–here we have this guy Konrad.  And nobody is quite sure what Konrad’s deal is… and he’s in a desert!

Just kidding, that’s not the difference.


Well, we heard the big guns roar behind the battle line;

Every member of the Corps, by our officer’s design,

Affixed his bayonet to his trusty laser gun.

The order, as of yet, had not come to anyone,

But we knew we’d have to charge at the foemen’s barricade,

So, in battle armor large, in a phalanx we arrayed.

Our satellites looked down at the enemy’s artillery

Which was set up in a town that our cavalry would pillory.

The UAV’s report went directly to the Colonel

(Who was resting in the Fort, with an injury internal)

The plan that he devised had been centuries rehearsed,

It would have been recognized by Napoleon the First.

But for every gee-whiz gadget, and with all of our  technology—

The upper management has yet to send us an apology.

The strategies they made were completely obsolete

And so our whole brigade met a horrible defeat.

All our battle droids broke ranks, and we knew our fate was sealed–

So we took our hover tanks and retired from the field.


This game stunned me.  I had heard rumors that it was “more intelligent than your typical shooting game”, and that it was based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I figured “oh, great, another game trying to prove how intelligent it is by stealing from other media.”

It is influenced by Conrad,  that’s for sure.  But it’s more than that.  If you’re a fan of military action games, then you need to play this game.  It’s best if you go in knowing as little as possible about it, so if you haven’t played it but think you want to, I advise you to stop reading this now and go play it.


I’ve been sort of following the news about the re-enactments of the battle of Gettysburg that are being held for the 150th anniversary of the battle.

Re-enactors provide a valuable service to those interested in history, no doubt, but I can’t help feeling they just can’t imitate the feeling of urgency which the real battle must have had.  I imagine it was much more frenetic on that day 150 years ago when Pickett’s men charged across the field.

It’s easy to see now that tactics like that, tactics that led Prussian Field Marshal von Moltke to dismiss the Civil War as simply “armed mobs”, were disastrous and borderline insane.  But then, people who were tired and starving and under fire can hardly have been thinking clearly when making these decisions.

(Aside: in the CBS video above, isn’t it ironic that Professor Goodwin and that reporter talk about how Lincoln’s speech was what made the place matter, when in the address itself President Lincoln said: “the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; while it can never forget what they did here”?)

I went to Gettysburg years ago, and I do remember that it was an eerily peaceful place.  Like it had seen enough violence for all its existence, and was exhausted.

It’s also fitting that what was effectively the deciding battle in a war that redefined the United States and ended the institution of slavery that had been such a terrible stain on  the country from its birth, ended right before Independence Day.  As so many others have noted, there’s something poetic about it.

I did something new yesterday.  I watched almost all of an episode of a “reality TV” show.  I’ve really never watched any in the past–save for a few minutes of a “Wipeout” course that looked kind of neat–because “reality TV” shows strike me as stupid, which is a little unfair to think given that I’ve never seen one, but I have seen commercials for them during football games and they don’t look very interesting.

But it transpired I had some time to waste, and there was nothing on PBS that I hadn’t seen, and so I flipped over to the show “Stars Earn Stripes” on NBC.  If you haven’t seen it, it’s a show in which various celebrities run missions “based on” military training exercises.  The only celebrity on it who I had heard of before was Sarah Palin’s husband, so I’m not sure they’re actually “stars”.

I think the words “based on” are highly significant here.  I have never served in the military, but I am highly skeptical of whether they would have a training exercise like the one on last night’s episode, where the contestants had to shoot (with a pistol) at stationary, dinner-plate sized targets on the ground from a parked humvee. Seems pointless, unless they are expecting to fight a ground war against an army of dinner plates. If any veterans read this and have seen the show, I’d love to hear from them about it.

Their was also some sort of “elimination round” between two of the contestants.  It seemed more realistic, in that it was some kind of competition to clear a confined area of targets.  It looked like shows I’ve seen on S.W.A.T. training where they practice fighting through a building that has been taken over by criminals.

A lot of people, including Nobel Peace Prize Winners, say the show glorifies war.  I guess it does, but it mostly glorifies training for war, which may or may not be the same thing.  It’s not as egregious about it as, for example, the super-popular Call of Duty games or many popular action movies,  but at the same time it definitely plays like a military recruiting commercial, especially with the awkward presence of General Wesley Clark as co-host.

Is that bad?  I don’t know; the military has been trying to figure out ways of recruiting more people through P.R. stunts ever since the draft ended.  Maybe it was because of my expectations, but it struck me as no different than those ads you see during football games for the various branches of the service.  And those, I feel, are about as likely to succeed as other commercials.

It’s the Act of Valor issue all over again: sure, it’s recruiting film, but that still doesn’t answer whether it’s a bad thing or a good thing.  Personally, I think it’s kind of weird to show the celebrities doing stuff “based on” military training.  Seeing them try to get through an exact re-creation of Army Ranger training would probably be more exciting viewing, but then, I don’t think many celebrities would sign on for that.  And I doubt many viewers would say “looks like fun.”

Like I said, I haven’t seen much reality TV, but I get the impression the big draw is seeing the emotional disputes and inter-personal drama between the contestants.  There was none of that here.  I’m guessing that NBC wanted an emotionally stable cast, since they are giving them access to real weapons and live ammunition.  (Shades of “You can’t fight in here, this is the war room!”)  It makes practical and ethical sense, but probably makes for worse TV.

Lastly, I did feel a little weird watching the show.  Maybe I am cynical but it–along with most reality shows and sporting events–remind me a little too much of the Ancient Roman Gladiator Games.  While it’s obviously much safer for the contestants, there’s still something a bit unsettling about it as a viewer.

“Pollice Verso” by Jean-Léon Gérôme. 1872 artist’s conception of gladiatorial games.


The 19th-century German Field Marshal Helmuth Von Moltke said that “No battle plan ever survives first contact with the enemy”.  Despite this, military people always make plans anyway.  They have to, I guess, to gather intel. Or at least to feel like they’re doing something, so they can be accused of idleness in the face of looming disaster.

There’s a minor controversy over an article published in something called the “Small Wars Journal”.  It’s by Col. Kevin Benson (ret.) and Jennifer Weber, and it concerns what an American civil war in 2016 would be like.  It puts forth an imaginary scenario in which “an extremist militia motivated by the goals of the ‘tea party’ movement takes over the government of Darlington, South Carolina.”  (I assume the authors picked South Carolina for the irony, since that’s where the real Civil War began.)  They go on to postulate how it would play out, and how the Federal forces should respond.

Needless to say, the article has generated a backlash from Tea-Partiers, who are both understandably upset at the idea that they would try such a thing, and by the fact that, by all appearances, the government is thinking about how to wage war against them.  The Washington Times published an editorial denouncing it as “a choppy patchwork of doctrinal jargon and liberal nightmare.”

First of all, I understand why the Tea Partiers are upset, and I think Col. Benson and Dr. Weber would have been better served by leaving politics out of it and just using generic rebels in their example. There are some real lunatics in the movement, but most of the Tea Partiers I’ve seen are just rural, usually older, people who yell slogans they heard on talk-radio.  Most of them seem harmless, apart from tending to vote for bad candidates.

Having said that, I do understand why they wrote the article, and why they filled it in with political details: because military people love war-gaming  hypothetical scenarios.  My guess is they used the Tea Party because the military tends to lean conservative, and they were trying to compensate, and clearly that didn’t work.  But then, with all the money we spend on defense, it’s not surprising to see them wargaming all kinds of “what-if” scenarios.  It’s related to the old saying “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”.

I do think it is a very disturbing article–mostly because of its context.  I think there have been tons of “awful civil war in the future” novels, movies, etc. but to see it presented dryly as something that might really happen is something else altogether.  Plus, it gives the people who are always getting ready for the apocalypse even more fodder for their beliefs.  (Which is ironic, since they are doing the same thing as the people who wrote this article: getting ready for all sorts of unlikely eventualities.)

What’s this?  The government is fighting over spending again?  Oh, I bet those skinflint Republicans want to cut the jobs and those money-wasting Democrats want to keep spending and keeping government jobs.  Nothing new here.

Eh, what’s that you say?  The Republicans in Congress want more money for government jobs, and the Democratic White House is opposed?  Why, what manner of devilry may this be?  Has the world turned upside down?

Ah, of course!  It’s a military matter, and so the financial philosophies of the two parties are completely the opposite of what they normally are!

M1 Abrams Tank. Image via Wikipedia

I was reading the excellent blog Lefty Parent yesterday–it has many interesting posts, so be sure to check it out–and I read one post about how boys tend to play with soldiers and girls tend to play with dolls. It’s an issue I’ve wondered about in the past, so here are some of my thoughts about why boys and young men like to play at war so much.

Unlike Lefty Parent, I personally suspect that boys preference for playing with guns and girls with dolls is innate, not learned. I can certainly understand his arguments for the other position, however. It’s sort of a “chicken or egg” question, but I approach it like this: although a boy may like playing soldier because he sees soldiers in books, on television or whatnot, there is also the question of why the people who write books and make television programs depict males as soldiers.

The way I come to the idea that this interest in warfare is innate in men is that, if you give a man the tools to make some work of fiction, chances are it will involve war or violence in some way. There is an instinct for war in most men that it is not really learned, though it appears to be taught. It only appears to be taught, however, because war is of interest to most men, and when they create works of fiction, they gravitate toward this subject more or less as a matter of instinct.

At about this time of year for the last several years, Activision releases the latest installment of its Call of Duty series of video games. Each one seems to take from its predecessor the title of “bestselling game ever”.

For those who have not played Call of Duty, let me explain what it is: it is a game where you run around shooting enemies. These are either A.I. controlled “bots” or else other avatars controlled by other players. You are armed with very detailed digital replicas of real-life weapons. This is necessary, because while you are controlling an avatar that looks like a human soldier, you almost never see him. The player’s experience is much more like controlling a flying gun which moves about the world shooting stuff.

Needless to say, though I firmly believe some games are great Art, CoD is not, in my view, one of them. But ignoring its merits and deficiencies as a game, consider what it is. It’s a way for people–primarily, let’s admit, young men–to pretend to be soldiers. To paraphrase Warren Zevon‘s hyper-masculine war song Jungle Work: “Many young men/Many who dare/To battle online”.

Presumably, if you’re buying $60 games, you either have money or you have access to someone who has money and is willing to share it. You also must have some leisure time to play the game. So, why is it that young men with money and time for leisure choose to employ it by pretending to be soldiers in massive, imaginary wars instead of playing at something else.

Now, so far, I haven’t proven anything. Activision spent millions marketing this game. Maybe those guys buying it are all the victims of Bernaysian propaganda techniques to persuade them to buy this. Maybe if Nintendo spent millions hyping Animal Crossing–a delightful game with no violence–young men would all buy it.

I can’t prove that it’s not all conditioning. But I suspect that it is the case that most (not all) men instinctively both produce and consume fictional materials related to war. That doesn’t mean all men are just hanging out waiting for a war to start, but it is a subject to which they are drawn. Even men who oppose war are often interested in it as a subject for Art and Literature.

As a final note, it should be noted that I am speaking of people in the aggregate. Not only are there some males who don’t care about war and fighting, there are also women who are interested in it. I’m sure there are girls who play soldier. I am speaking of general behaviors [no pun intended], and there are exceptions to such rules.

As always, I welcome your thoughts on the matter.