Virtually dead in Iraq

To protest the war in Iraq, a media artist infiltrates the U.S. Army's popular online video game and gets himself shot. While angry gamers, soldiers and even some peace activists call him a nuisance, others say his message hits home.

Published September 16, 2006 12:30PM (EDT)

On the online video game "America's Army," a strapping guy in camouflage scrambles on his belly across cracked dirt in a war-torn city that looks like Baghdad. As he peers out from behind a low stone wall, he peels up to his feet and starts running down a hill toward a small square hut. He fires several rounds from his machine gun at another soldier, this one dressed in a black-hooded outfit. Five yellow streaks flash from his gun, and the black-hooded soldier rolls over and slides down a hill. Our guy in camouflage chases him till he sags against a van, shoots him again, and then satisfied that the dust emerging from his back indicates death, moves on.

Across the top of the screen appears the name of a real American soldier, his age and the date he was killed in Iraq. Last week that name read: "CHARLES A. HANSON JR 22 NOV. 28 2004."

"America's Army," created by the same designers who produced hit first-person-shooter games like "Redneck Rampage" and "Kingpin," is funded by the U.S. Army (to the tune of nearly $10 million), which is to say American taxpayers. But the name of the American soldier killed in Iraq, which those logged on to the game are forced to see, is certainly not part of the game's design but the handiwork of artist Joseph DeLappe.

To streak entertainment with reality, DeLappe has turned "America's Army" into a war protest and a memorial to dead soldiers. Since the anniversary of the Iraq invasion this past March, DeLappe, chair of the art department at the University of Nevada, Reno, has been playing the game under the call sign "dead-in-Iraq," which is also what he calls his work of "performance art."

He logs on to the game and does nothing. While other online players around him simulate war -- and eventually shoot him -- he types into the program's chat interface -- typically used for gamers to strategize with one another -- the name of each service person killed in Iraq. As of Sept. 14, he'd entered 1,273 names of the 2,670 Americans killed there; he plans to continue until the war ends. "I'm trying to remind other gamers that real people are dying in Iraq," DeLappe says.

The military funded "America's Army" in part to interest kids as young as 13 to join the Army. The virtual rifle range (free to download) is also a training ground for real combat in Iraq. With 7.5 million users since its release in 2002, "America's Army" has become the main place where young people learn about the military, according to a 2004 marketing survey conducted for the Army. It's an "entertaining way for young adults to explore the Army and its adventures and opportunities as a virtual soldier," reads the game's official Web site, which links gamers to a military recruiter.

"It's probably the only game out there on the Internet, where if it draws you in and gets you to join the military, you could die," says DeLappe, 43. DeLappe's electronic and new-media art has been shown at national and international exhibits, including the 2002 International Symposium on Electronic Art in Nagoya, Japan. Typically his works transpose common electronic objects, such as computer mice or video game joysticks, into large sculptural corncobs, sunflowers or mandalas. While all of his work questions the role and effect of technology in our lives, DeLappe says the meaning and impact of "dead-in-iraq" supersedes his earlier work.

"It's bizarre that anyone can get absorbed in such an insane computer game simulating warfare, when there's real suffering taking place," says the soft-spoken artist. "This is a way to communicate a sense of loss and frustration with the fact that soldiers are dying over there and life just seems to be going on like normal over here."

DeLappe created "dead-in-iraq" as a response to the wave of 9/11 memorials that he feels didn't address the aftermath of the event: the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the thousands who are dying there. His timing couldn't be much better. His work slices into the heart of national dissatisfaction with the Iraq war and the lack of a government strategy to disengage. The list of dead and wounded soldiers and civilians continues to grow. Along with thousands of U.S. soldiers killed, an estimated 43,000 Iraqi civilians have lost their lives, according to Iraq Body Count, a nonprofit group. A poll conducted for CNN found that as of last month, 60 percent of Americans oppose the war in Iraq, the highest number since the beginning of the war three and a half years ago.

Amid this growing political rancor, "dead-in-iraq" has sparked the blogosphere, bouncing around nearly 150 blogs, some of which praise it as "powerful," "quite elegant" and "wickedly clever." Rhizome, the country's leading new-media art organization, which resides at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, calls "dead-in-iraq" a "thoughtful co-opting of the tools of digital culture." To some antiwar groups and parents of soldiers who were killed in Iraq, outraged by the $4 billion a year the military spends to recruit new soldiers, DeLappe's performance art is valuable.

"I applaud him," says Celeste Zappala of Philadelphia, a member of the antiwar group Military Families Speak Out. Her son, Sgt. Sherwood Baker, a former nursery school teacher, disc jockey and member of the National Guard, was killed in Iraq in 2004. "I've always believed when people participate in virtual violence, it makes the victims of violence become less empathetic and less real, and people become immune to the real pain people suffer. This war is real blood, and it's real families that answer the door to learn that their loved ones have been killed."

DeLappe's video game protest is not exactly "Guernica," Picasso's famous rendering of the carnage of the Spanish civil war, but it occupies a room in a new school of political art that lambastes the Iraq war. Many of DeLappe's fellow artists-in-arms were on view this year at the Whitney Biennial, the controversial assembly of contemporary art. With the war raging, politics seemed to dominate the show. No work stood out more than a black-and-white poster by renowned artist Richard Serra, which showed the iconic image of the hooded prisoner at Abu Ghraib prison framed by the phrase, "Stop Bush." A series of videos by the grassroots collective Deep Dish T.V. Network, called "Shocking and Awful," highlighted everyday Americans' disgust with the war. And sculptor Mark di Suvero and artist Rirkrit Tiravanija updated di Suvero's famed "Peace Tower," constructed in rebellion against the Vietnam War, to rally people against the Iraq war. "Our hope, I think, is to awaken people, to have our numbers multiply," Tiravanija told Artforum.

It's always tricky to gauge the impact of political art, and DeLappe's work is no different in that regard. After all, his main audience in "America's Army" comprises young gamers, some of them actual soldiers stationed in Iraq, who log on to the game for fun and emotional release from extreme stress. When they confront DeLappe's protest, many are not amused. At ArmyOps Tracker, a chat room dedicated to discussion about "America's Army," gamers with names like Itchytriggerfinger, Smoke and Bandit post comments about everything from technical trouble to strategy. On the topic of DeLappe, words aren't minced: "The guy is an idiot" and "What an a**hole," wrote two. Many write him off as a jerk who screws up the game, although a few gamers offer more thoughtful explanations.

"It's the same as if he were to crash a Girl Scout meeting by yelling through a megaphone that they should vote his candidate in to office; it isn't the right time or place and it certainly isn't the right audience," writes Pfc. Will Coveleskie, a teacher from Shamokin, Penn., who has played America's Army since 2003. "I'm here to play a game, not read a CNN report."

Another gamer, Robert Kirby, 17, of Fort Worth, Texas, also doesn't need to be reminded about the reality of war. "I already think about my friends enough who died, and the ones who are over there right now," writes Kirby, who is headed to college to enter law enforcement. "I really don't care to see someone like him trolling in that server trying to stir up emotions like that."

Others explain DeLappe lacks a fundamental understanding of why the average gamer plays "America's Army" for several hours a day. When it comes to computer games, it rocks the Casbah!

"That it has a thin veil of U.S. Army propaganda attached to it makes no difference to us at all," writes Ghostdog, who has posted more than 2,000 comments on the "America's Army" Web site and has recruited three members since he joined in 2004. "The Developers that created this game did a wonderful job of building one of the most dynamic and competitive based games online to date. Players don't play the game to mimic real war anymore than chess players do. Aping the actions of real soldiers and combat is futile through a medium like a simple video game."

Even if some gamers are personally moved by the protest (DeLappe hasn't heard from any), the military is far from threatened by this artistic endeavor. Military spokesperson Lori Mezoff laughs when asked if the Army is concerned about the game affecting recruitment numbers. As of June, "America's Army" users had clicked on 1.35 million times. With users having spent more than 160 million hours playing "America's Army," the military figures its investment of $2.5 million per year to expand and update the game is well worth it, Mezoff says.

On Sept. 14, the Army launched its 22nd update of the game. Included in the update is a program called America's Army Real Heroes. It lists the accomplishments of soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan who have earned the nation's highest awards for valor, such as the Silver Star or Distinguished Service Cross. While the real soldiers don't play "America's Army," gamers can read profiles or watch three-minute video interviews of them talking about their childhood and military experiences. It's a way to show recruits what the Army life is all about, Mezoff says.

Which DeLappe finds ironic. "Their intention to make the game more real is basically what I'm trying to do, but all the soldiers happen to still be alive," he says. "What's going to happen if one of them dies on another tour? Will they leave them in the game?"

Surprisingly, DeLappe has not become a darling of the antiwar movement. While some peace activists laud his effort, others sense that protest art is counterproductive.

"At the point when hundreds of thousands of people around the world were protesting and Bush said, 'You're a focus group; I don't have to pay attention to you,' symbolic protest -- where you simply hold up a sign and say, 'This is what I feel' --stopped being useful," says Michael Nagler, a peace scholar and activist who founded the Peace and Conflict Studies program at the University of California at Berkeley. "People in the peace movement gravitate toward art too quickly and use it too much. It's hard for me to say this, but the time has come for direct action and civil disobedience."

DeLappe listens to Nagler's comments and reflects on them quietly. Finally, he says that online spaces like "America's Army" are a critical place to interact with the world. "I'm going to where these impressionable kids are spending their time," he says. "If you get them where they live, and this causes them to think, even for an instant, then I think it's effective. Art is a limited form for trying to change the world, but it's the tool I have. This is what I do. As a media artist, this feels like my patriotic duty."

By Rebecca Clarren

Rebecca Clarren writes from Portland, Ore.

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Iraq War