About 10 years ago, one of the most controversial things happening in video games was a military sim about an infamously bloody battle for an Iraqi city that had become synonymous with the war's violence and, depending on who you talked to, its pointlessness or its purpose. Then it was canceled. Now, over 20 years into a series of wars that never ended, Six Days in Fallujah is back, but with a new team and ostensibly a new angle.
It's all about framing. Six Days in Fallujah could be an important game that reminds people of what the Iraq War was at some of its worst and most intense moments, both for U.S. troops sent to fight in it and for the people who suddenly found their country turned into a battleground for myriad countervailing forces.
Or it could be a game about the honor, decency, and prowess of U.S. troops—and never mind all the messy context and contradictions. A higher-minded but still reductive politics of "support the troops" that has defined the Global War on Terror since its ill-considered inception. Slick propaganda, in other words, with just enough awareness to be credible.
Either way, it'll still be a game. A "tactical shooter," which immediately puts some boundaries on what's possible. Games love stand-up shoot-outs, where there are two sides and everyone knows who is shooting at everyone else and the rules are clear. But the minute you make a game that portrays the war in Iraq through that lens, you're already engaged in the work of sanitizing the conflict.
To its credit, the announcement trailer for Six Days in Fallujah, a long-abandoned project effectively resurrected under a new team comprised of former Bungie developers, seems to recognize the pitfalls around its subject matter. The trailers shows scant gameplay but does feature some reflective quotes from soldiers who were there, and ends on an ambivalent note about the way "respect" for "the troops" has often made it impossible to be honest about the reality of this war.
On the other hand, is this game going to be much more honest? The opening of the trailer talks about how the city was seized by Al Qaeda and the entire battle was about liberating it and preventing the country from collapsing as authority broke down. But out of the gate, that's an unusual reading of the battle and its immediate context.
The precipitating incident of the Coalition assault on Fallujah was not Al Qaeda's presence there, but the destruction of a group of Blackwater mercenaries and the mutilation of their bodies. The battles of Fallujah are inextricably linked to the Bush administration's reliance on inept, politically connected private military contractors (PMCs) who are mostly remembered for being fuckup war criminals.
This is not a particularly partisan take on the battle. Bing West, who wrote maybe the definitive (to date) account of the battle and was largely sympathetic to the military and its counterinsurgency efforts, identified George Bush's drastic overreaction to the Blackwater ambush as the catalyst for the entire engagement. It was a battle a lot of the military leadership had grave reservations about fighting in the first place because it was, on its face, a bad idea to engage a massive assault in a densely populated city in revenge for a group of mercenaries who made their own bad luck.
It was such a controversial decision that the entire battle was characterized by hemming-and-hawing between the Coalition's generals and the caretaker, not-quite-puppet government of Iraq. It was also a microcosm of the logic of the War on Terror: overreaction to a predictable act of violence, leading to an inescapable and bloody quagmire as the mere presence of American forces ensured further resistance, which then had to be crushed in order to maintain an aura of invincibility. The significance of the ultimate victory there might be gleaned from the fact that three years later, things across Iraq were so bad that the Bush administration launched The Surge to attempt to regain some semblance of stability in a country it had invaded and occupied entirely by choice.
But the game is also going to attempt to present the experience of Iraqi civilians, which is an important perspective but not one easily reduced to the space of a few months in 2004 (or the "six days" of the title). Civilians in Fallujah were not just caught in the crossfire of the battle, but many of them were encouraged by the Coalition forces to flee their homes because the assaulting troops had little intention of restraining their use of high-explosives, city or no city. They had the choice to become refugees, or try and survive a massive battle happening in and around their homes. And to this day, long after the battles Fallujah is most famous for (though more would occur as the shaky stability of Iraq crumbled alongside Syria's), there is credible evidence that the residue of those battles has made Fallujah toxic to the people who still live there, where physicians have for years reported a stunning incidence of birth defects and cancer.
The press release for the game promises to “tell these military and civilian stories with the integrity they deserve.” Honestly, I have no idea what that would look like for any game, much less a tactical shooter, and my instinct is to applaud anyone who tries to wrestle honestly with these things. But war is shot-through with profound dishonesty. The true costs of the battle of Fallujah to the people who lived and still live there are yet impossible to calculate, much the way all the lives lost in Iraq vary wildly depending on who is doing the counting. Meanwhile, while the military made great strides in protective equipment and medical treatment to prevent soldiers from losing their lives in combat, it also allowed low numbers of "killed-in-action" to obscure the level of bloodshed and violence happening throughout the War on Terror. The heavily-armored MRAP saved lives by preventing more deaths from roadside bombs, yes, but it did not solve the problem of those roadside bombs, nor did it prevent soldiers from suffering major and life-altering injuries as a matter of routine.
These are conversations worth having. They should have been had more in the popular culture long ago, they should still be happening even if the Forever War has receded from a lot of folks' awareness or interest. But a funny thing happens as you zoom in on a single campaign or engagement: it gets very easy to ignore the things that led to it, and even easier to dismiss what came after. Games, with their incredibly limited focus and emphasis on the "agency" of the player, struggle even more mightily to keep the big picture in the frame. Even if we grant that Six Days in Fallujah's heart might be in the right place, I'm skeptical that a shooter about Fallujah in 2004 can help but arrive in the wrong one.