So this is the human condition in our new century: We are more wired than ever before, but in ways that count the most we are profoundly disconnected. This state of affairs was hammered home during Hurricane Katrina. Riveted to the screen, we watched in horror as bodies piled up near the convention center. We were "there," but could not have been more removed. Our perspective was tethered to the lens of the camera. We did not hear the panicked yells of people on the streets. We could not smell the stench of death that permeated New Orleans.
When Michael Brown feigned ignorance on the talk shows, we screamed at our television sets: "There are bodies piling up near the convention center. Save them!" In our powerless outbursts, we were like horror-movie fans who tip off doomed characters by yelling at the screen.
At least Americans were paying attention to Katrina. If only we could say the same thing about Iraq. With an average of four servicemen dying each day, October is likely to be the bloodiest month yet. The increasing bloodshed is apparent even to President Bush, who recently acknowledged that the current wave of violence is comparable to the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam. This was supposed to be an easy war, but the battles continue with no end in sight. More than 2,780 soldiers have died, and there has been little public debate. Sadly, it seems most Americans are willing to tune out the war altogether.
Yet, when future historians look back at this time, they will find some signs of dissent. Joseph DeLappe, an art professor at the University of Nevada Reno, has transformed the first-person shooter America's Army into a creative vehicle for political protest.
Funded by U.S. taxpayers and distributed for free on the Internet, America's Army is a sanitized war game designed and released by the United States Army as a tool for recruiting young Americans between the ages of 16 and 24. More than 7 million gamers have registered accounts, and the game's designers argue that it is one of the most successful recruitment tools in the history of the armed services.
For the past six months, DeLappe has been logging on to America's Army and wandering around the battlefield unarmed. Before too long, his character is killed. After dying, he uses the game's chat channels to broadcast the name of an American soldier who has been killed in Iraq.
Working his way slowly through a list of deaths, DeLappe still has a long way to go. More than 2,780 soldiers have died, but he has only posted 1,383 names. He has not even reached the halfway point, and the escalating violence means that he is falling even further behind.
Why would someone do this? For DeLappe, it is a question of personal responsibility.
"The war is not happening. It's invisible," he says. "This is a virtual war, and we're not connected to accepting responsibility for this war." Pointing to a study published this month in the peer-reviewed medical journal Lancet, DeLappe notes that more than 600,000 civilians have been killed since the U.S. invasion began. "Why isn't that a huge story?" he asks.
Though intended as a gentle and respectful form of activism, his work has generated many threats. "Somebody really needs to go find where that asshole lives and beat the shit out of him," argues one anonymous gamer in the forum Terra Nova. "Yeah, it's a free country and he can legally pull this crap, but that same freedom extends to some patriot kicking the living shit out of him."
Other critics contend that games are inappropriate vehicles in which to criticize the Iraq War. In a Salon piece on America's Army, Pennsylvania schoolteacher Will Coveleskie suggests that DeLappe's protest is comparable to disrupting a Girl Scout meeting by yelling political slogans through a megaphone. "It isn't the right time or place, and it certainly isn't the right audience," argues Colveskie. "I'm here to play a game, not read a CNN report."
But it's difficult to think of a time, place and audience that would be more appropriate. After all, America's Army is designed to recruit young men and women into military service at a time when Iraq casualties are rising. This country has a proud tradition of anti-war activism linked to recruitment centers. In 1965 in the San Francisco Bay Area, hundreds of demonstrators placed their bodies on railroad tracks in an attempt to stop troop trains. Later that year, scores of anti-war activists marched to the Oakland Army Terminal. In 1967, more than 10,000 rallied outside the Oakland Induction Center.
From the very beginning, DeLappe has been committed to mounting a protest that is both genuine and respectful. "I asked myself, 'How do I justify doing this in light of the fact that these are real people?'" says the soft-spoken artist. "They have families and are going through a grieving process.
"We've been completely disconnected from the costs and deaths of this war in part by not showing these funerals and by saying that it is only the families that get to grieve and have any concerns about these deaths.
"I'm a citizen. I'm part of this country. It's my right to express my concern over these deaths, the reasons for these deaths, and the use of a very questionable computer game to recruit more people to what is a troubling situation."
DeLappe welcomes feedback from critics and supporters alike. To track down his site, Google "dead in iraq delappe."Aaron Delwiche is a freelance writer. He also writes about digital culture in his blog: delwiche.livejournal.com. This story appeared in one of our sister papers, the San Antonio Current.