Imperial Iraq

Iraq: Video Game for the Imperialists

by Raywat Deonandan
March 20, 2003

A shortened version of this article will appear as a letter in the April 2003 issue of India Currents Magazine.


George Bush’s 48 hour deadline for Saddam Hussein had just expired, and all the US news stations were featuring live shots from pre-dawn Baghdad. The fireworks were slow to begin, though there were scattered reports of explosions in the suburbs, no doubt the product of superior smart weaponry, the kind over which newscasters love to salivate. That’s when Tom Brokaw said, “One of the key aims of this campaign is to avoid damaging the Iraqi infrastructure. After all, in a few days we’re going to own this country.”

The facade of disarmament and democratization fell away then, inadvertently replaced with the sad truth: this was a shopping expedition, an occupying move on the board of a strategy game. America was acquiring new real estate, another square on the game board. Sparing or “liberating” the Iraqi people was ultimately secondary to avoiding damage to the new purchase. Underlining this mentality was the Pentagon’s subsequent threat to Iraqi servicemen, that they would be prosecuted as war criminals if they set fire to their oil wells. It seems that the physical assets of this new acquisition must be protected above all else. “Scorched earth,” a military strategy employed successfully for millennia, is to be viewed by the US commercial mind as a war crime comparable to mass murder or rape.

Let us not forget that this war was discussed by White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card last September using mercantile language: “From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.”

It’s a mentality born partly of Ebay, video games, catalogue shopping and gigantic suburban WalMarts: when you need something, just click the mouse, phone in your order or visit the one-stop shopping centre to get that thing in perfect working order. As a society, we have come to expect our physical needs to be met with convenience, quality, immediacy and at a low price. It rarely occurs to us that such boons are often made possible through the international purchasing power of our leveraged currency, or often through the sacrifices of foreign and domestic workers. Or, in the case of Iraq, through the bombing deaths of thousands and the robbery of a people’s country. Such intangible costs –externalities, as the economists call them– do not appear on the final price tag of our coveted items.

Much like in a video game, resource acquisition as a modern goal of military action is without perceived human toll. Instead, expenses are computed monetarily in terms of weapons and deployment costs, and costs of repairing infrastructure damaged in the action. In a 1998 letter, senior members of the current US administration urged then-President Clinton to invade Iraq to relieve Saddam of “a significant portion of the world’s supply of oil.” No mention was made then of his supposed weapons-of-mass-destruction or the need to bring democracy to the embattled Iraqis. Securing his resources was the prime goal. Very game-like.

The most popular global domination games, like Risk and Civilization, postulate that resources are most easily and efficiently secured through conquest, not trade. Areas which are strategic geographical pivots, or which are adjacent to oil, iron or coal deposits on the game board, are quickly overrun by opposing military forces. In game terms, it is cheaper to kill computer-generated citizens than it is to pay for access. In such games, the cost of human life is rarely quantified and has little bearing on the win-loss computation.

The video game approach is seen again in the Bush administration’s ham-fisted attempts at coalition building. In gamespace, alliances are not formed through dialogue or moral suasion, but rather through blatant bribery or threats. In Civilization –the most popular strategy video game in history– money must be given to another power if it is to join your military action against a third power. The lesson the game teaches, however, is that such alliances are superficial and subject to shift pending the next highest bid. It’s a lesson the Bushites should heed well when dealing with their newly flush friends in the “Coalition of the Willing.”

Indeed, the entire Iraq campaign, from its squirming declaration in the “Axis of Evil” speech to the March 19th invasion, seems to follow a classic video game pattern. The beginning of hostilities in Civilization, as the cleverer players know, is best achieved by bullying your target into inviting attack. Trade embargoes, espionage attempts and persistent excursions into his territory will cause him to declare war first, allowing you to commit your overwhelming forces without the official condemnation of the game’s “international community.” This is useful for demonizing your enemy in the eyes of world opinion, though he may in fact have done nothing to earn your wrath except possess something you want. I call this the game’s “beratement strategy.”

Non-stop bombings in the Iraqi no-fly zones, CIA spies embedded in the original weapons inspection teams, questionable folios of weapons manufacture (which have since shown to be faked or plagiarized from a decade-old college paper) and disingenuous efforts at finding a “diplomatic solution” are the Bush administration’s version of Civilization‘s beratement strategy: transparent efforts to justify a war which was decided upon months in advance. The Nazis knew this strategy, as well, having claimed at the Nuremberg trials that their invasion of weakling Poland was a “preventative war” to protect Germany from an impending Polish attack.

Considering that the present warmongering administration is populated by many who have somehow avoided military service in any of the multitude of US armed conflicts in the past few decades, perhaps their understanding of world affairs is indeed informed solely by the playing of strategy games. It would certainly explain their naked ambitions of acquisition and their inability to forge alliances based on more than short term bribery. Sadly, it would also explain their blindness to the true human cost of their actions, since computer-generated civilians don’t leave dead bodies behind.


Ray Deonandan is a Canadian living in Washington, DC. Visit him online at