I was struck by this image when I came across it in the NYT this past week. At first I thought it was a scene from Iraq. But then I read the headline, “Paintball Accident Made Him a Widower, and Then A Crusader.” The story, it turns out, is not about the war in Iraq, but the latest version of the child’s game “Capture the Flag” played with guns that shoot paintball pellets at 300 ft/sec. It is, by some accounts, the fastest growing sport in America, and while a few people have actually died while playing it the more common injury seems to be to the eyes. A debate rages over whether paintball is more dangerous than basketball and football or safer than bowling, but all of this diverts attention from the way in which the “sport” contributes directly to the normalization of a war culture and the implications that that has for who and what we are as a people.
Paintball has become something of a growth industry, and as this picture indicates, it is played not just by children but by adults, and not just in the backyard, but in elaborately built sets that appeal to a dual sense of militaristic fantasy and realism. The aesthetics of the Times photograph reinforces the relationship between the fantastic and the real. Notice, for example, that the weaponry and equipment appear to be high-tech, perhaps something out of “Starship Troopers,” while the debris sitting behind the crumbling wall on the right side and the bombed out car in the background lend an air of realism. This could easily be a scene from Baghdad or some other war torn locality. But notice too how the soft focus on the left hand side of the screen and the blurred motion of the individual walking across the front of the visual plane lend a dreamy, surrealistic quality to the image, thus locating it in a fantasy world. So, you don’t have to join the military (or be hired by Blackwater) to “enjoy” the rush and excitement of going to war. You can do it from the luxury and safety of your local paintball park. It is a game played without any of the risks that attend real battles with live ammunition or opponents one feels compelled to kill (not just defeat) and who no doubt feel likewise. And a quick search for paintball guns and assorted paraphernalia make it clear that this is not a sport for the economically underprivileged. If you can’t afford a Humvee (or are not a U.S. Senator with access to military simulators), this might be the next best way to play at being a soldier without actually becoming one.