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Playing Soldier

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.

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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.

Photo Credit: Ann Johansson/New York Times

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Playing Soldier

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8 Responses

  1. Jason Martin says

    this is completely stupid, paint ball is a safe sport if played correctly, the only accounts of any one getting hurt are from miss use of the markers and or equipment. and as far as you saying it is “the latest version of the child’s game” you are also misinformed because it has been around for over 10 years. if you have such an issue with war and violence then why don’t you attack something like the media or video games. it is people like you that destroy the youth. because you do not bother to inform yourself. they say a picture is worth a thousand words. but the issue at hand is everyone has there own views on what those words are. so all i am trying to say it you need to be more informed be four you spout your mouth off, even though it is easy when you are a faceless writer behind a keyboard.

  2. Lucaites says

    Jason: The main point was not that paintball is dangerous, though there is some controversy about that and it doesn’t go away simply by saying “if played correctly.” The same argument is made about the use of hand guns and wherever you sit on that controversy the fact is lots and lots of people are actually hurt by handguns. Rather, the main point was that this version of “capture the flag” creates the fantastic illusion of being at war w/o actually having to take ANY risks … and that is the problem because it leads to the normalization of war (yes, just like video games … and we do write about that here). But I appreciate there is controversy here and I appreciate your comments. Our biggest point is that we need to actually talk about such things and you’ve contributed to that. Thanks.

    One thing I do find somewhat offensive in your post is the claim that I am a “faceless writer.” Well, yes there is no literal face, but I did sign the post, so my name is there. But how are you any less faceless in that regard? Let’s talk and argue by all means … but why the name calling?

  3. Mike Breslin says

    Hello,
    Having just finsihed reading the above article and related comments I feel compelled to wade into these potentially turbulent waters.
    I am a US Veteren (’82-90) and the Father of 6. I am also an avid paintballer, founder of a Scenario team called the HeadHunters in Ontario, Canada. I also opened and run a paintball park as well as work in Corrections. I feel I am somewhat qualified to speak to this.

    I can appreciate how a sector of society may feel that it is ‘playing war” and or desensitzing ourselves. I am even appreciative that video games were acknowledged in an above comment. Our society, our culture has been competetive since before remembered history. Throughout history different activities, be they ‘recreational’or survival based have always incorporated a ‘militaristic’ facet.
    Look at the game of chess, we all are probably aware that chess has been used to teach, train, and practice strategic thinking for a very long time. “but it isn’t shooting people”, true. It is about outmanuevring and capturing though.
    The childs game of ‘hide and seek’ has a militaristic application. Football, Rugby, hockey, they all use startegy, teamwork, fitness, sacrifice of ones own achievements for the teams victory, obedience the list goes on.

    Paintball is not only ‘shooting paint filled pellets” and ‘war torn sets”, it is about dedication, commitment, to your team. Sacrifice for the common objective, Teamwork, and fitness.

    All of these skills-startegic thinking (foresight), teamwork (cooperation), fitness (endurance), sacrifice (putting the good of others ahead of your own) are learned and developed in paintball and translate to the buisness world, building trades, Public Service and, if learned and ingrained-contribute to a less selfish society, a move away from the me generation and a step closer to the ‘we’ generation.

    I am convinced that games, activities that ‘simulate war’ will always be around. I am equally determined to draw the very BEST out of them and set an example that applies these wualities to the betterment of the community my children and now, my grandchildren live in.
    Just my two cents.
    Cheers

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