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The Classic Game of World Domination

You would not know it from this photograph—or for that matter from anything you’ve read in the mainstream press in the past week—but August was the deadliest month in the now longest war in U.S. history, with 66 American deaths, bringing the grand total of such fatalities to 1,760.  This number does not include an additional 1,000 fatalities among coalition forces or literally countless Afghanis, or for that matter the thousands of non-fatal casualties.  But that aside, the photograph does tell a story.

These Marines are at a patrol base located in the dangerous Gereshk Valley of the Helmand Province where more than half of all U.S. fatalities have occurred.  We know that war, when its not about death and destruction, is a combination of periods of adrenalin reinforced, horror tinged highs, and incredible boredom.  But none of that is present in this photograph. Instead we have four young men who could just as easily be hanging out in someone’s basement waiting for the big game on Friday night. Or perhaps, more appropriately in context and in its own way, it could be a scene from a John Ford western, where the cavalry sits around a crackling fire after a day of chasing renegade Indians and someone plays a guitar while singing a wistful, romantic ballad.  Either way, the point is that there is no real evidence of the prolonged war that they are very much a part of or the dangerous war zone in which they sit.  And more, there is an altogether relaxed atmosphere as if everything is fine and there is nothing to worry about.  All is good – except, of course, for the fact that August was the deadliest month in the war.

But there is something else. The board game they are playing is Risk – “the classic game of world domination” which relies as much on the flip of a card and the roll of the die as it does on strength of force or strategy.  It could almost be an allegory for the war itself.  One has to wonder if they get the irony.  Or if we do.

Photo Credit: Brennan Linsley/AP


The Classic Game of World Domination


5 Responses

  1. Lisa says

    What an incredible photograph! Where did you find it? Your point about irony is well-taken.

    In regard to your concern that “there is no real evidence of the prolonged war” or the fact that “incredible boredom” is not “present in this photograph,” I want to point out that, on the contrary, I do think this image reflects the (sometimes) boring, prolonged nature of this war. These guys look tired and bored to me.

  2. Lucaites says

    Lisa: It is an AP photo so I’m sure you could find it at their website. I found it in a slideshow on Afghanistan at either the Sac Bee or Denver Post … I’m not sure which. On boredom: I guess the question I would ask is what exactly are you seeing? The guy playing the guitar looks like he’s just kicking back–literally and figuratively. The guy playing his pieces seems intent on what he’s doing. The guy in foreground left seems intent on the guitar player. If they are “bored” it is the nonchalant sort of boredom of … “so, what we going to do tonight, guys ….” not what I take to be the deadening boredom we affiliated with being away from family caught with literally nothing to do … and so on.

  3. Lisa Carlton says

    On Boredom: It sounds like you are distinguishing between two types of boredom, a “nonchalant boredom” and a “deadening boredom.” It also sounds like you expect the latter in the context of war. But I would argue that this is a new kind of war and a new kind of boredom. Last month I had the opportunity to interview a dozen or so US Marines about their combat deployments and they describe their experiences with a certain nonchalance. They bring laptops, iPods, movies…one of the guys in this photograph even brought the game, Risk! Maybe the new type of boredom, the “nonchalant” boredom as you call it, reflects the prolonged nature of this war.

    On Risk: The idea that one of these guys brought Risk is priceless. Risk is famous for being a long game–average game play easily lasts 6 hours. You only sit down to play Risk if you know that you are not going anywhere or doing anything for a looong time. (Seinfeld did a hilarious episode about this very point). That’s probably why one guy has a guitar and a tobacco spit bottle, and another has a magazine in front of him. I think this is another way Risk is an allegory for the war. A prolonged and sometimes tedious “game” where you only play your hand for five minutes and then you have to wait and wait.

    Another significant point about Risk is the fact that, as you pointed out, it is “the classic game of world domination.” So it is very interesting and meta that these Marines are in a war and playing a war game. However, Risk is a war game in the classical sense of war: nations squaring off against each other. It is nation versus nation, artillery piece against artillery piece. I think it is worth considering that these Marines are experiencing a classical war strategy (capture and hold) vicariously through the game of Risk. It is not the confusing, postmodern, counterinsurgency, sweep and relinquish method they have been dealing with for ten years. In Risk, progress is visual- you put a flag in the ground and you say “this is my territory.” For these guys, I wonder if a sense of progress feels pretty darn good.

  4. lucaites says

    Lisa: Well put. I am especially taken with your analysis of how playing Risk provides some degree of security in an otherwise troglodyte world/war. But of course in some ways Vietnam was no different … but there I don’t think that the “nonchalant boredom” took hold. Rather it was a soul deadening boredom. And that’s what I see in this picture … maybe its one of the reasons the war goes on … in a way we are all bored with the war … but in that nonchalant, bourgeois way that we get bored which never really animates us to do anything about it EXCEPT to find solace in a game (like football, e.g., or Risk ….). In any case, I think you are really onto something and look forward to hearing more about your interviews …


  5. lucaites says

    What I meant to say above is that there is a sense in which the photograph may be something of an allegory for our own, larger cultural relationship to the war … our boredom channelled by (and in some measure legitimized) by their nonchalance.

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