War Stories

When I was a child, I’d sit in my Granddad’s kitchen listening to him reminisce about his days in the army. He was a jungle warfare expert, y’see, and a career soldier. He’d hidden under tables as a kid while the Germans bombed London, grown up fighting in the street gangs of the same city and eventually joined the armed forces. He’d never become a high-ranking officer, but had always loved his time as a foot soldier, serving in Korea, undertaking assignments in Vietnam to assess the results of experimental ammunition rounds and engaging in guerilla warfare with some truly horrific traps. He eventually remained based in Malaysia, training U.S. forces in the best tactics money could buy.

He’d tell lovely stories and describe the most intricate traps. His favorite trick was to purposefully alter a round of ammunition and put it in the middle of a magazine, and then leave that magazine lying around in the jungle. The enemy, you see, was under-funded and under-trained. While my Granddad could supposedly hear the difference as a botched round went into the chamber, and only fired three or four round bursts, the enemy heard nothing and kept their finger on the trigger. He said they used to congratulate each other when they heard the modified round explode in the chamber, fully aware that by blinding or harming the enemy’s face with the shrapnel that came out, they’d removed another combatant from the fight.

He told me about the logs they hollowed out and placed wooden stakes in, pointing forwards. Then they’d hoist it up into a tree (stakes downwards), drop a piece of rope through and set up one of those rope traps that pulls a person into the air. Obviously, it didn’t just suspend them, though – they weren’t there to take prisoners, after all. Instead, it’d pull the leg up into the hollowed out log, using the momentum to ram the stakes into the person’s legs and essentially shred muscle. I guess if that person was lucky, what with the enemy being a guerilla force and everything, they’d get cut down and carried back to a friendly village. Otherwise it must have been a case of putting them out of their misery and carrying on, perhaps with that dodgy rifle magazine the unfortunate victim had picked up earlier.

Chat with my Granddad about the Americans, and he’d likely talk about his time in Vietnam. Dressed in full U.S. gear – so that were he killed/captured he could be ignored by the government – he was assigned to a unit to come in behind successful engagements and measure the effect of different types of ammunition on the enemy. The unit he was with came under fire from a sniper, and despite knowing the rough location of the assailant, they couldn’t get at him. He asked for two men, willing to hunt the enemy down, but the officer in charge declined his offer. Instead, they napalmed the area. The sniper didn’t shoot at them again so, he supposed, it had worked. It wasn’t clean enough for him, though. He never really respected the American forces, citing all the usual tales of their military’s gung-ho attitude as the reasons. They lacked finesse, he said.

His worst story was about the recruits who’d come to his training camp. He told me about the lake that only had about three or four feet of clear water at its surface before you hit the bed. The problem was, the bed was pure mud, varying in depth. The camp officials had established that the proper bank was steep, and troops could quickly get into trouble if they tried to cross by standing up. The purpose of using it as a training tool was to get troops used to crossing shallow rivers while keeping their gear dry. My Granddad would tell the troops that they were supposed to strip, bag everything up and then use that bag as a buoyancy aid – lying down as soon as you got into the water and crossing to the other side.

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Every year, he said, you’d get a couple of tossers who thought they knew better. It was a pain in the arse having to dig their bodies out of the mud, and it’d take him and his friends a lot of time and the risk of significant harm to do so. Some they didn’t get back, he said, because they’d got bored halfway across and stood up, sinking too quickly to be helped and were too far out to help.


It struck me as odd that he thought these stories were funny. Obviously, as I got older, I realized that the moisture in his eyes wasn’t just from cigarette smoke. Still, why laugh at the horrors you’ve inflicted on others, or seen others endure? I can’t imagine the things he’d seen though – all of the above plus suicide bombers running at a bunker, with full clips of ammo being emptied into them in an effort to stop them in their drug-fuelled tracks. Strong images, an endless supply of them. As I can’t imagine it, as I don’t ever want to know for myself, I accepted – eventually – that he knew best how to deal with his memories. He had to, in his own way. Laughing was fine for him, so how could I tell him I knew better when, clearly, I didn’t.

I think that’s a conclusion that I’ve only come to in the past couple of years, though, as I’ve dealt with his death. I wasn’t there as he died, alone, in his house. His wife had passed away two years earlier, and he was literally waiting for his own life to end so that he could be back with her. They’d had a lot of problems, but they’d also had a lot of years. They were connected, had history. When she died, he wrote a very simple message on her flowers that haunts me even now: “I’ll see you soon.” I can’t comprehend the emptiness in his life during that time, or the nightmares he must have had to wake up from without her there to comfort him. That kind of loneliness just scares the crap out of me. I still wonder if he laughed after she left.

These are all thoughts that come together after I sit down to discuss Call Of Duty 2 with a work colleague, Dan. We realize that we’ve been playing at being in World War 2 for longer than the real thing went on. Dan says that the game’s all a bit stressful, and not an altogether enjoyable experience. I detail how I can only play it in 20 minute bursts, my nerves collapsing in on themselves as explosions and screams sound around me.

We both have tales, though. Dan talks about his time in Russia, and the desperate defense he mounted against the German forces as he fought to hold a strategically important train depot. With endless waves of Nazis running at him, he was reduced to hiding in a corner, shooting man after man in the face. Eventually, he took the last man down and was ordered to secure the area. His response was to quit out of the game, a defiant stand against the fact that it was always he who had to secure the bloody area. Surely it was someone else’s turn?

I recall another moment on the continent. In our attempts to secure a village, my unit had become pinned down in a barn. I was doing my best to hold off the forces using a recently vacated German machine gun nest, with the rest of the guys leaning out of various windows throwing grenades as far as they could. A Tiger Tank came out of the early morning mist and started opening fire on us. I had no idea what was going on, my only instinct being to keep my finger on the trigger, to spray and pray while the building seemed to collapse around me. After a last minute fly-by from some angels on a bombing run, we were safe and I pulled back from the nest. Looking around, half my unit was mangled under rubble, and huge gaping holes in the barn wall showed just how powerful that tank had been. It had been a close call; I’d almost needed to quick load.

By the time I crossed the Rhine, I was worn down, tired and desperate for a good night’s sleep in my own bed, back home. On a mounted gun again, I covered our amphibious approach in an attack that felt far too much like D-Day for my liking. And then the gunfire erupted. Two minutes later, in desperate need of securing a beachhead, I dived off of the gun to exit the craft only to be confronted by a half dozen bodies of my comrades. Lying down, expressionless faces staring upwards, their time in this world is over. I force my fingers to work, dive off the end of the craft and re-enter hell. One last attack, and I’m done.

And then that’s it; I’ve pushed through to the end, I tell Dan, and that’s all the closure I’m going to get. There’s none of the euphoric glee that normally comes with besting someone else’s creation, nor is there the vacuum that normally follows the ending of a significant focus of your free time. Instead, there’s quiet relief, coupled with some war stories to tell over lunch, or a cigarette, in the kitchen with someone who wants to hear about them.

The thing is, neither of us laughs when we talk about it. There are no tales of amazing daring-do, nothing to lift us both into a state of excited agitation, a total lack of attempts to cover the effect the game’s had on our psyche through manly posturing. We rarely talk in code, but most amazing videogame experiences elicit an “OMG” like exclamation, a recounting of that time we stormed this enemy position single-handedly, removing the threat to those squad mates so we could complete the crucial objectives. It doesn’t seem to be funny, anymore, this World War malarkey.

Call of Duty 2 demonstrates that striving for realism has a whole host of payoffs, both negative and positive. I’m enthralled by what Infinity Ward has produced, and humbled by their ability to work past my pre-conceptions of a corridor shooter by building whole scenarios that just overwhelm me with their scale, vision and execution. It’s just that none of the tales they’ve given me to tell have been particularly enjoyable this time around, or given my friend Dan and me anything to laugh about, even if that laughter is just to disguise the uncertainty that lies beneath our brash, heterosexual exteriors.

I can’t figure out if the distaste, panic and exhaustion I felt as the credits rolled was a salute to the skills and capabilities of the design team, or an insult to those people who have put themselves in real danger and laughed about it. People like my Granddad.

Hitchhiker is a freelance gaming journalist who wants videogames to try harder, but recognizes that videogamers need to as well. He hangs out at www.alwaysblack.com, in between winning wars and missing his Granddad.

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