Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Playing At War

I kept hearing the whirling, snapping sound most of that afternoon several months ago as I sat in the living room of the house in Lianga watching the National Geographic channel on cable television. To me it sounded like a souped up electric motor plagued with a bad case of the hiccups.

Then a next door neighbor came rushing into the house, pulled me outside and with a flourish handed me what looked like a Colt M4A1 assault rifle. The feel, weight and detailing closely approximated the real thing but in this case what I had in my hands was an Airsoft version of the real McCoy crafted in metal and hard plastic and which relies on an electric motor powering plastic or metal "gearboxes" that dispel air to propel plastic pellets out of the muzzle in both semi-automatic and rapid fire modes.

The whirling, popping sounds I had been hearing was the sound of the rifle punishing a light metal can which lay dented and battered about twenty-five feet away across the road. My neighbor invited me to fire a few shots and even a short burst of pellets at the makeshift target. I assumed the firing position, peered through the sights and squeezed the trigger.

I heard the whirl and snap of the electric motor again and again. The pellets tore into the metal can. I switched to automatic fire mode and raked the can with plastic ammo until it bounced out of sight behind a potted plant. I was hooked. For a few moments I was John Rambo on a rampage, blasting enemies to kingdom come. The gun may not be real and the bullets were plastic not metal but this was playacting on a truly visceral, pulse pounding level and definitely loads and loads of fun.

Within a few weeks soon after, most of the gun enthusiasts in Lianga had gotten their hands on their own versions of airsoft weaponry and the backyards and gardens of houses began to echo to the sounds of the guns' electric hum and snapping. There is now talk of getting groups of players together, suiting them up in the proper gear and playing simulated war games.

Personally, I do not find the idea of running around in combat camouflage and playing soldiers while firing from what are essentially "toy" guns unusual or even "childish". Man has always found simulating wars and playing war games vastly entertaining throughout the ages. Airsoft like paintball are simply modern versions of warlike role playing games where men pretend to annihilate each other with mock weapons in controlled gaming environments. The more realistic the weapons and the scenarios, the higher is the adrenaline rush and the fun factor.

A huge part of the fun, of course, is the ability to get up after being "killed", brush the dirt off yourself and get play all over again. It is like going to war minus the pain, the bloodshed, the maiming and the dying. What can be more attractive and more fun than that?

But real war is not even remotely fun. And for those who have witnessed its brutality, savagery and its catastrophic impact on the lives of ordinary people, it is always a traumatic and life searing experience.

As a resident of Mindanao I have seen its consequences and inevitable results: the mangled bodies encased in body bags stained with the body fluids of what was within, the severed limbs, the burnt flesh of its victims, the sweet, sickening stench of death and the acrid smell of artillery smoke and burning villages. And there are always the images and sounds of hapless refugees fleeing the conflict and leaving behind their lives and homes, the shadow of desperation and mute despair in their eyes.

I do not begrudge the right of others to play at war. Warlike games are, in most cases and for most people, just clean, innocent fun. If children can play cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians then why can't adults do the same?

But count me out.

It is not because I do not fancy playing soldier games and do not enjoy getting to play at search and destroy or skirmish rounds with mock adversaries with realistically modeled, mock weapons in a make-believe battlefield.

My fear is that I would love it too much.

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