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Video games are increasingly shaping our discourse on science and warfare by letting us explore worlds that may be decades or centuries off. For some titles, like the Fallout franchise, a series of video games depicting American society after a nuclear apocalypse, they can help us see facets of today’s conflicts more clearly.
Fallout offers a glimpse into an exaggerated 1950s-era pre-war culture, whose hokey facade is stripped away after a 21st century Cold War between the United States and China escalates into nuclear war. With its apocalyptic landscape and Cold War backstory, Fallout’s landscape is the chaos and political dysfunction of America as a war-torn failed state. The line between order and chaos is blurred as rival factions vie for control over the wastelands, battling for populations, resources, and technology. While some factions are holdovers of the past world order, others are born out of the power vacuum caused by a devastating war.
One of the most insightful titles, Fallout: New Vegas, was released in 2010. Through the game’s immersive open environment, which allows players to roam freely and learn about the expansive game world, game developers are able to create a narrative which contains incredible levels of complexity and layers of narratives within a simple storyline. It was, and is, a game worth playing for its narrative and visuals but it can also be experienced as an allegory for the Iraq War. While there is plenty of art that can fit into an occupier-occupied construct, many of New Vegas’ elements can be seen in today’s challenges with centralized power, insurgency and resource control in Iraq.
Set in post-apocalyptic Las Vegas, New Vegas represents a caricature of its real-life inspiration: drugs, prostitution, corruption, and crime are rampant. The city has semi-autonomy within the New California Republic (NCR), which has stationed troops in the region to protect a vital strategic asset, the Hoover Dam, under threat by a burgeoning insurgency.
The NCR, which can be seen as an analogue for coalition forces in Iraq, controls the surrounding region around New Vegas through major military installations along the immediate periphery of the city. Meanwhile New Vegas’ local authority, representing more or less the Iraqi government, enjoys a wealth of NCR services, security, economic projects, NGOs, but is eager to utilize these services to its own ends. This cold tension between the NCR and New Vegas is contrasted with the active insurgency within the NCR, Caesar’s Legion, representing the guerilla warfare between the US and local, often Sunni, militias during Iraq’s occupation.
It is the nature of Caesar’s Legion that makes the game a prophetic analogy for the current situation with ISIS in Iraq. Caesar’s Legion does not fight a guerilla war against the NCR. Instead the insurgency has developed into movement warfare (see David Galula’s Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice) where the insurgency fields a regular army which takes and holds territory. Fundamental to their ideology are gruesome punishments, crucifixion and enslavement being their most common, which are dealt to criminals and civilian populations alike. Its battle over control of the dam presents a striking comparison to the importance of the dams in Iraq to territorial control.
Perhaps it is coincidence that the events of Fallout: New Vegas resemble those of current Iraq. The game does not depict a society characterized by hundreds of years of sectarian tensions, nor a government which represents those tensions so starkly. However, the similarities between the current reality in Iraq and the virtual reality in New Vegas gives insight into two key factors of war within failed states. Water And Order
As a geographic feature and necessity for life, water is both cheap to exploit and vital for supply and control of a population, and has been the focal-point of failed-state conflict, notably in Sudan, Darfur, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. As seen in Fallout: New Vegas and demonstrated by ISIS in Mosul and Ramadi, preexisting infrastructure built to generate power from water and dispense it as a resource can be readily adapted to suit the purpose of the occupier. Even without a dam, controlling water as a resource ensures the occupier’s role as a service provider, the fundamental metric of victory in a failed-state. The impact of this resource can be further augmented quite cheaply, to the benefit of factions with means limited by internal strife: crude water purification and irrigation can be achieved cheaply and reap significant reward. This is also explored on film in Mad Max: Fury Road.
Providing order to a population is another essential role for the state. As such, in a failed-state, where law and order is compromised or has collapsed, factional competition will center on filling a security void. In Fallout: New Vegas, Caesar’s Legion and its ideology, centered on a brutal Roman-inspired rule of law, is shown as the inevitable outcome of corrupt management and insecurity within the NCR. Looking at Caesar’s Legion, or indeed countless other historical examples of this phenomenon, it is no surprise that ISIS’ interpretation of Sharia law has received support from Sunnis in a country where corruption, insecurity, and sectarian aggression dominate a Shiite-favoring judicial system.
Fallout is perhaps just a game, however it is also one of many titles that can offer policymakers and leaders, both civilian and military, a look at complex future worlds that are imaginative yet remain rooted in today’s security problems. With a new Fallout installment being released November 10, it will be worth watching to see what kind of post-apocalyptic fable the developers have crafted to discuss conflicts of the present, past, and future.
As the franchise tagline hints: “War never changes.”