A Card Game about Drone Warfare and Collateral Damage?

I recently learned about the existence of Bycatch, which is described by its creators as “A card game about flawed surveillance, impossible decisions, and the people caught in between, for 3-5 players.”

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At first, I was appalled by the idea of yet another game mimicking the game-like process of remote-control killing. Drone operators now destroy people using the same physical movements as those used in playing video games, but also in sending email and shopping online. Many video games along these lines already exist, and are no doubt being used to train future drone operators. Bycatch uses a deck of cards and the players’ camera-equipped cellphones, not a computer or gaming console, and so enlarges the domain of people able to play drone warfare games.

With Bycatch, it seemed, the sphere of the new banality of killing was expanding yet again, to include even more people. Now anyone with a cellphone (= almost everyone) could get in on the act, making life and death decisions about suspects on the other side of the planet whom they never met, and who certainly never threatened them with death. Is Bycatch just another game capitalizing on the decadence, ignorance and misdirected zeal found among the YouTube viewers of “Predator porn” or clips of “Kill TV”?

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UCAV (unmanned combat aerial vehicle) operators have been lured into becoming paid assassins under the aegis of the military, with all of the pomp and circumstance, alleged legitimacy, and respect and honor associated with World War II veterans and the many soldiers who have died fighting throughout history. But operators do not risk their lives as they kill, so they do not need the classical and indispensable military virtue: courage. It is arguable, therefore, that they are not soldiers at all. They kill other people without risking any physical harm to themselves.

As I looked for further information about this game, I began to surmise that the creators of Bycatch were intending (though they have denied this) in their own way to criticize the US drone program, and perhaps that of Israel as well. The figures on the cards are just ordinary people, from a range of professions, and the people playing the game are tasked with eliminating the terrorists while sparing as many civilians as possible. Of course, that’s how it really works in a world in which suspects identified as such by bribed informants may or may not be guilty, and may or may not be devising nefarious schemes against the people of the United States. In fact, because these people typically inhabit the remote tribal regions of Third World countries, they are among the least likely to have the means to act out whatever fantasies for revenge against the US government they may harbor, and yet they are the most likely to be killed.

The game is claimed to be didactic, both by the creators and by reviewers, in that it reveals to players how cavalier these decisions become after a time. One death leads to another, similar perhaps to the case of the hitman who started out as just an average guy who knocked off some bloke but then realizes “What the hell? I’ve already fallen,” and makes this his line of work. That may sound facetious, until one pauses to reflect upon how a non-hitman becomes a hitman. How else might this transformation come about?

Some hitmen are no doubt amoral sociopaths from the get-go, so even their first kill never bothered them in the least. It seems likely, however, that others have been corrupted. They have been bribed to do what they would not otherwise be doing. They agree to kill complete strangers at the behest of the persons paying them to do so. Sound familiar? That would be the US drone program in a nutshell.

Under orders from their commanders, drone operators kill people who do not threaten them personally with death. Analysts make “tough calls” in deciding which places should be hit with missiles, and so they are probably closer to the players of the game Bycatch than are the operators. The concept of last resort simply does not apply in a situation where drone strikes are openly admitted to be carried out as “opportunities arise”. Call it a last resort if it will make you feel better before giving the go-ahead for a strike, but when you discover that the intel was all wrong or stale, then you will be made acutely aware—as was Pentagon attorney Jeh Johnson in late 2009, after approving a massive assault on a Bedouin camp mistaken for an Al Qaeda training facility—that, in fact, your so-called last resort was nothing of the sort.

The scoring rules of Bycatch are intended to reveal an uncomfortable truth: by hitting a terrorist, one acquires 100 points; by accidentally killing a civilian, one loses 10 points. In other words, the asymmetry between “warriors” and civilians is similar to that in war more generally. Countless innocent civilians are said to be expendable in wars waged against “evil enemies”, whose importance therefore obviously dwarfs that of everyone else.

I would suggest that, if the US drone program is truly the object of this “performance critique” of sorts, then the scoring rules of Bycatch are not quite what they should be. In truth, the civilians being killed and traumatized in regions under drone surveillance are given nearly no heed. Most of the time the innocent people slain are simply ignored, or labeled militants, or defined as combatants by definition (all military-age males). But infants are not military-age males, under any conceivable interpretation, and so linguistic contortionism and neologism does not always work.

Slain babies are written off as collateral damage. However, the second- and third-order victims of collateral damage, the grieving parents, children, siblings, and community members who survive to live another day under drones, and are terrified that they may be next in line, are regarded as nonexistent, for their plight does not even enter into the equation of whether or not to strike.

There will be people who find this game enjoyable to play, which is a distasteful thought, but no less than that of the people who watch silhouettes on screens being splashed by operators in “Predator porn”. Because Americans are so devoid of a clue as to what they are paying for in lands where war was never even waged, perhaps Bycatch is a positive development and will help to spark the long overdue debate on this topic which all thinking people must finally agree to undertake before it is too late.

From a drone warfare critic’s perspective, one of the most interesting aspects of Bycatch is that the sought-after “terrorist” is identified at the outset of a game by the arbitrary flip of a card, suggesting how easy it is for suspects and terrorists to be conflated. This an entire extra layer of fallibility inherent to the drone program because the alleged terrorists are first and foremost suspects.

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In both the game and the real world, “victories” are scored or vaunted not when actual terrorists are taken out, but when suspected terrorists are. In the game, they are defined as terrorists. In reality, they are sometimes determined to have been innocent post mortem. Will Bycatch help people finally to awaken to the reality that suspects and terrorists are not one and the same? One might have thought that this was the obvious lesson of Guantánamo Bay and the CIA’s torture program, but somehow drone warfare supporters are loath to connect the big black dots.

Westerners may not care so much about the people of countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, and Syria. But drone warfare threatens to degrade the security of everyone everywhere, not just the hapless inhabitants of Third World nations in chaotic and anomic post-war contexts, nor those ruled by iron-fisted autocrats who cede their compatriots’ rights (as if they were their own) and permit the US government to strike with impunity in exchange for bribes.

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For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can, Chapter 3: The Logic of Targeted Killing; Chapter 4: Lethal Creep; Chapter 6: The New Banality of Killing; and Chapter 11: The Death of Military Virtue