Posted tagged ‘Maxwell Neely-Cohen’

Video Game Day: Maxwell Neely-Cohen’s “War Without Tears”

July 24, 2015

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Has anyone ever noticed that Time Now has never featured a post about video games and video game culture? Probably not, but the omission has long bothered me. “Video games” as a category may fit uneasily within this blog’s self-defined rubric of “art, film, and literature.” In my mind, though, the fantastically stylized, heavily aestheticized representational world of video games, especially first-person shooters (FPSs) and military role-playing games (RPGs), have much in common with the imaginary depictions of combat featured in traditional artistic-entertainment forms such as books, pictures, and movies about war. Both as an influence on real soldiers and as a commentary on modern warfaring, their importance is unquestionable. That I haven’t been able to articulate the linkage between video game popularity and a nation-at-war has seemed to me a huge shortcoming of Time Now. If there is anything that has made the blog stodgy and culturally out-of-touch, it is that.

This teeth-gnashing is linked to life, naturally, for I’ve never played so much as a second of a military-themed video game, even as my two sons have played many hours of Call of Duty under my own roof and many soldiers with whom I deployed played FPSs and RPGs whenever they could.

Given my near-neurotic diffidence to actually playing video games, I’ve done what I’ve always done in such cases: I turned to books for understanding of a phenomenon I was too hung up about to enjoy for myself. And yet, the pickings here so far have been slim. Until recently, the most substantial investigation of video games and modern war has been a great chapter in scholar Dora Appel’s War Culture and the Contest of Images that explores the popularity of America’s Army, a first-person shooter developed at West Point—get this—in the same building where I worked for ten years. I had never paid much attention to America’s Army before reading Appel and subsequently was driven to apoplectic wonder to learn that it was not just an effective recruiting tool (its intended use), but actually garnered respect from the hardcore gaming community. Fuck! What else has the Army done so well (and I have missed) in the last 15 years?

I say all the above to say this:

Last week, a New York City-based writer named Maxwell Neely-Cohen published on Boing Boing  and the Armchair Empire an essay on video games and contemporary militarism called “War Without Tears: The Relationship Between Video Games and Violence Is Healthier Than We Think.”  I knew the project was in the works, because I’ve met and chatted with Neely-Cohen at various war-lit events and surmised that if anyone could write a great essay on the connection between video game and martial culture, he could. Having worked as an intelligence analyst and the author of a cool coming-of-age novel called Echo of the Boom, Neely-Cohen combines writing chops with an ultra-alert mind thoroughly in tune with our generational moment. Himself a veteran gamer, he brings to the subject an insider’s savvy devoid of snoopy-pants suspicious judgmentalism many other writers, such as me, probably couldn’t avoid.

Neely-Cohen’s essay combines reportage, first-person experience, and the kind of speculative cultural commentary—pro-technology and progressively anti-authoritarian—you would expect from a website sponsored by anarcho-futurist-technophile author Cory Doctorow. Below are some snippets that set-up Neely-Cohen’s larger argument. I won’t explain or explore the full dimensions of his claims now—let’s just say they are bold and provocative, and I hope he’s right that video-game playing is “healthy”—but you can bet I’ll be thinking about them in the weeks to come.

Even with the success of movies like American Sniper and books like Phil Klay’s Redeployment, the most consumed artistic images of the past 14 years of American conflict lie in video games.

More people are pretending to fight wars than actually fighting them. What does this mean?

But in addition to these larger constructs, in some small cultural way, video games must have played at least some role in pushing the actual experience of warfighting further from the public mind.

At the same time, video games present a stark example of a civilian population increasingly disengaged from war and the military, a distraction from the violence which they portray.

Young people, particularly young men, can now fulfill that cultural and psychological obligation towards the experience of organized violence—without actually joining the military.

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I didn’t make it to this exhibit from a year or so ago, but I’m glad to know someone was thinking along the same lines as me.

Words After War: The NYC War Lit Machine-slash-Scene

July 1, 2014

AMERICA-AFTER-9-11-flyer-806x1024This past Sunday I attended “Danger Close: America After 9/11,” an event hosted by Words After War, a New York City-based veterans writers collective I’ve had my eye on for some time. The event featured three authors of fiction who also served the government’s war apparatus in some capacity. Ex-Marine Phil Klay, the author of Redeployment, needs little introduction, but the other two authors brought not-so-obvious experiences and perspectives to bear on the discussion. Masha Hamilton is an author and journalist who also served as a civilian member of the Army command staff in Afghanistan specializing in public affairs and women’s advocacy. Her recent novel What Changes Everything features both American and Afghan characters whose lives have been ravaged by war. Maxwell Neely-Cohen is the author of Echo the Boom, a novel featuring young protagonists born “after the fall of the wall and before the fall of the towers.” Neely-Cohen could boast no military or in-theater experience, but he worked as a DOD-contracted intelligence analyst for a while after college, which is one of the more interesting perches within the military machinery I’ve come across lately. Moderating the panel was Words After War co-founder and executive director Brandon Willitts, a Navy vet of Afghanistan who has also spent a tour as an intelligence analyst working for the Joint Chief of Staffs.

Left to right, Brandon Willetts, Masha Hamilton, Phil Klay, and Maxwell Neely-Cohen

Left to right, Brandon Willetts, Masha Hamilton, Phil Klay, and Maxwell Neely-Cohen

The authors all had interesting things to say about how their lives took shape after 9/11, though each was slow to emphasize the overarching importance of the day in their individual biographies. For Klay, Hamilton, and Neely-Cohen, 9/11 co-exists with a slew of other determinants that took them towards war. Hesitant to make grandiose pronouncements, the panelists instead offered anecdotes and observations that commented obliquely on global politics and history.

Klay: “On the day we celebrated the killing of Osama Bin Laden, I learned that one of my former NCO’s war injuries would leave him permanently blinded.”

Hamilton: “I had a desire to have an impact and help make a difference. I knew I had to be cautious, but not so cautious that I didn’t follow my dreams.”

Neely-Cohen: “I grew up obsessed by the Cold War and the chance of nuclear catastrophe. It always seemed odd that we would risk or even sacrifice millions then, while after the fall of the Twin Towers we measured the cost of war in the low thousands. But even as they fell, I spent the day skateboarding with my friends.”

Often the remarks segued from cultural critique to literary process and technique:

Klay: “I always pay attention my most ‘urgent memories,’ but the stories you tell about yourself are always self-serving and simplistic…”

Hamilton: “Writing in third person (about created characters) allows you to judge them much more harshly…. fiction allows you to ‘write into the gray.’”

Neely-Cohen: “As I created my characters I depended on empathy and imagination…. I did not want to belittle them.”

And so the conversation went on a Sunday afternoon in a Brooklyn, New York performance space transformed into laboratory for ideas and argument. While Klay’s work explains how war felt to those who fought, Hamilton and Neely-Cohen register its reverberations beyond the battlefield and across cultures and generations. The subject was a little large for resolution in the time provided, but the panelists’ offerings were suggestive. Collectively and individually, we all went crazy as if plagued by hornets after 9/11, even as we had to make huge decisions with gigantic costs, and we’re not through yet. Thanks as always to our writers and artists, who observe these things best and on whom we depend to help us understand better.

Thanks also to Words After War for infusing the New York City vet writing community with a collective, sociable, and supportive vibe. Impresario Willetts is passionate about helping vets and obsessed by the idea that literature matters, and he shines at staging events that showcase veteran and war-related writing. Also on the Words After War board of directors is Matt Gallagher, the author of the memoir Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War. First published as blog postings from Iraq, where Gallagher served as an Army cavalry officer, Kaboom more than any other memoir I’ve read pays attention to the nuances of soldiers’ emotional lives, which bodes well for the fiction we are sure to see from Gallagher in the future. Gallagher’s writer and warrior cred nicely complement Willett’s vision and organizing ability, and so we look forward to what Words After War brings us next.

Phil Klay, Redeployment. Penguin, 2014.

Masha Hamilton, What Changes Everything. Unbridled Books, 2013.

Maxwell Neely-Cohen, Echo the Boom. Rare Bird Books, 2014.

Matt Gallagher, Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War. Da Capo Press, 2011.


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