Book review / Virtual wars with actual corpses

The Aardvark is Ready for War by James Blinn, Doubleday, pounds 12.99 Postmodern War: the new politics of conflict by Chris Hables Gray, Routledge, pounds 12.99
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The Marines", announced a recent cover story in Wired, "are looking for a few good games." In an attempt to squeeze additional value out of what they considered to be an inadequate training budget, the US Marines had hit on the idea of creating Virtual Reality training exercises by customising shoot-em-up computer games such as Doom and Quake. The article's punchline was that the Marine hackers who wrote the software were on the verge of quitting the Corps to start their own company and put Battlesight Zero - their Marine version of Quake - onto the market.

Neither James Blinn nor Chris Hables Gray should have been particularly surprised. Blinn is a US Navy veteran whose first novel has cover allusions to Joseph Heller, J D Salinger and Irvine Welsh flying like shrapnel, though the Brett Easton Ellis of American Psycho might be a better comparison. His protagonist is a specialist in hi-tech anti-submarine warfare who finds himself en route to the Gulf War, even though the Iraqis have no submarines. So he reluctantly tears himself away from his hobby of spying on "the Madonna babe", a female neighbour, and attempts to get his head around the notion that he will soon find himself involved in a Real War.

The trouble is that he has no idea what a Real War is - or, for that matter, a real anything. All his experiences are virtual. And as his troop- ship paddles towards the Gulf, everything he and his shipmates encounter turns out to be something else. One whore is a transsexual, another a transvestite, and the one who actually is a woman sneaks her grandmother into bed in her place as soon as the lights go out. The closer the countdown gets to zero, the closer the protagonist gets to his final freakout. He is a postmodern man involved in a postmodern war, and the only people to whom it's "real" are the ones on the receiving end, who die in an embarrassingly traditional manner.

Blinn's hero would have been much better prepared if he had read Chris Hables Gray's treatise. The title Postmodern War initially evokes the image of the survivors of some cataclysmic conflict hauling themselves from the rubble, broken and bleeding, only to be confronted with a linguistics prof telling them "Don't you get it? It's ironic!" Fortunately, Gray is much more on the ball. An academic specialising in the increasingly densely populated DMZ between technology and culture, he argues a thesis rooted in the notion that the era of modern war began in the 16th century and came to an end with the Second World War.

For Gray, the first truly postmodern war was Vietnam: a technological exercise, a media event, a political circus. "War," he says, not without a degree of - you guessed - irony, "is in crisis."

A "postmodern war" is any conflict in which one of the combatants is the United States, the world's only true hi-tech superpower. Other people, by contrast, are still mired in the modern era. The Falklands War, for example, was a decidedly old-fashioned scrap fought by two old-fashioned powers by old-fashioned means for old-fashioned reasons.

It is a truism that one index of civilisation is the distance we can put between ourselves and our own excrement. By the same token, the index of postmodern war is the distance we can put between our societies' warriors and the messy, bloody business of killing. Some people get to play Doom; other people suffer it. Po-Mo war can still be a decidedly old-fashioned business for the people unfortunate enough to get killed.