Give me honor or give me death

Gangsta tactics. U.S. foreign policy. This writer says a new video game demonstrates how similar the two are.

Illustration By Scott Reed

Clive Thompson is a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine. In 2002, he was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT.

Hey, my fellow knuckle-dragging gamers: Ever want to understand American foreign policy? Want to grasp why the United States invaded Iraq when it had no connection to 9/11 and no WMDs? Want to comprehend the Bush administration world picture? Then don’t bother reading Foreign Affairs or the Wall Street Journal.

Just pick up a copy of Saints Row.

That’s right: Saints Row, the new deliriously fun gangsta video game. Crafted in a sort of elegant homage to Grand Theft Auto, it’s a go-anywhere game that takes the chaotic fun of the genre and improves on it with elegant tweaks that make driving and navigating much easier.

More to the point of this column, your goal in Saints Row is to take back your neighborhood, Stilwater, by systematically liquidating the members of rival gangs. Julius, the leader of your gang—the “3rd St. Saints”—lays it all out in the opening scene:

“Every motherfucker here knows what we need to do,” he intones. “If we’re serious about taking back the Row, we got to let these motherfuckers know what time it is. Now you break it down, and it’s all about respect. Get enough of it, they’re going to back off, and we’re going to move right on in.”

And you’re off! Much like other recent gangster games like GTA: San Andreas or The Godfather, Saints Row gives you a “respect meter” that quantifies how well your gangbanging skillz are provoking admiration and fear in your peeps and enemies. As your meter rises, your allies fall in line behind you; as it falls, your rivals steal your hos and bling. Nothin’s more important than respect, my friend: It’s like oxygen.

Which brings me, ahem, to U.S. foreign policy. Because as I played Saints Row, the whole obsession with respect began to feel oddly familiar.

Recently, I’ve been reading Honor: A History, by the conservative thinker James Bowman, who has neatly distilled the logic behind how the United States fights its war on terror. The battle, he argues, is actually a global struggle for “honor.” Our Islamic terrorist foes are motivated not so much by religion or ideology than by ancient, millennia-old honor codes.

For them, the most important thing is preserving their sense of manliness and the respect of their peers. If they perceive themselves to have lost face—such as when the United States stations troops in Saudi Arabia or supports Israel—they’ll do just about anything to attain “respect,” including insanely violent things like 9/11. Preserving your honor is more important than preserving your life.

Bowman’s analysis is quite perceptive, and this premodern honor system sounds awfully barbaric, no? Except here’s the thing: Bowman actually thinks the terrorists have got it right. He argues that the only way for America to fight back is to adopt a similarly aggressive defense of its own honor. It doesn’t matter who we hit—we just gotta get out there on the streets and start hitting.

As he puts it, even though Iraq had no ties to 9/11 and no WMDs, it still deserved to be invaded because the attack would force terrorists to respect the United States. The invasion would “warn others who might be vulnerable to American arms and who were tempted to support terrorists, albeit slightly and secretly, that they shouldn’t even think about it.” Same goes for using attack canines and naked-man piles at Abu Ghraib, which Bowman also thinks were pretty much good ideas. Dog, we got to let these guys know what time it is.

Is it just me, or are other people unsettled to discover that neoconservative thinkers are openly embracing the same sort of ethics contained in gangsta video games?

Say what you will about gamers, but we actually know that Saints Row is a fantasy. Sure, middle-class kids love to come home from school and spend the evening shotgunning rival gang members in GTA. But they’re perfectly aware that in the real world, this macho kill-’em-all carnage achieves precisely nothing. Do you think these kids aspire to actually be impoverished, drug-addicted gang members?

Oh god, no. They’re studying for the LSAT. Gamers may be cynical, but they’re also in on the joke. They know the relentless, violent pursuit of honor and respect rarely leads anywhere but jail, poverty and epic levels of bloody retribution.

Bowman and his fellow travelers, in contrast, appear to have swallowed these power fantasies whole. They’re so far down the rabbit hole that Bowman still claims Iraq, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo actually have worked—that they have stricken our global enemies with fear and raised our respect meter to a juicy “full.”

Has this guy not read a newspaper in years? Despots in North Korea and Iran aren’t cowering in awe. Actually, they’re doing whatever the hell they want, because they know the U.S. military is strained to the breaking point by the morass in Iraq. Relentlessly and ruthlessly pursuing “respect” may be wonderful for making our political leaders feel decisive and bold. But it’s not good for much else, as impoverished, honor-addled communities worldwide long have learned.

We surely need to forge a new way forward in the war on terror, but it won’t come from this sort of intellectual button-mashing.

So I have half a mind to call up Bowman. I’d invite him over for an evening of Saints Row. We could carjack some pimp wheels, go to the Friendly Fire gun shop, pick up a couple of Vice 9s—then go waste those sons of bitches invading our turf.

I think he’d love it.