WarGames

Monday 19 January 2004 at 20:10

When Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was released, I really liked it. I thought it was a great movie. Seeing it since then I can only apologize that I was a teenager and didn't know any better. Temple of Doom basically sucks. I feel similar pain whenever I watch any of the Star Wars movies (except The Empire Strikes Back). It's not quite as bad with Star Wars because there's still so much nostalgia and I still like the richness of the story regardless of the melodramatic delivery.

So this weekend it was with some apprehension that I rented another movie I loved as a teenager: WarGames. I hadn't seen it since it's release in 1983 around my fifteenth birthday.

There's a spoiler coming up. If you read my blog, you have almost certainly seen this movie, though there maybe some youngins out there who haven't. If you haven't seen it, it may only be interesting for the historical perspective. But thought I should warn you ahead of time anyway.

I'm happy to report that two decades later the movie still entertains. There are some definite differences between then and now. First, I was viscerally frightened about the possibility of global thermonuclear war as a teenager. The flashing and build-up and count-downs in the end of the movie were really gripping back then. It hit me personally in a couple ways. Like the protagonist, I was an established high school computer geek. Second the climax of the movie takes place at NORAD which is under Cheyenne Mountain not far from Colorado Springs and there are other scenes set in Grand Junction where most of my Dad's family lives. It was an especially scary idea that someone like me could accidentally start World War III. All of that seems distant and even silly now. On the other hand I still really appreciate the movie's punch-line (this is the spoiler).

For those who don't know or don't remember, Joshua is the nickname of the computer which is in control of the US nuclear arsenal. It has been programmed to play games and to learn from its experience. It thinks it is playing simulation of Global Thermonuclear War, but is in fact on the verge of starting World War III.

In the climax of the movie, David Lightman, the heroic teenage computer geek, tells Joshua to play itself tic-tac-toe repeatedly. We watch as Joshua plays tie after tie, speeding up to a frenzy of ties.

"Learn, goddammit!" David exclaims.

Joshua switches back to Global Thermonuclear War, running scenario after scenario speeding up to a frenzy of apocalyptic endings flashing over the screens in NORAD's command center.

"What's it doing?" asks Jennifer.

"Learning." answers David.

Finally the screens go blank and Joshua concludes thusly:

Greetings Professor Falken. (Joshua's creator)
...
A strange game.
The only winning move is
not to play.

Although I definitely appreciate the pacifist punch line, I'm especially fond of the metaphor of the war machine learning the futility of war. One can only hope.

I expressed my concerns about the US war machine's almost regularly scheduled bloodlust last Summer:

What I find most disturbing is how often I have seen this story retold. This has been a pattern in all the US military operations I have witnessed in my lifetime. The pattern is disturbing for it's incredible consistency. We demonize the leader of another country, create a classic Hollywood-style villain, and then present ourselves as the heroic rescuer. It's like we cannot exist without some Hitler-like bad guy from whom we can save the world. Libya, Iraq I, Iraq II,Serbia, Afghanistan, Nicaragua. Most of these leaders have deserved their villainy. But I am deeply concerned about the pattern of our thirst for violence. There are plenty of villains in the world, but I've never understood why one villain is selected over another. Even more disturbing is the rhythm of the war machine. It's like the System, our military System, is a vampire craving a bloody fix every few years regardless of who is in the White House or who is in the Pentagon.

This movie reminded me that we did actually manage to retreat from the brink of full scale nuclear war even before the USSR collapsed -- a welcome little bit of perspective in light of our most recent WarGame.