“A Conversation with John Tabbernor,” by Reid McCarter

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I got in touch with John Tabbernor after reading a few of his tweets in response to my review of Ghost Recon Wildlands for Paste. John mentioned that he “no longer love[d] military games” because of the way “shitty attitudes I sometimes saw in my time in the army are now echoed in games.”

We talk a lot (especially here and on the Bullet Points podcast) about the way videogames fail and succeed in portraying war and soldiering, but for many of us this talk is informed by a civilian’s perspective. John, as a former infantry reservist in the Canadian Army and current Communications university student, seemed like a good person to talk to for a first-hand understanding of subjects like military service and its representation in videogames.

The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed for length.

Reid McCarter: Would you mind describing your experience with the military?

John Tabbernor: I spent about 8 years in the Canadian Army (2001-2009). I was an infantry reservist with The Royal Winnipeg Rifles. I joined in the summer of 2001 shortly after finishing Grade 10, so I would have been 16 at the time. I started as a Rifleman and eventually was promoted to Corporal.

Reid: What’d you do as a reservist?

John: So as a reservist, you’re just working part time. Usually one night a week and every second weekend or so. Sometimes you would have commitments like specific training courses that would occupy more time, so there would be months where I would work multiple nights a week and every weekend. There were often opportunities for longer stints of work over the summer or for specific courses as long as I wasn’t in school or working at my civilian job.

Some members in both the reserves and the regular force might make condescending remarks about reservists only playing at army, or that they weren’t “real” soldiers because many were students or had full time civilian careers. I suppose like everything, there can sometimes be a nugget of truth in there, but mostly it was bullshit. Reservists were held to the same standards in training. Sometimes they might be limited in terms of access to certain types of training, equipment, etc, but before being deployed overseas you go through a period of rigorous training where no expense is spared. This is often referred to as “work up.” Once the war in Afghanistan began, reservists played a key role in supplementing the regular force units that were deployed. In essence, filling the gaps and spots in their rosters to ensure they were at full strength.

Reid: And where was this that you were training?

Most of my time in the military was spent training in Canada. (Though I did some training at Fort Knox in Kentucky once, and may have travelled elsewhere. I can’t remember.) With my home unit in Winnipeg, that time was spent either in the city, or at Canadian Forces Base Shilo just a couple hours west near Brandon, Manitoba. I did my original basic/occupational training at CFB Wainwright in Alberta. From time to time we would travel to other bases or parts of the country for training as well.

Personally, I did a number of courses to help with specific specialties and these would often dictate your role in a platoon or company. I took a communications course that taught us more advanced radio use, voice procedure, etc. This led to me very often taking on the role of signaler. Basically you shadowed your platoon commander. You were part fire-team partner, bodyguard, and point of contact to the company/battalion.

Reid: You said before we started this that you never ended up deploying. Did you want to?

John: I was never deployed overseas. The closest to actual deployment for me came in 2003 when the army assisted in fighting the forest fires in [British Columbia] at the time. When I joined the army, I was obviously too young to be deployed. The peacekeeping mission in Bosnia was winding down and our commitment there grew smaller and smaller. I think I may have tried to get on one of the last tours, but didn’t have the qualifications for whatever spots were still available.
When the war in Afghanistan first began, it was only regular force units that were being deployed and they didn’t start offering spots to reservists until closer to 2005 or 2006, I think. By that time I had a full time job that I was hesitant to leave. I didn’t want to spend 6-8 months on work up training, spend 6 months in Afghanistan, and come home and not have a job. Maybe I was also scared or nervous. I don’t know. It’s a decision that I still struggle with today. Part of me is glad I never went. The risk of being injured, killed, or coming home with trauma was obviously present. But it was also an opportunity missed. I missed my war. It’s hard to describe. It’s like if you spend your entire life training to be a race car driver and you never set foot on the track. I spent years learning to be a soldier, and never had the opportunity to put any of that into practice.

Now years removed, I can look at that time a little more critically. Shortly thereafter I was becoming tired of the army. Like any large business or organization, there are things that become frustrating. Politicking, red tape, people, etc. Also around that time I was becoming disillusioned. I was having friends come home wounded (physically or mentally), or not come home at all. Maybe it was also part of growing up. Having a better understanding of geopolitics and the world in general. But by that point I knew the army wasn’t for me and went on to try other things.

Reid: If the timing had worked differently would you have been more interested in going when you were younger? I might be leading you a bit since we were talking before this about the kind of mentality toward war you saw in the military and that’s still on my mind.

John: I think if the timing had been different, I definitely would have wanted to go overseas. Like I said before, for the combat arms, that’s what it’s about: being deployed and actually doing the thing you’ve trained so long for. Other trades can actually practice their craft, but the infantry, artillery, and other combat oriented units cannot.

Also, having joined the army at such a young age, I was very impressionable. It had a profound impact on my development and how I viewed the world. The camaraderie that is shared in the military is unlike any other type of relationship I’ve ever experienced. Bonding through hardship and suffering and all that. You really get to know someone when you’re near hypothermic in a trench for 48 hours.

Because of that, you want to fit in, you want to be a part of that collective. So you’ll adapt. You’ll begin to echo the sentiments of those you’re surrounded by. Sometimes these aren’t always healthy attitudes and perspectives. I think, in my particular case, this stems from a few factors. The first was being a member of the junior ranks. Most soldiers at this point are young and have at best a high school education (as opposed to NCO’s and officers who are either older/more experienced, or have university level education). The second is being in the combat arms. These trades attract a certain type. I don’t want to speak in generalities, but often, again, it’s young dudes that want to shoot guns and blow stuff up. Young bros. But this also isn’t fair. I’ve met a lot of really intelligent men and women of different ages, from a variety of backgrounds that have been excellent infanteers+.

Reid: What were the people like you were working alongside?

John: I think people come to the military for different reasons. There is often a sense of patriotism and wanting to serve your country. Along with that comes a sense of adventure. A lot of the things you get to do are really fucking cool. But the military also serves a distinct purpose as an extension of the government’s foreign policy. And sometimes that’s ugly. So there is a level of conditioning that soldiers go through to ensure that they are capable and ready to perform the tasks that are set out before them. Indoctrination or brainwashing are terms that are too nefarious. But there are strategies that modern militaries implement to make sure their soldiers will kill when the time comes to it. Using man-shaped targets instead of the traditional circular bullseye. Using euphemisms such as “pacify.” Or terms like “enemy” in place of whoever it is you’re fighting that day. (Funny story: for training we would often use a fake name for whoever we were fighting for that particular exercise. I can’t remember the number of times we would be up against something like “The People’s Liberation Army of Saskatchestan”).

When you couple this with soldiers that are sometimes young, immature, inexperienced, and uneducated, it can sometimes lead to unhealthy or downright toxic attitudes and behaviour. This is very much the exception to the rule. Most of the soldiers I worked with were professional, had a good head on their shoulders, and were hyper aware of the context in which they would be deployed around the world. But when these few exceptions would say or do something that was counter to that, it could undermine a lot of the good work that the army as a whole was doing. (An extreme example of this would be the torture and murder of a Somali boy by members of the Airborne Regiment in 1993. This incident completely negated all the good that the Canadian army had done there.)

I can’t speak personally to what concessions a soldier makes mentally when preparing for combat and the prospect of actually killing someone in theatre. I can only draw from the research that I’ve read, the accounts that I’ve heard, and the people that I’ve spoken to. But when a soldier has killed, or is preparing to kill, they have to justify to themselves that what they are doing is right. To take a life is a horrible thing. So how do we ask our soldiers to do that in combat? They often have to “other” the enemy. They cannot allow themselves to think of that person or that group of people as “people.” They’re ragheads. They’re gooks. They’re Nazis. Take your pick. So not only does this happen at a national level of propaganda and selling a war to citizens, but also on a personal level. But it’s important to note that this almost always only applies to the people that a soldier is actively fighting. From those I’ve spoken with, they absolutely loved the people they dealt with in Afghanistan/Bosnia/etc. There was a clear distinction between the people they were trying to help and those they were there to fight.

I eventually got to a point where I was tired with the army. I mentioned before the organizational things that were wearing me down. But along with that, having grown up a bit, I started to often feel repulsed when I would come across those outliers. The soldiers with a college frat boy attitude towards violence. I was comforted in knowing that they were the exception to the rule. If it ever became a serious problem, a good NCO or officer would quash it fairly quickly and correct any behaviour that was untoward. Mostly. But personally, the army just didn’t feel like a match anymore.

This was a few years on since the invasion of Iraq by the Americans and British and a lot of shit was going really sideways there. That wasn’t a “big” thing for me, but it definitely got the wheels spinning in my head. How was it that this nation that we considered “the good guys” have fucked up a country so bad? How could they have misled not just their nation, but the world?

I guess a lot of what I was thinking about at the time was narratives. How growing up in popular media we are sold this notion of heroes and villains. But the world is more complicated than that. Going from 16 to 24, I began to wrestle with some of these more difficult concepts. It also became hard for me to “other” a group of people. I began to realize that I could condemn and detest the actions of someone—a terrorist, a criminal, an enemy—but how could I dehumanize them or think of them as evil? Realizing that everyone is the hero of their own narrative and that they truly believe that what they are doing is right is kind of a hard pill to swallow. The only reason I believe the things that I do and feel so strongly about them is because I was born in Canada. What if I had grown up on the border region of Pakistan? Who would be my villain then? And what would I believe?

I think this all ties in to why I’m so turned off by modern depictions of soldiers in games and movies. More and more they are canonizing the college frat boy soldier. The action hero who goes into combat with a mohawk haircut instead of their helmet on. Instead of telling nuanced stories about the gravity of war and the professionals who experience it, I’m given a bunch of dude-bros who want to fuck shit up.

Reid: So, what you’re mentioning about modern depictions of soldiers, specifically in games, is something I want to get into a bit more. We started talking because I saw your response on Twitter to my review of Wildlands and I wanted to hear more about how these kind of games—those that pose the itchy trigger-fingered Western soldier as the good guy—come across given your personal experience with the military?

John: When I think back to the portrayals of soldiers in games and movies that I really enjoyed, I’m drawn to properties that showcase the trials and difficulties that men and women have to face in arduous circumstances. If they capture their humanity in this way, I feel that an audience can empathize with the story being told. What’s the only thing that separates us from them? Discipline, training, and a fortitude to get the job done. I think that is often what is overlooked in games that don’t necessarily click with an audience. If the soldiers or characters that you depict are not flawed, unsure of their actions, and at times vulnerable, then you might as well replace your soldiers with robots. I think a lot about the earliest installments of both the Medal of Honor and Call of Duty games and where they are now. I feel they, along with stuff like Brothers in Arms, capture this sense of a regular soldier caught in unbelievable circumstances. There was a stoic professionalism that was embodied in some of these experiences.

I find a lot of modern games have begun to showcase the soldier, and especially special operators, as these superhuman action heroes, and that has left a bad taste in my mouth. I understand, yes, it’s a game. It’s a power fantasy. But I’m often so turned off by the way these characters conduct and carry themselves that I’ve abandoned certain franchises all together.

Reid: Can you say more about depictions of special operators?

John: The few special forces soldiers I’ve met, talked to, and worked with are . . . super chill. They’re normal people with families and problems just like everyone else. Yes, they are the select few that can make it and meet those rigorous standards and withstand the pressures of that job, but they’re not infallible demi-gods.

At times it can be a little unsettling chatting with these folks. For some, there is a clear separation in their mind between the job they do, and their personal lives. During my time in the military I probably met hundreds of soldiers. I could only count on one hand how many I met like this. Some would think I’m describing “stone cold killers.” But that’s not it either. I think they’ve just been able to clearly separate in their minds the job that they have to do from everything else. When I think of the best soldiers I know, be they special forces, regular army, combat arms, medics, or clerks, I don’t think of action heroes or fist-bumping bros that want to fuck shit up. I think of professionals.

When I saw the first reveal trailer for Ghost Recon Wildlands, I was almost instantly repelled. Part of that came from the way [the publisher was] marketing that game, but mostly I just didn’t see why I should care about a bunch of dudes joyriding through Bolivia. There’s this trend towards canonizing the spec ops soldier that I’m finding really troubling in modern games. I feel like they are building them up to be these things that they are not. Again, the action star, and not the professional. When I was in the army we would sometimes joke that regardless of how you did your job, all that mattered was the LCF, the Look Cool Factor. But that’s all it was . . . a joke. If you wear your Oakley’s on exercise you’re probably going to mess them up. Special forces don’t wear what they wear so that they look badass. More often than not it’s practical, functional, and fits the parameters of their operation.

If we compare Wildlands to earlier installments in the franchise, or even other Tom Clancy games such as Rainbow Six: Vegas, there’s a very stark contrast between how it portrays soldiers. I’m not campaigning for all military games to be self serious. I’m not even saying that those that are not are somehow “disrespectful.” A great example of this is the Battlefield: Bad Company series. Those games showcased a small team of soldiers in absurd circumstances and was able to make them quirky and lovable while somehow still keeping that world grounded. It was lighthearted and silly and I absolutely adored it.

Reid: This is a big question and I don’t expect you to have an easy or pat answer, but I think it’s worth touching on. Do you see the portrayals of soldiers—and this is something you mention already regarding special operatives and the LCF—influencing how people think of the military, within or outside of it?

John: In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, not much thought was given to Canada’s armed forces. We prided ourselves on being great peacekeepers and would deploy small contingents to the hot spots of the world. Outside of isolated incidents, we didn’t really think too much about it. After the torture and murder of Shidane Arone in Somalia in 1993, the public turned against the military. It was called “Canada’s national shame” for a reason. Without diminishing this reprehensible act, it is important to note that this was an isolated incident carried out by a small number of soldiers. It was widely covered by the media at home and it absolutely destroyed the trust that Canadians had in our military.

It wasn’t until a few years later in 1997 and 1998, after the flooding in Manitoba and the ice storms in Ontario and Quebec, that Canadians began to warm to the military again. They were far enough removed from the events of Somalia and started seeing images of uniformed men and women helping in their own communities. When you see soldiers in your backyard laying down sandbags so that you don’t lose your home to the rising river, you begin to realize that bad apples can spoil the whole bunch.

Then in 2001 after the September 11th attacks, the populations of not just Canada, but many Western nations, became galvanized. More than ever, it was important to stand in unity with those in uniform. Many people don’t remember, but Canada lost soldiers during the peacekeeping operations in Bosnia. But they were brought home quietly, with little to no media attention. In Afghanistan, after we sustained our first losses in a friendly fire incident involving American bombers, that changed. What was meant to be a small unit memorial for those four soldiers became a national media event attended by members of parliament and the Governor General. This set the tone for how Canadians would view our serving members in the years to come.

I’m going to say something that’s probably a little controversial and I’m going to be careful with how I phrase this. This idea of soldiers as heroes has been a very powerful one in the last 15 years. Soldiers, like anyone, can do heroic things. But they are just people. I don’t want to detract from the accomplishments of service members. Those that have won awards for valour have done incredible things in the face of adversity. Even those that just do their jobs without any recognition have achieved much. But they have flaws like you and me.

I was a soldier once and I made mistakes. A lot of them. There is this idea that I think pervades a lot of media: once you put on a uniform, you’re a hero. That’s a bit of a stretch for me. I’ve met some real dickheads that were soldiers. And what about the issues of crime and violence in any standing army? With the American military, this is unavoidable. In a pool of 1.3 million active personnel, not everyone is going to be Mother Teresa. What about those that were charged with murder and torture during the Somalia affair? I guess what I’m getting at is that we can’t paint with broad strokes, one way or the other. Not all soldiers are heroes and not all soldiers are monsters.

What I think is important not to lose sight of, is that supporting your armed forces while also holding your government accountable for how they utilize them are two very different things. Keep the “Support the Troops” sticker on your car and donate to your favourite charity that helps veterans. But call your member of parliament/congress when you have concerns, because blind patriotism is dangerous.

Unfortunately, I sometimes feel that a lot of what I’ve been decrying here bleeds out into our games and movies. To say that these portrayals don’t affect their audience is naïve. Games, TV, and movies always help shape our interpretation of reality, even if it’s only to a small degree. This is akin to the violence debate that we always have in the gaming space. Does playing Grand Theft Auto turn me into a homicidal maniac? No. But will it influence me and how I see the world? Probably.
An idea that we talk about in communication theory is that of selective exposure. It’s the notion that people tend to prefer information that supports their perspectives. When we are confronted with media that refutes these perspectives, we put up defense mechanisms to find congruence between those conflicting ideas. This isn’t a novel concept, but I think it’s important to keep in mind when we think about the messages we receive through the games we play and the movies we watch.

When we glorify wanton violence and interventionism in the games we play, those attitudes will begin to percolate in our subconscious. Will playing this year’s biggest shooters turn me into a war monger? I doubt it. But we need to be critical of the media we love. How much money is being paid to weapons manufacturers to license their products? Why am I only shooting poor people who don’t look like me? Why are we favouring military action over political solutions? We should be asking hard questions and holding ourselves and the industry accountable for the ways in which they represent soldiers, war, violence, and much much more.

I really hope I didn’t come across as someone who is slamming the military. Standing armies are an unfortunate necessity of our world and at times they must be utilized. I just hope that we can all be a little more conscious of the fact that what we see in video games has become less and less an accurate representation of soldiers and their place in society.

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+ John later sent me a follow-up regarding this point: “I made a sweeping generalization that a lot of junior ranks members weren’t well educated. That’s not really on the mark. I would say there was an even split of soldiers that had at least grade 10 or graduated high school and those that either had a degree or were actively pursuing one.”

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John Tabbernor studies Communications at Capilano University in Vancouver. He hosts and produces the Shelved Games podcast, which discusses games weekly. You can find him on Twitter @john_tab.

Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared in Kill Screen, Playboy, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.