Katherine Kersten: For veterans, Guantanamo was no game

Fantasy portrays terrorists as good guys and American guards as villains.

In 2006, Pete Hegseth was serving in Samarra, Iraq, with the 101st Airborne when Al-Qaida-linked terrorists blew up the Golden Mosque, launching a deadly civil war. Hegseth, 29, witnessed countless other terrorist-perpetrated horrors during his tour in Iraq. He saw civilians gunned down in cold blood, and a mother and two sons whose car hit a roadside bomb -- mangling her and ripping off the young men's legs.

Earlier in his military career, Hegseth -- a native of Forest Lake -- served as a guard at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. There, he saw close up the hateful ideology that has inspired the slaughter of innocents around the world.

No wonder that reports about a planned Xbox 360 video game called "Rendition: Guantanamo" grabbed Hegseth's attention.

In the game, players control an orange-jumpsuited detainee who shoots his way out of Guantanamo, killing as many guards -- people like Hegseth -- as he can. The detainee is a sympathetic figure, innocent of wrongdoing and seeking to escape systematic torture and abuse.

Hegseth summarized the game's take on Guantanamo: "The detainees had become the victims and heroes, and their captors were the oppressors."

The game's maker -- Scotland-based T-Enterprise -- expected the game to generate huge sales and millions in profits, and planned to target the lucrative Middle East market, according to a report in the London-based Telegraph this spring.

Not if Hegseth had anything to say about it. On June 2, he and the group he heads -- Vets for Freedom, the nation's largest organization of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans -- launched a grass-roots campaign to halt its distribution here. Talk-radio hosts, bloggers and writers quickly joined the effort.

Within 24 hours, T-Enterprise ran up the white flag and announced that it was shelving the game.

It was no small victory. "Rendition: Guantanamo" had promised to be a particularly pernicious propaganda tool, as its director, Zarrar Chishti, made clear in May.

"We are making a statement [with the game]," he told news outlet Deadline Scotland. Though the detention facility may close, "We did not want Guantanamo to be forgotten."

To guide the project, T-Enterprise hired Moazzam Begg, a notorious former Guantanamo inmate and U.K. citizen captured in Pakistan in 2002.

"Begg was a central figure in Al-Qaida," Hegseth said. "He trained in Afghanistan and fought alongside Osama bin Laden in Tora Bora after 9/11. He was released from Guantanamo because of our special relationship with the U.K., and since then has made an endless stream of unsubstantiated allegations about torture, abuse and even murder at the facility."

T-Enterprise "approached me with this idea about making a game based on my experience in Guantanamo," Begg told the Telegraph. "I'm involved to make sure it is as true to life as possible."

Chishti corroborated this. "Moazzam will do three days of sound ... [then] we will 3D-render him into the game," he told Deadline Scotland.

T-Enterprise brushed a thin veneer over its anti-U.S. agenda by setting the game in the near future, when Guantanamo has supposedly been sold to mercenaries. Since pulling the game, the company has denied that the main character was based on Begg, contradicting its earlier statements.

"Rendition: Guantanamo" is clearly unsavory. But it's still just a video game. Why get so worked up?

"The game is one small corner in a larger battle to shape perception of American conduct in the war on terror generally, and at Guantanamo Bay specifically," says Hegseth. "It's an attempt to rewrite history, to create the perception that the war is misguided and that in fighting it, America has lost its values, lost its way."

The battle to shape perceptions has many fronts, he points out. "If you want to reach young people, you can't do it through the pages of the New York Times. You find alternative ways to win them over, such as video games like this one."

"The game's premise is that Americans are holding you -- not because of your conduct on the battlefield or because you espouse a radical ideology, but merely because you've been wrongly swept up as a Muslim man in Afghanistan. The American soldier comes off as an oppressor and an enemy of freedom."

We have so demonized our detention effort at Guantanamo that in our fantasy worlds, the terrorists who use women and children as human shields are becoming the heroes, while our soldiers are the bad guys.

Thanks to Pete Hegseth and Vets for Freedom, we now have one less front in the war on terror to worry about.

Katherine Kersten is a Twin Cities writer and speaker. Reach her at kakersten@gmail.com -- or join the conversation at her blog, www.startribune.com/thinkagain.

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