Orwell and Airsoft

One of my favourite books of reportage is ‘Homage to Catalonia’ by George Orwell.

It’s a sobering story about how Stalin brutally parted company with the ‘soft’ left during the Spanish Civil War. It’s also got some great battle scenes in it, told from a first person point of view.

Would he have enjoyed airsoft? Probably.

Would he have enjoyed airsoft? Probably.

Orwell was there in the thick of it, with a worn-out Mauser, giving it to the fascists a few years before everyone else woke up and realised they weren’t the good guys after all.

You don’t have to read between the lines to tell that Orwell actually enjoyed a lot of the scraps he found himself in. There’s a riveting passage where he and his platoon of volunteers are trying to defend a fascist trench they’ve just taken. A fascist takes a crack at him and Orwell lets him have a grenade in return:

‘By one of those strokes of luck that happen about once in a year I had managed to drop the bomb almost exactly where the rifle had flashed. There was the roar of the explosion and then, instantly, a diabolical outcry of screams and groans. We had got one of them, anyway; I don’t know whether he was killed, but certainly he was badly hurt.’

You can almost hear Orwell’s ecstatic excitement at killing or critically wounding some poor fascistic bastard (or possibly some North African conscript who didn’t really know who he was fighting for or why).

I was reading some critical commentaries about the book when I came across an interesting fact. Interesting to me, at any rate. Apparently, Orwell let one of his socialist mates read the original manuscript. His friend suggested that he tone down the bloodlust a bit. After all, this was supposed to be a war for peace and brotherhood, not some sort of gladiatorial fun-fest.

Spanish holidays were a bit more exciting in the 1930s.

Spanish holidays were a bit more exciting in the 1930s.

So in the final draft, Orwell added two sentences to the end of that paragraph:

 ‘Poor wretch, poor wretch! I felt a vague sorrow as I heard him screaming.’

What’s this got to do with airsoft? Well, I was at a local site a while ago and a fellow player and I were discussing the relative benefits of LiPo and NiMh batteries. I remarked that sometimes I think the techie stuff is the most absorbing thing about airsoft.

My fellow player disagreed. ‘I agree the tech bit’s interesting, but mostly I’m in it for the kills’ he said, with a shit-eating grin. I liked his honesty. Let’s face it, Airsoft is a game where the principal thrill comes from simulating the killing or wounding of another human being.

Paintballers take pains to disguise this element of their sport. They use the verb ‘to tag’ rather than the verb ‘to hit’. They often wear bright clothing, not military camo. And their guns look like vacuum cleaner parts.

There’s part of me who wants to be like Orwell’s mate. I sometimes want to deny the fact that fighting can be an intensely exciting and emotionally thrilling experience. That’s probably another reason why I’m The Secret Airsofter.

An inconvenient truth: Shooting people is fun.

An inconvenient truth: Shooting people is fun.

However, in my heart of hearts, I know I like the feeling of getting someone in my sights, squeezing off a volley of plastic and seeing my target (hopefully) succumb to my will. Even though I’d be mortified to think I could ever do it in real life.

Does our overt simulation of war, and the thrill of hitting another person with a projectile fired by a realistic looking assault weapon, make us less than morally sound? Or are we just being honest with ourselves about our human nature?

Others may think the former. But I prefer to believe the latter. It’s less disturbing that way.

12 thoughts on “Orwell and Airsoft

  1. War is fun. In a terrifying and adrenalin soaked way. But eventually you experience something that makes you realise the reality of what your doing. Once you’ve seen what a live round does to a person you understand that a gunshot is an infinitely final sound. It’s the sound of attempting to end somebody else’s life. I don’t think air soft should be seen as an extension of that violence. Humans love being aggressive as proved in combat sports like judo or boxing, it’s in our nature. Could an airsoft player take someone’s life in reality. I doubt it. I wouldn’t worry about blood lust in airsoft it’s fun and gets the adrenalin flowing just enough. I think it serves as an outlet and a good one at that. So be as aggressive as you like my friend. As someone once told me MFV( maximum f****** violence) is the only way to end a contact. Good hunting.

  2. Thank you for your comment. I hear the voice of experience in it.

    As someone who’s studied history and psychology (a bit) I’m fascinated by aggression. It’s served us well as a species, but maybe now it’s more of an evolutionary dead-end. (There’s a great book called ‘Sex and War’ that makes just that argument.)

    Perhaps activities like airsoft do, in their small way, act as an earthing-rod for the darker angels of our nature. It doesn’t fuel aggression, it dissipates it. That’s what I prefer to tell myself, and I’m glad you agree.

    Thanks again for your comments – it’s rare for an airsofter to be able to engage constructively with a professional, and I really value your open-mindedness.

  3. I can understand this, and I fully get it.

    The novelty of being fired at wore off, for me, the first time some b*gger, sent a couple of bursts of 7.62 in my direction and at that point you start to play the game with a very serious policy of “Stay Low, Move Fast” and change underpants later!!

    but in your past time/ hobby of airsoft, I can fully understand the adrenaline rush and the excitement of the “Contact”. I won’t de-cry you or say you are wrong, there is just a difference and for each individual the perspective of that difference is different.

    but it is interesting to read your thoughts and views.

    Regards

    Jock

  4. 6mm BBs and 7.62mm ball are two very different kettles of fish. Respect is due to anyone who’s been on the receiving end of the latter. I imagine it’s character-building to say the very least; I know I’d never have the guts to put myself in that position. Which is why we shouldn’t take airsoft too seriously. Or at all seriously, in fact. Thank God it’s just a game…

  5. Fair comment, Character building is one way of putting it.

    Like I’ve said before, I find the Airsoft thing interesting, and your site certainly shows a good forum for giving a better understanding of it, so crack on and I’ll keep dipping in and out.

    Regards

    Jock

  6. So since my last post on your blog I found myself pondering the reasons that people do what they do. I have a few questions if that’s ok. What do you enjoy most about your hobby? Is it the adrenalin rush, the outlet for aggression or the atmosphere of a group of people meeting up to do something they enjoy? The idea appeals to me based on the fact that basically it’s a developed version of picking up a stick and shouting bang as we all did as boys. I would imagine that, as you say yourself some people view airsoft as a rather peculiar hobby, it must be quite a tight bond between participants. I’m just interested in what you enjoy most or is it a mixture?

  7. Good question Allycat. I honestly think it is just as you describe: a more developed version of cowboys and indians. With, for some of us, the added nerdy or collector appeal of learning about the history and technology of the weapons our ‘sticks’ are supposed to represent.

    So why do boys (and if my last airsoft game was anything to go by, some very aggressive little girls) like playing cowboys and indians? That’s a bigger question. As the book ‘Sex and War’ argues, it’s probably some sort of evolutionary programming that means we are naturally prepared to compete as kinship groups for resources.

    But of course, we’re getting too deep here. You could apply the same argument to explain any form of human competition, from business to football. Indeed, on those rare occasions when I manage to hit another player with one of my daft little BBs, the satisfaction I feel is no different from the kind I get scoring a point in any other game, or indeed winning business from a competitor.

    As you suggest, the camaraderie – while not an end in itself – is a great by-product. The line of work I’m in means I’m mostly surrounded by liberal-thinking middle class professional types (like me). Airsoft appeals to all sorts (including a surprisingly large number of ex-military people, even if you include an error factor for the inevitable Walter Mitty types).

    The fact we have a frankly weird common interest pulls us together and makes us all equal in our immaturity. Which is rare in a society which is increasingly fragmented.

    Hope that goes some way to answering your question.

  8. Your very correct in saying that we have a natural inclination towards competition. I guess this is, as you suggested an evolutionary trait long preserved in the less human and more animal parts of our psych. From my personal experiences of war and without going too deeply it is like the greatest game possible for a man to play. The stakes higher than anything, your own being. You play with death, each action echoes ten thousand times more because it could be your last.

    But when you return it’s as if a veil has been lifted. The delicate sensibilities that people live by are just the surface. You’ve seen Beneath the veil. You know what people are capable of when pushed to the extremes of the human condition. Forever more you’ll wonder how far we really are from that dirty dusty s*** hole you flew home from. It can haunt and consume you. The worst part is sometimes you want to return. Go back to when you played that great game, because for all it’s horror and pain. It felt like living.

    Maybe I’ve ranted too much, I’m a young man and was profoundly changed by my ongoing service. My point if I ever had one, is that in this current world I inhabit the veil is very calm and un disturbed as it is for many people who don’t even know it’s there. But just a glimpse through it gets you hooked. I wonder if you ever wonder what if? What if this was real? What if these 6mm bb pellets fired at me at 300fps or whatever could kill me? I’m sure you get that rush and it’s the same rush. In my world it’s just a bit stronger.

    These are just my own views after all not every soldier fights a war. Not every soldier creates a fictional veil to describe the separation between human savagery in a war zone and the calm of peace. Maybe I’m an exception I have no way of knowing.

  9. Allycat,

    Sorry for the late response, I’ve been busy earning my crust this week.

    Once again, a brave and intelligent post. Brave in that few warriors I’ve read about go on record as saying that war is a thrilling experience. Intelligent in that you clearly have the ability to understand your feelings and express them vividly.

    Once you’ve ‘seen the elephant’ the veil of humanity must seem very thin indeed. I hope you find something in post-combat life that in some way makes up for the sense of aliveness you felt in harm’s way.

    Thank you for your continued willingness to engage with a mere make-believe combatant. It’s a privilege to have had this opportunity. On a lighter note, if you ever want a laugh with (or at) some airsofters one Sunday, I have a spare BB gun you can borrow!

  10. I’m also sorry for my late response I’ve been busy. It’s immensely flattering that you classify my posts as both intelligent and honest. They are in fact just honest although my Innate ability to objectively and dispassionately view my experiences is rare among my comrades.

    I don’t view my service as anything other than a profession so it’s funny to me that people would wish to replicate it. I’m flattered also that you feel at all honoured to talk to me, believe me I’m just a young man with a very high pain threshold who’s addicted to adrenalin. My service will be coming to an end in the not too distant future of my own choice. Civilian life won’t be as boring for me as you would imagine. My particular skill set lends itself to other professions I may enjoy more.

    I won’t bore you with my plans anymore, I realise being a soldier is the main reason I’m interesting, much to my amusement. I accept your offer however it may be some time until I’m back in country to partake. It would be quite funny and I would imagine I would be on the receiving end of quite a lot of 6mm. Take care

  11. Happy to take you along to my local site any time, together with your choice of weapon. Get in touch when you’re back in blighty and have a spare Sunday. In the meantime, keep safe!

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