Wednesday, December 13, 2006


By William Fisher

NEW YORK, Dec 13 (IPS) - A coalition of U.S. religious and progressive groups has stepped up a formal campaign to protest a controversial new Christian fundamentalist video game in which players battle the "forces of the Anti-Christ" and kill or convert non-believers.

"This is the first time any Christian religious instructional video has recommended killing all non-Christians who refuse to convert to Christianity. It is unprecedented and dangerous," Rev. Timothy Simpson, president of the Jacksonville, Florida-based progressive advocacy group the Christian Alliance for Progress, told IPS.

The game, titled "Left Behind: Eternal Forces", is packaged with a book explaining its philosophy, and is currently being sold by WalMart, the United States' largest retailer. The chain has thus far has refused demands that it remove it from its shelves, indicating it would continue selling the game online and in selected stores where it felt there was demand.

"The product has been selling in those stores," according to spokeswoman Tara Raddohl. "The decision on what merchandise we offer in our stores is based on what we think our customers want the opportunity to buy."

Nearly 25,000 members of the Campaign to Defend the Constitution, one of the groups critical of the video game, have submitted letters to Wal-Mart, asking the store to stop selling religious violence for Christmas.

Aimed at conservative Christians, the game's story line begins in a time after the "rapture", when fundamentalist dogma contends that Christians will go to heaven. The remaining population on earth must then choose between surrendering to or resisting "the Antichrist", which the game describes as the "Global Community Peacekeepers" whose objective is the imposition of "one-world government".

"Part of the object is to kill or convert the opposing forces," Simpson said. This is "antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ," he said, adding that he was dismayed by the concept in "Eternal Forces" of using prayer to restore a player's "spirit points" after killing the enemy.

In the game, combatants on one side pause for prayer, intoning, "Praise the Lord". A player can lose points for "unnecessary killing" but regain them through prayer.

But Simpson counters, "The idea that you could pray, and the deleterious effects of one's foul deeds would simply be wiped away, is a horrible thing to be teaching Christian young people here at Christmas time."

Troy Lyndon, CEO of Left Behind Games Inc., which is promoting the new video, has defended the game as "inspirational entertainment" and said its critics were exaggerating. The game is based on the popular "Left Behind" novels, a Bible-based end-of-the-world-saga that has sold more than 63 million copies.

Lyndon told the New York Times the game has received a T (for teen) rating, meaning it offers more violence than an E-rated children's game, but less graphically than games rated M (for mature). M games have often been criticised by conservative Christian groups.

The "Left Behind" game is based on the popular series of novels series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins and is based on their interpretation of the Bible's Book of Revelation.

Left Behind Games says the game actually is pacifist because players lose "spirit points" every time they gun down nonbelievers rather than convert them. They can earn spirit points again by having their character pray.

"You are fighting a defensive battle in the game. You are a sort of a freedom fighter," the company says on its web site. "Our game includes violence, but excludes blood, decapitation, killing of police officers."

Simpson, whose group was formed last year to counter the influence of the religious right, told IPS that he and a number of his colleagues would be initiating a conference call to the game's promoter Thursday, to try to persuade the company to withdraw the game from the market.

Another participant in the critics' news conference, author Frederick Clarkson, argued that "Eternal Forces" was less violent than many other video games, but was more troubling in some ways.

"It becomes a tool of religious instruction," he said. "The message is... there will be religious warfare, and you will target your fellow Americans, people from other faiths, people who you consider to be sinners."

Clarkson criticised the Rev. James Dobson's powerful Colorado-based Christian ministry, Focus on the Family (FOF), for publishing a positive review of "Eternal Forces" on one of its web sites. Dobson's group is close to the White House and is considered highly influential in shaping the George W. Bush administration's conservative agenda.

"Eternal Forces is the kind of game that Mom and Dad can actually play with Junior and use to raise some interesting questions along the way," wrote the FOF reviewer, Bob Hoose.

Simpson's group has joined with other progressive Christian organisations to protest the video game. These include the CrossWalk America, the Beatitudes Society, the Centre for Progressive Christianity, and the Campaign to Defend the Constitution (DefCon)


By William Fisher

The past few years have seen the excoriation of contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Bush Administration has been accused of “outsourcing” vital missions for reconstruction and delivery of vital services. Contractors have been accused of finagling no-bid contracts, failing to deliver on these contracts, over-charging our taxpayers, and generally engaging in a free-for-all binge of waste, fraud and mismanagement.

Much of this criticism is painfully true. Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown & Root, and Custer Battles, a private security firm, for example, have – justifiably, in my view – become poster children for everything that has gone wrong with our $20 billion-plus reconstruction programs.

Yet all contractors are not Halliburton or Custer Battles. And in indicting contractors generically, critics do a profound disservice to other kinds of contractors who have struggled to be effective under the most perilous conditions.

I refer here to the many international development contractors – both private,
for- profit companies, and non-governmental organizations – working in these war zones for the U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID. Their work is about improving health systems, education, agriculture, industrial production, good governance, and much more.

My viewpoint is not academic nor is it the result of a Google search. It is informed by my own twenty years of serving as such a contractor in the Middle East, Latin America, Africa and Asia.

Rewind to Egypt, circa 1999-2002, when I lived in Egypt as a USAID contractor. My job was to lead an all-Egyptian team charged with monitoring, evaluating and improving the performance of more than dozen programs dedicated to improving the country’s capacity to take advantage of globalization.

Almost all these programs were managed by U.S.-based international development contractors. There were no no-bid contracts; all had been won on the basis of competitive bidding. Contracting officers were infuriatingly meticulous about dotting every ‘i’ and crossing every ‘t’.

The programs were both diverse and related. For example, one worked with the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture to reduce policy and practice constraints to increased agricultural production and exports. Another, run by Egyptians, was dedicated to matchmaking between Egyptian businesses and their international counterparts and improving potential small exporters’ access to credit by a banking system that traditionally made loans only to the super-wealthy elites of the country. Another was conceived to foster access to new technologies and encourage technological innovation among smaller entrepreneurs. All were dedicated to pursuing anti-corruption measures because official and private corruption at the time was adding something like 30 percent to every item lucky enough to enter or leave the country – making Egyptian products and services uncompetitive with many other countries around the world.

Much has been written about the pitiful lack of oversight of contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the truth of this has been well documented. In my experience in Egypt, the very existence of the unit I led constituted a rigorous form of oversight.

But that might have been seen as the fox guarding the henhouse. So there was more. Each of these programs had an experienced USAID officer assigned to monitor its progress on a daily basis, produce strategic objectives, detailed workplans with benchmarks and dates, and make frequent reports and presentations detailing their progress and problems. Most of these officers were Egyptians familiar with their country’s customs, constraints and opportunities.

This is not unusual; in fact, it is pretty universally standard operating procedure for USAID projects everywhere in the world. If there were roadblocks, they were more often than not erected by the Egyptian government itself – mostly related to pushing Egyptians to do too much too quickly, or protecting sacred cows from anti-corruption efforts.

There are many such development contractors working in Iraq and Afghanistan. But, unlike my experience in Egypt, they obviously have huge security concerns, and the larger contractors have had to assemble small private armies to protect them – at considerable expense. These concerns have increased with the ever-heightening levels of violence and criminality.

But many of them have told me that, in Iraq, the principal problems they faced initially stemmed largely from the arrogance and lack of development experience of the ideologically-driven political appointees assembled by Viceroy L. Paul Bremer’s original Coalition Provisional Authority – the CPA – widely known among contractors as the “Can’t Provide Anything” authority. Today, many are hamstrung by the lack of experienced officials in the various ministries with which these contractors must interact.

Decisions are delayed for months. When decisions are made, they are often still grandiose and impractical, as in the earlier days of the occupation. Funding does not flow. And development teams, which must travel outside the Green Zone to do their work, cannot get military assistance to protect them.

One project manager in Iraq wrote me: “In my three years in Iraq, I witnessed a U.S. Government unprepared for the challenges present in post-Saddam Iraq and, at times, appeared to deliberately conduct business on the basis of ideology rather than the practical realities of Iraq. Iraqis, who were genuinely happy that Saddam was toppled, deserved better. As the Green Zoners met with each other and made momentous decisions -- or as more often happened, they met with each other and made no decisions -- we were on the outside working with Iraqis figuring out how in the midst of a terrible war we could give hope to the rural population. My greatest hope is that our project will not be judged as an arm of the American government in Iraq. Rather, I hope that we will be looked upon as a group, most of who were against the war, that put ideology and politics aside to work humbly for a better Iraq.”

The U.S. Government has neither the skills nor the experience to take on massive reconstruction and development projects with government employees only. It needs contractors. It needs a competitive bidding process. And the Government has a responsibility to provide personnel equipped to provide informed oversight.

But if these development contractors don’t sound like Halliburton or Custer Battles, it’s because they’re not. They are an entirely different breed. Compared to the now well-known companies who took on big-ticket construction or infrastructure rehabilitation or military services contracts, their cost is infinitesimal. The challenges they face are daunting. Their work is dangerous. But their dedication to development is very real.

To bracket them with those companies that viewed Iraq and Afghanistan as no more than an unpoliced pot of gold does them a huge injustice.