American fighters in Iraq take Pokemon contest to the front lines
By CHAD GARLAND | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 7, 2016
IRBIL, Iraq — Once feared by Saddam Hussein as a Zionist plot, Pokemon are now popping up in Iraq again. U.S. troops and veterans, among others, have joined in the hunt to “catch ’em all,” even on the front lines of the fight against the Islamic State group.
The popular Japanese children’s cartoon about pocket monsters and their human trainers was suspected by Hussein and his security service to be a tool of international Zionism. Iraqi intelligence thought the name “Pokemon” meant “I’m Jewish,” according to a 2001 memo U.S. troops captured.
Now, a new wave of cartoon monsters is invading the country thanks to the immensely popular “Pokemon Go” smartphone app, a virtual scavenger hunt in which users try to catch the creatures.
“I’ve seen a lot of Zubats,” said Louis Park, a Marine veteran, volunteering with Dwehk Nawsha, a Christian militia fighting the Islamic State group in Iraq. He was referring to a poisonous, flying Pokemon.
An American servicemember near Baghdad said U.S. soldiers there are also playing the game, which uses a phone’s GPS sensor, camera and other functions to create an augmented reality, making the creatures seem to appear in the real world.
“Some of our crew chiefs have been playing it,” said an Apache pilot, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media. “The only problem is that you can only seem to find the [darn] desert Pokemon.”
Pokemon come from different habitats — for example water, desert or forest — and are more likely to be found in real-world places corresponding to their native habitats, according to the game’s website.
Last month Park posted a screenshot from the game featuring a blue cartoon Squirtle, a turtle-like creature, superimposed on the desert landscape downrange of the Marine veteran’s machine gun.
“Just caught my first Pokemon on the Mosul front line by Teleskuf,” Park wrote, referring to a Christian village. He added, using an Arabic term for the Islamic State group: “Daesh, come challenge me to a Pokemon battle. Mortars are for (cowards).”
Mortar and heavy machine gun fire from Soviet-made DShK, which fires a round similar to NATO .50-caliber ammunition, is a weekly if not daily occurrence in the area, Park said last month in a video interview via Facebook. But because of a lack of ammunition, “we can’t fire back.”
A longtime fan of the cartoon series, Park said he knew friends playing the game and wanted to see if it worked on the front lines. The post was meant as a joke for his friends back in the U.S.
“It’s not the central focus out here,” he said, though he does experience periods of boredom. “It’s just kind of a release ... it is kind of enjoyable.”
John Cole, a 7-foot-tall U.S. Army veteran fighting with the peshmerga in Kurdistan, has also posted photos of the game apparently being played on the front lines.
“There I was getting attacked by a Daesh Bulbasaur,” Cole wrote as the caption to a screenshot of the game, in which he appears to be pointing a real AK-47 rifle at a green cartoon monster, a combination of a dinosaur and a plant bulb, while attacking it with a virtual Pokeball, the weapon used in the game to capture and store Pokemon.
“When we aren’t protecting the minorities living in the Middle East, we are collecting Pokemon,” Cole said in an interview Wednesday via Facebook. “It’s just a game to play when I’m not protecting the free world.”
It’s not clear whether Islamic State fighters can play Pokemon Go. Many Iraqis say that the militants have destroyed cell towers and blocked internet service in Mosul and vicinity in order prevent the flow of information into and out of the group’s de facto Iraqi capital.
While many “Pokemon Go” users and security officials have voiced concerns about privacy and security threats related to the game, it was Park’s Facebook post that became an issue. As media outlets sought ever-wilder stories about the popular game app, some began reporting about his post and “blurting out” sensitive details about him without his permission or knowledge.
Park decided to “go private” with his Facebook account, he wrote in a later post, adding that he hoped the viral story “helps draw attention to the peshmerga and Dwehk (the Christian militia).”
“Sad that it takes pop culture to do that,” he said.
Some of the posts are still public, including a brief video of a firefight on July 2 when Park said he was “blown up,” but unharmed. Cole said he, too, has had some “close calls” on the front lines.
In late July, via video call, Park said he hoped Pokemon hype would increase support for fighters, who he said are critically short on supplies.
As the anti-Islamic State’s campaign to retake Mosul was gaining momentum, Park was looking forward not to capturing Pokemon but to retaking Christian towns downrange from his position.
“It’s no joke out here,” he said.