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Conflict made clear in wars virtual and real


The evening news ends and my husband comes into the study. I lift my fingers from the keyboard, hoping for another comedy routine. Last night he did his impression of a presidential news flash: “I just got off the phone with the leaders of North Carolina, and they assured me that they won’t attack South Carolina. So, we can now focus like a laser beam on the crisis with Iraq.”

Tonight, however, Andrew has a theory: “I bet Bush won’t admit that North Korea’s a bigger threat than Iraq because he’s worried about our troops’ ability to sustain the kind of prolonged slug-fest a war against North Korea might be. We’ve got a military full of people who grew up on video games: Hit a few buttons, evaporate the targets, ride the adrenaline and it’s over. I just don’t think that’s the way a war with North Korea would go.”

My fingers drop, falling on the wrong keys. Because I’ve just stumbled -- in an unrelated Internet search -- across the U.S. Army’s latest recruiting strategy.

A video game.

Our government has just spent $7 million on a “thrilling first-person action game” intended to inspire teenagers to enlist. “Earn the right to call yourself a soldier,” urges the home page, and I think of L’il Speedy, an African-American kid in a ’hood in North St. Louis who can’t wait to get his hands on an M-16 and kill Osama. When he talks about fighting for his country I want to cry, thinking of senators’ sons warm and safe in their Yale dorm rooms. How did L’il Speedy earn a right that eluded them?

“Join thousands online,” the text continues, “neutralizing threats wherever they arise.”

Neutralizing threats. There was a time I would have choked at the euphemism. Now I realize it’s accurate. In a virtual reality, that’s all a player’s really doing. Pushing buttons, neutralizing threats.

And that’s all a soldier’s doing in a high-tech real war.

Entering “Operations,” I read how “America’s Army” turns its young players into “members of the world’s premier land force, trained and equipped to achieve decisive victory -- anywhere.”

My friend, Pat, spent years in the jungles of Vietnam. His IQ is higher than most college professors, but he lives in a maze of flashbacks and psych meds, his world as blurred as the features of an unrecognizable enemy.

This game, of course, is very clearly structured, with rules and internal logic and unquestionable moral purpose. Yet even here, identities get a little ambiguous: “Members of the opposing team appear as hostile opposing forces (OPFOR). But in reality, everyone playing America’s Army is actually playing the role of a U.S. Army soldier.”

So who’s getting shot? Because the game contains so many “depictions of blood and scenes involving aggressive conflict” it’s rated “Teen,” deemed suitable only for children 13 and over.

How old was Vince? I think back to the trial I covered. He’d just turned 15 when he put on camouflage and belly-crawled on the basement floor, holding his dad’s rifle combat-style, then ran upstairs and shot his mother. A psychiatrist told me that the delusions of a person suffering from schizophrenia take their shape from the surrounding culture. The video war game he’d been playing obsessively for days before the murder hadn’t caused him to kill, but it had shaped the fantasy that slid into his unhinged mind.

I shake off the memory, look for a blander category and settle on “Squad Roles.” The Army offers 212 exciting vocations or job specialties. Surely some of these will be nonviolent. Except that chaplains and cooks don’t get picked to star in the war game.

I scroll down the handful of possible roles: “Armed with the M-249 SAW, the automatic rifleman combines awesome firepower with quick maneuverability.” Scroll again. “Relying on stealth and patience, the advanced marksman is specially trained to employ either the hard-hitting M-82 Barrett or the pinpoint accurate M-24 SWS.” I get it: He’s a sniper. He’s a sniper on the right side of the law, so he’s a hero, not a candidate for the death penalty.

But will he have any more idea of what he’s doing and why?

The real-world part of the game is the dispatches, “Stories of Afghanistan” written by a real soldier, “Scorpion,” who works for the game. He writes about gunners in their turrets, hairpin turns in a convoy of Humvees, a burst of grenade rounds and enemy muzzle flashes and soldiers shooting at “some scurrying enemy figures toting M-16s.”

If memory serves, it was the United States that first sent those M-16s to Afghanistan. I was reminded of that irony by refugees with their own “stories of Afghanistan” -- but those stories came in tearful bits and pieces, told through interpreters. So when Scorpion writes of a “dismounted element” moving up a hillside to talk to the local people, I cannot help but wonder if these soldiers speak Pashto. And if they don’t, how they can be so sure that the local people “genuinely welcomed the Americans”?

But no matter, Scorpion has moved on to a new story, this one about an exhilarating day firing a “50 cal” machine gun “designed to be able to penetrate and stop light vehicles whose drivers might meander with evil intent toward our compounds.”

Evil intent. A complex philosophical concept for our Scorpion and his young fans, made clear only by the confident, rapid-fire movement of the pre-scripted game. As Scorpion puts it in his final story: “The Army’s toys are cooler. … We own the night.”

What kid wouldn’t sign up to play that game?

Editor’s note: For more on the U.S. military’s recruiting methods, including this video game, see NCR’s March 21 cover story.

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer for The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis. Her e-mail address is jeannette.batz@riverfronttimes.com

National Catholic Reporter, March 28, 2003