Sunday, December 28, 2008

Kids Learn That Killing Is Fun at the Army's Lethal New Theme Park

By Penny Coleman, AlterNet. Posted December 19, 2008.

The Army's new recruitment tool lets high-tech video game centers desensitize, condition, train and even enlist America's youth.

The Army Experience Center, located in the Franklin Mills Mall just north of Philadelphia, bills itself as a "state-of-the-art educational facility that uses interactive simulations and online learning programs to educate visitors about the many careers, training and educational opportunities available in the Army."

Nonsense. The only thing they're teaching here is how to blow shit up. If it's state-of-the-art anything, it's state-of-the-art adolescent boys’ wet dreams.

"Too slow! Do it again!" yells the voice in my earphones as a new sequence of armed figures in camouflage pop up in front of me. I -- the player -- am attached to the foreshortened barrel of an M-16 -- and a little embarrassed by that. It's not my thing, really. And I wasn't expecting the game to involve having to tolerate some dickhead's personal opinion about my marksmanship.

But I didn't come here to get yelled at or to play games. I came because I was curious about the Army's latest marketing strategy. For $12 million, this place has been dressed to kill: 15,000 square feet (about three basketball courts) done up in brushed steel, glass and low-light glam. But what this place is really about is the bling: strings of networked Xbox 360 pods and individual gaming stations. And the crown jewels: a UH-60 Black Hawk, an AH-64 Apache and a Humvee. Simulators. And it's all entirely free.

"Potential recruits are afforded a unique opportunity to learn what it means to be the best-led, best-trained and best-equipped Army in the world by allowing them to virtually experience multiple aspects of the Army," says Pete Geren, Secretary of the Army.

Sir, give me a break, sir! You mean the "Career Navigators," those fancy touch-screen installations where you can see all the different jobs the Army can train you for? No one went near them all day. Most of these kids can't reach them, anyway. It's the shiny toys and virtual adrenaline rush that brings them in.

Behind a glass wall, there are 40 more terminals facing a wall of plasma screens: the Tactical Operations Center, where local educators (principals, superintendents, school counselors and teachers) are given an earful about how misunderstood the military is.

"Accurate information about the military experience is often drowned out, or the information that does get through projects mixed messages or inaccuracies," Lt. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakly recently complained to the Northeast Times. "The Army Experience Center provides hands-on, virtual-reality experiences and simulations for young men and women, their parents and others to see, touch and learn firsthand what it means to be in the Army."

There are no mixed messages at the AEC: being in the Army is about getting to play with boy toys, 24/7. Freakly's tidy version of "what it means to be in the Army" fails to mention what can happen if your Humvee hits an IED, or how it might feel to be splattered with your best friend's insides. Or your own.

As I considered that grim thought, there’s a tap on my shoulder. It's my turn -- my Black Hawk awaits.

Our orders are to protect a convoy as it moves through enemy territory. The video kicks in with a roar of rotors; the chopper lurches and bucks as it turns to follow the trucks on the ground -- the wind, the vibrations, the report of my M-4 and the staccato of incoming rounds make it hard to hear the screamed alerts coming over the intercom: "Enemy on the right!" "Look out, RPGs straight ahead!"

Bad guys are shooting at me from the alleys, the shadows, the rooftops, but I am wasting them. One after another, they get caught in my crosshairs and -- bam! -- their bodies lift and sprawl in haphazard death. We're slammed by an IED and momentarily engulfed in flame. My hand is getting numb from the rifle recoil, but my lizard brain has taken over.

Too soon, we emerge from the bedlam and an inspirationally oversized American flag indicates that we have successfully achieved our destination -- a field hospital where rows of medics attend to ghastly luminous, very slightly breathing shapes, the bloodless bodies of the cyber-wounded.


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Penny Coleman is the widow of a Vietnam veteran who took his own life after coming home. Her latest book, Flashback: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide and the Lessons of War, was released on Memorial Day 2006. Her Web site is Flashback.

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