The Army Experience Center, located in the Franklin Mills Mall just north of Philadelphia, supposedly a "state-of-the-art educational facility," seeks to woo youth through stomach-churning mayhem, though virtual. It could all end up in brutalizing impressionable minds.
"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.
The centre uses "interactive simulations and online learning programs to educate visitors about the many careers, training and educational opportunities available in the Army."
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."
Penny Coleman anti-war veteran writes angrily on Alternet: "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.
It's a bizarre curtsy to realism, and almost is lost in the orgy of virtual pyrotechnics as American rockets vaporize a bridge in the background."
Paul Boyce, an Army spokesman, "strongly refutes" the notion that any of the Army's initiatives glamorize war, adding that "great care" is taken to avoid portraying violence.
"We have a 'Teen' rating that allows 13-year-olds to play, and in order to maintain that rating we have to adhere to certain standards," Chris Chambers, a retired Army major who is now the project's deputy director, told the New York Times
. "We don't use blood and gore and violence to entertain."
Lt. Col. Dave Grossman has written extensively on the psychology of killing, and he argues that it's not that people can't tell the difference between fantasy and reality, but that these games use virtual experience to systematically desensitize and condition.
Grossman cites hundreds of studies that reveal a direct correlation between exposure to media violence -- especially interactive video games -- and increased childhood aggression. A Stanford University study is particularly compelling: Over a 20-week period, third- and fourth-graders who limited or eliminated TV and video games demonstrated a 50 percent decrease in verbal aggression and a 40 percent decrease in physical aggression.
Grossman warns that Americans ''are reaching that stage of desensitization at which the inflicting of pain and suffering has become a source of entertainment; vicarious pleasure rather than revulsion. We are learning to kill, and we are learning to like it.''
Despite the AEC's 13-year-old age limit, underage exiles are welcome to come for the free movies. Or to "Dining Army Style," featuring MRE (Meal, Ready to Eat) smorgasbords. Otherwise, they can watch -- through the center's glass front from the video arcade or the skateboard palace, both directly opposite the AEC -- while their older brothers compete in the Xbox tournaments.
A provision of No Child Left Behind, one of the first pieces of legislation proposed by the Bush administration, forced schools to open their doors to recruiters and provide contact information for students as young as 11.
The Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, ratified and signed by the U.S. Senate in 2002, categorically forbids the Pentagon, or the militaries of any of the other 124 signatory nations, to attempt to recruit children 13 to 16 years old. The Pentagon simply chooses to ignore it, and Congress has neglected to enforce the treaty. (A meticulous documentation of the Pentagon's recruiting tactics explicitly directed at children can be found in a recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union, Soldiers of Misfortune
It is all laid-back thought at the centre, nothing like the heavy-handed recruiting tactics that have caused so much public outrage over the past few years. Soldiers are standing around talking, watching TV.
"It's not a recruiting center," insists Ed Walters, the Army's first official chief marketing officer.
For the past two years, the Army has proudly claimed to have met its recruitment goals. The economic crisis, unemployment, expanded educational benefits, grossly inflated enlistment bonuses, an array of medical, moral and criminal waivers, and relaxed weight, height, age and education requirements all make that achievement look considerably less impressive. The Army's efforts have cost more than $4 billion a year, but a recent rash of recruiter suicides in Texas suggests that the ongoing stress of meeting quotas is becoming intolerable for some.
It seems the Army has come up with a unique strategy for the future: automation. For $4 billion, they could build half a dozen experience centers in every state and let the machines desensitize, condition, train and even enlist America's youth.
The Pentagon has been enjoined by both by national lawmakers and international institutions to stop pandering to children. When children's bodies are invaded, we call it statutory rape. Do we have a tidier phrase for the invasion of their minds, wonders Penny Coleman.
She is the widow of a Vietnam veteran who took his own life after coming home and has authored a book on problems faced by soldiers - Flashback: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide and the Lessons of War.