Young men and women in the United States deserve the opportunity to learn about military service during high school, just as they learn about universities and the trades. Our recruiters cannot force children to enlist, just as college recruiters cannot force young people to go to any particular university. To hide our young people from military recruiters would be unfair to them. However, our wider military recruitment strategies do indeed prey on youth.
In recent years, thanks in part to video games developed by the Army, military service and combat are being sold to even younger children as “fun” and “cool” rather than as the grim and necessary business of defending the homeland against very real threats. This underestimates the capacity our children have to understand the importance of military service, and instead panders to a sanitized, childish conceptualization of war.
The Department of Defense (DoD) created a free, downloadable video game to begin “recruiting” children as soon as they are able to click a mouse or hold a remote control. This game, “America’s Army,” is not the most advanced shooting game on the market, but it is available free to anyone with an internet connection. It is also distributed by Army recruiters, and is bundled for free in video game magazines. “Free” is perhaps inaccurate – according to information provided to journalists at Gamespot.com via the Freedom of Information Act, as of 2009 the DoD spent has over 32 million dollars developing this recruiting tool.
The game provides “a kind of ‘shock and awe’ display of what the American military is capable of, without the consequences of context.” Go and see for yourself, especially if you have children. Download and experience “virtual basic training” and ask yourself why the Army spent millions of dollars on this game. Read the “Action-packed graphic novel” available on the flashy America’s Army website. Play the mobile phone game. Drop a quarter into the freestanding arcade consoles set up at NASCAR events and air shows. Or, if you’re feeling up to some travel, head to one of the traveling 19,000 square-foot Virtual Army Experience centers, elaborate, full-sized virtual reality games run by Army personnel, and play soldier with a few friends.
Notice the total lack of blood. No Soldier or enemy screams when they are shot. No one loses limbs, no one is trapped in their burning vehicle, no civilians are at risk. There are no after-action reports, no hours of hard, thankless work, no funerals in America’s Army – if you “die,” you just start over.
“Despite the game’s neurotic commitment to accuracy elsewhere, the small detail about killing people is brushed over gingerly. “We were very careful on the blood thing,” says [one of the game’s developers]. There are no sound effects when players are shot; only a small red blotch appears, similar to a paintball hit. The sanitizing of violence also aids marketing efforts by earning the game a teen rating.” — America’s Army Targets Youth, The Nation, Sep. 2002.
Ask yourself – is this game for children or recruitment-age adults, and if it is for children, is it appropriate? Is it ok for our kids to be sold “the real thing” without the real consequences attached?
At the very least, this is a lazy and most irresponsible method to convince children to join the military. Instead of educating children and imparting real knowledge of just how important the armed forces are to our safety, we tell kids to go turn on their Xbox. This is just bad citizenship, and we as adults owe our children more. We owe them interviews with veterans and currently-serving servicemen and women, just as we take them on field trips to local businesses. We owe them honest assessments of global threats, starting in high school social studies classes, just as we teach them basic economics and history. We’ve been at war for ten years – it’s time our children know what that means.
We should be proud that our recruits join the military, not because they think it is “cool” or “exciting,” but because the task of defending the nation resonates somewhere in their conscience. The decision to take up a military career, no matter how short, is not something that should be manipulated by games one can play in the safety of a basement. It is a decision that should be made by a maturing individual, not a child, with honest input from adult role models and unbiased information about the risks and rewards.
Loyalty, duty, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage – these are the recruiter’s best tools and they appeal, even in a digital age, to the best and brightest of our young adults. Let’s stop targeting our youngest with sanitized, sterile versions of “war.”