Peddling War to Children
Written by Robert C. Koehler
In the gap between a boy’s passionate fantasies and the smell of dead bodies in a mass grave marches…America’s Army.
“He wonders if God is punishing him because before he joined the Army he thought of war as something fun and exciting.”
We couldn’t wage our current wars without the all-volunteer military whose recruitment goals get fed every year by idealistic young people, who continue, despite all counter-evidence bursting off the front pages, to buy into the romance and excitement of war and armed do-goodism that the recruiters, with the help of a vast “militainment” industry, peddle like so many Joe Camels.
The words quoted above are from a psychologist’s PTSD evaluation of a young soldier named Brad Gaskins, whom I wrote about several years ago; he was one of the soldiers in the first wave of our 2003 invasion of Iraq. He went AWOL after his second deployment.
“Bulldozers were used to push the bodies into mass graves,” the psychologist wrote after her interview with him. “The bodies would fall apart, the smell was unforgettable. He felt badly that the bodies were treated with such disrespect. There was no effort made to identify the dead so that their families could know what happened to them. He was expected to handle many of the dead bodies which were significantly decayed and often ‘oozing goop’ into the ground.”
As far as I’m concerned, this is the only appropriate context in which to talk about the gaming industry, which has been on my mind since I read the other day about the possible resurgence of an unpublished video game called Six Days in Fallujah. The video game had been promoted last year as an “interactive documentary” about the second battle of Fallujah, in November 2004, and had generated excitement in the gamer community, but was killed just before it was due to be released by the Japanese company Konami because its reality-based action made it too controversial — it crossed over a public relations line and dishonored the troops who had actually fought in Fallujah, apparently.
Of course, it also dishonored the thousands of Iraqi civilians who were slaughtered there, not to mention the ones who are now battling cancer and leukemia and other plagues of an environment polluted by the aftermath of war — and not to mention the large number of post-invasion children born with birth defects, thought to be caused, or partially caused, by the residue of depleted uranium left behind by U.S. weaponry.
But nobody in the gaming industry, or the media that covers it, evinced a concern about that, or noted that Six Days in Fallujah and all the other war games that children and adults play are merely sophisticated e-versions of cowboys and Indians: the dance of good and evil played out in a consequence-free context. The good guys are always “us” and the bad guys of the moment are often merely our victims.
In any case, this controversy dredged up for me some far larger issues, such as the cozy relationship between the military-industrial complex and our multitrillion-dollar entertainment industry and, beyond that, the strange and sick relationship between the Pentagon and American boyhood, as manifested by the taxpayer-sponsored website AmericasArmy.com, which since 2002 has been one of the Army’s most effective recruiting tools. The site sanitizes and romanticizes war for kids 13 and up, with the aim of reeling them in young.
I recoil fiercely at this site. It strikes me as the very essence of America’s own arrested development: We command the world’s largest arsenal and throw our weight around with an adolescent swagger. Neocons famously declared “high noon” with Saddam Hussein. If militarists had to face long-term or even short-term accountability for the damage they wreak, war would be obsolete in an eye blink.
When I think about AmericasArmy.com, I think about my own boyhood and the endless games of “war” the kids on my block played. We killed one another endlessly with pretend guns made out of sticks; and we died, over and over, with the highest theater possible. We jumped off one another’s front porches into the bushes, doing our swan dives of death. We imagined dying by every possible grade of weapon, up to and including hydrogen bombs, whose mushroom clouds leapt from the front pages of the newspapers that arrived on our doorsteps.
We also had real fights with one another occasionally, and there was nothing pretty about them — but what is startling and fascinating to me is that real fighting bore no emotional relationship with pretend fighting and dying. The pretend stuff was part of a natural process of becoming, of growing up; it was, I am convinced, play in a spiritual sense, as we communed with heroic glory and reached for our futures.
This has nothing to do with real war, but the adults with a self-interest in its perpetuation continue to sell it to the young as though it were. What an obscenity, it seems to me, to exploit the yearning of the young, and feign a solidarity with it, in order to perpetuate a system that will in all likelihood simply chew them up.
About the authorRobert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org