Army of Ones and Zeros

by by Katie Jennings

Last December, President Obama announced a deployment of 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. The deployment has yet to be completed, but already the number of troops killed in the first three months of 2010 is double last year’s figure. The toll is expected to keep rising. In October, the Department of Defense announced that the Army met its recruiting goals for the fourth consecutive year in a row in fiscal year 2009. Recruitment levels have increased throughout the country over the past year due to a combination of factors including the downturn in the economy, the increase in unemployment, and the improving conditions in Iraq. 
Historically, conscription—forced enrollment in the military—was essential to the development of America’s military power. In 1792, the National Conscription Act required all white males between the ages of 18 and 45 to be part of a peacetime militia. The first military draft occurred in 1862 during the Civil War. In 1916, the National Defense Act created the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) in high schools across the country—the program aimed to target potential recruits and officer candidates. Conscription followed in WWI, WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. In 1973, the military draft ended and the US Army became an all-volunteer force, meaning recruitment would now play the primary role in maintaining that force. 
In the early 1990s, as the Cold War came to an end, Army bases across the country began to close, significantly reducing the presence of the military throughout the US. By 1998, the Army was unable to meet its recruiting goals. According to a case study released by the Career Innovation Group in 2007 titled “Playing the Recruiting Game,” the Army “needed to do something radically different to market to its core target group of 13-17 year old males. Research showed that young people’s opinions about organizations and decisions about careers are formulated during these years.” As we’ve entered the twenty-first century, America’s youths have become increasingly attached to their electronics—laptops, iPods, Xbox360s—and the Army has taken note. What better way to reach recruitment-age youth of the so-called “Digital Generation” than through their favorite electronic pastimes? 
The Army has been experimenting with video game technology to reach recruitment-age youth from the release of the video game America’s Army in 2002 to the opening of the Army Experience Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 2008. But the technology is not without controversy—there is longstanding debate as to whether the simulations are glorifying combat over the authentic experience. The AEC has been the target of multiple protests as recently as March 20, 2010. 


America’s Army is owned by the US government, funded by US tax dollars, and free to download on the internet. Operating and development costs have totaled over $30 million to date. According to the America’s Army website, it seeks to “provide civilians with insights on Soldiering from the barracks to the battlefield.” The game offers simulated training and combat missions. It is rated “Teen” by the Electronic Software Rating Board because of blood and violence—meaning the content is suitable for ages thirteen and older. America’s Army consistently ranks as one of the top first-person shooter games in the world. In November 2007, there were 8.8 million registered users with 120,000 hours of play each day. 
I contacted fourteen year–old Eric* via an America’s Army fan site on Facebook. He started playing at seven years old when his father introduced him to the game. Now he plays almost every day for four to five hours. His favorite part of America’s Army is the “realism,” he said, “No matter what team you’re on, either attacking or defense, you always see your teammates as the good Americans and you always see your enemies as enemy terrorists, so I think it’s pretty cool.” 


In 2008, the Army took video game technology to a whole new level—the five recruiting offices in the Philadelphia area were closed and the Army Experience Center (AEC) opened its doors inside the Franklin Mills Mall in Philadelphia, PA. Strategically sandwiched between a skate park and Dave & Buster’s, the chain restaurant-cum-indoor video arcade, the nearly 15,000-foot, $12 million government-funded AEC project seeks to provide a virtual Army experience. There are touch screen kiosks that provide information about careers in the Army, computer and Xbox 360 consoles for playing America’s Army and high-tech simulations that take place inside of a real Hummer or Black Hawk Helicopter (your choice). Anyone is allowed to enter the AEC; however, in order to play the games you must be thirteen years or older and ‘register’ at the front desk, meaning you are required to give personal information such as your education, address, interests, along with your email and a photo so that you can be issued your “AEC” photo identification. 
According to Major Larry Dillard, the program director of the AEC, the goal of the center is to clear up misconceptions of the Army. He explains, “If you’re a young person growing up in Philadelphia or New York City, chances are you’ve never met a solider, you’ve never talked to a soldier, you’ve never seen an Army base, and you really have no idea what soldiering is all about. And your opinions and views about what it might be like to be a soldier are largely formed by what you see in the entertainment media, what you see on the news, and then probably also some legacy perceptions that still persist from the pre-volunteer force back in the Vietnam Era.” 30 percent of the Army’s recruits currently come from within a 50 mile radius of military bases. 
 Dillard insists that the “primary objective with the Army Experience Center was to provide a place that allowed us to experiment with different tactics and technologies—not so much that we would start cropping up AECs all over the country.” At this time, the Army has not released an official evaluation as to the effectiveness and/or future of the AEC or the associated technologies. The program will receive funding through September 2010. However, the AEC website claims, “The AEC is fast becoming a model for Army recruiting nationwide.” This claim was further reinforced last June in a report issued by the Committee on Armed Services to the House of Representatives that commended the Army for using new technology and its “great potential to reshape recruiting techniques.”


Not everyone agrees with the Committee on Armed Services. The AEC has been the site of multiple protests and arrests. The latest protest on March 20, 2010 coincided with the seventh anniversary of the war in Iraq. Jesse Hamilton, one of speakers at the demonstration is a former Staff Sergeant in the Army. He enlisted after graduating high school and served for nine years, including one year in Iraq. Upon his return he became involved in the anti-war movement, eventually joining Iraq Veterans Against the War. Hamilton says he understands the need for military recruitment, but he opposes the use of video game technology. He argues, “What if the Iraqi or Iranian government was to set up [video game] centers like this to shoot at people who look like Americans. How would we take that? Would that be acceptable for them to do?”
He suggests that regardless of the advancements in technology, the limitation of a virtual experience remains the same—its distance from reality. With regards to the video games and simulations he says, “I don’t expect someone to be so naïve to say, well if this is real combat then count me in. But I think the whole idea that you’re taking something as serious as real combat, as serious as killing another person—I am going to kill another person who has a mom, who has a dad, who has a kid, who has a baby, who just by the place they were born, finds themselves, at the other end of my r
le and I am going to end their life. Very few people who have not been to combat understand what that’s like.” 
According to the website, the mission of the AEC is to “communicate the values, resources, and career opportunities of the Army.” But the challenge of communicating the real ‘Army Experience’ still remains. 

Katie Jennings B’10.5 is coming soon to a mall near you.

*Name has been changed at the request of interviewee. 

The interview with Major Larry Dillard was originally broadcast on August 28, 2009 as part of the episode “War Games” produced by War News Radio. 
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