Playing Soldier

Now touring the US: The Virtual Army Experience–a video game on steroids, where you get to play soldier in the War on Terror without getting hurt. We saw the set up at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo the other day, but didn’t go in. I was curious, but my kids had no interest. I should be grateful for their lack of interest, despite my own military experience–or perhaps it is because of it.

As I was reading the description on that webpage, I thought of a day about 18 years ago as I stood on a hill at Ft. Drum, NY. I was chaplain, 1/172d AR, Vermont National Guard, and we were there for annual training. We were focusing on maneuver that year, and so our tanks were engaged in mock battles, equipped with lasers and sensors for a colossal game of laser tag. One such battle had just ended, and our soldiers were whooping and hollering and celebrating their victory. The XO, a tough, foul-mouthed major with a heart of gold, came over to me with a sick look on his face. “Chaplain,” he asked, “How do we get them to see this isn’t a game? We are preparing them for war, and in war, people die.”

Those young adults 18 years ago had already been raised on video games, but the video games they watched can’t compare with those the current generation has been raised on, either in terms of the graphics or the violence. The Army now has ratcheted up the experience and the adrenaline rush. Along with the game comes an invitation: “You’ve gone from video games to the Virtual Army Experience–now join us for the real thing.” Of course, they don’t talk about the buddies you’ll see die, or about the possibility that you may end up dead, or in the VA bureaucracy trying to get compensation and care for your injuries, or that you will kill men, women, and children, some armed, some not. They don’t tell you of the horror, the fear, the shock … or PTSD.

LTC David Grossman taught psychology at West Point, and has studied what he calls killology–what does it take to get someone to pull the trigger and kill another human being. He writes:

Throughout human history, when humans fight each other, there is a lot of posturing. Adversaries make loud noises and puff themselves up, trying to daunt the enemy. There is a lot of fleeing and submission. Ancient battles were nothing more than great shoving matches. It was not until one side turned and ran that most of the killing happened, and most of that was stabbing people in the back. All of the ancient military historians report that the vast majority of killing happened in pursuit when one side was fleeing.In more modern times, the average firing rate was incredibly low in Civil War battles. Patty Griffith demonstrates that the killing potential of the average Civil War regiment was anywhere from five hundred to a thousand men per minute. The actual killing rate was only one or two men per minute per regiment (The Battle Tactics of the American Civil War). At the Battle of Gettysburg, of the 27,000 muskets picked up from the dead and dying after the battle, 90 percent were loaded. This is an anomaly, because it took 95 percent of their time to load muskets and only 5 percent to fire. But even more amazingly, of the thousands of loaded muskets, over half had multiple loads in the barrel–one with 23 loads in the barrel.

In reality, the average man would load his musket and bring it to his shoulder, but he could not bring himself to kill. He would be brave, he would stand shoulder to shoulder, he would do what he was trained to do; but at the moment of truth, he could not bring himself to pull the trigger. And so he lowered the weapon and loaded it again. Of those who did fire, only a tiny percentage fired to hit. The vast majority fired over the enemy’s head.

During World War II, U.S. Army Brig. Gen. S. L. A. Marshall had a team of researchers study what soldiers did in battle. For the first time in history, they asked individual soldiers what they did in battle. They discovered that only 15 to 20 percent of the individual riflemen could bring themselves to fire at an exposed enemy soldier.

That is the reality of the battlefield. Only a small percentage of soldiers are able and willing to participate. Men are willing to die, they are willing to sacrifice themselves for their nation; but they are not willing to kill. It is a phenomenal insight into human nature; but when the military became aware of that, they systematically went about the process of trying to fix this “problem.” From the military perspective, a 15 percent firing rate among riflemen is like a 15 percent literacy rate among librarians. And fix it the military did. By the Korean War, around 55 percent of the soldiers were willing to fire to kill. And by Vietnam, the rate rose to over 90 percent.

People have to be trained to kill, and it starts with desensitization. He taught this in the military–now he educates against it. He sees violent movies and video games as tools in this process. And I’d say that in this “Virtual Army Experience,” we see a logical intermediate step.

A new book by Nick Turse, The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives, also notes the military’s use of video games, and shows how that “Virtual Army Experience” came to be. More than that, it looks at how much our culture has become inseparable from that “military-industrial complex” Eisenhower warned against. Turse lists dozens of companies that produce items we use each day that are also military contractors; some, like Starbucks, claim to have a social conscience, but they deliberately bite their tongue on any issue that might upset their military contracts (or their pro-military customers). Turse also notes the militarization of the government, in the wake of 9-11.