Here’s the story of my attempt to virtually join the U.S. Army.
This year, UC Berkeley supersized the old registration-week tradition of the freebie bag. For a two-day event called “Caltopia,” the cavernous Recreational Sports Facility hosted rows of exhibitors giving away brochures and free stuff. The organizers even bought a full-page ad in the Express to invite the community.
So of course I went.
And I got some great stuff. But my strangest bit of schwag came in an Associated Students bag handed to me (and perhaps 30,000 other attendees) at the front door.
It’s a video game called “America’s Army: Special Forces,” subtitled: “The Official U.S. Army Game. Empower Yourself. Defend Freedom.” The sunblasted cover art unmistakably depicts desert combat. Its rating seal says “Teen,” “Blood,” and “Violence.”
Intrigued by my new acquisition, I checked the game’s FAQ page at www.americasarmy.com. There I learned that “players progress toward the goal of wearing the coveted Green Beret by completing progressive individual and collective training missions,” which include indentification [sic] of vehicles” and “identifying friend from foe on the battlefield.”
I could hardly wait to start.
But my disappointment with “America’s Army” began as soon as I launched the installation program. It would proceed only if I agreed “to be bound by ... the government’s acceptable use policy and such other policies as it may from time to time establish.”
Now why should I grant an advance blank check of approval to any “policies [the government] may from time to time establish” in the future? That sounded disturbingly like the “stop-loss” fine print by which the real Army has ensnared so many enlistees and reservists. Thinking they were signing up for a two-year tour of duty, or a few weekends of training per year, they’ve found themselves bound to perpetual involuntary servitude in Iraq.
Still, my country called. Plus, how often do I get a chance to enter “a portal ... designed to provide young adults and their influencers with virtual insights into entry level Soldier training ... so that young adults can see how our training builds and prepares Soldiers to serve in units in defense of freedom?”
The game’s website also reassured me that “just as is the case with the Army, the game has a firm grounding in values. For example, the game establishes rules for engagement and imposes significant penalties for violations of these rules.” Plus there are parental controls: “Parents can disable all the blood in the game” and can “enable a language filter” against naughty words.
So I bit my lip, and clicked “I accept” and “Next.”
But my second disappointment was seeing how long it took the game to install (a long slog from two CD’s) and to launch. I realized that this game, just like the real America’s Army, was a very slow-moving institution with excessive hardware needs.
Still, I eventually got a main menu. There, I chose “Training.” The only available category was “Basic Training: Marksmanship,” so I clicked “Deploy.”
Here, things soon improved. Now I had a huge automatic-rifle barrel in front of me, which already made me feel like more of a man. An impressive graphics engine allowed me to point it up, down, or 360 degrees around—aiming at buildings, trees, a mean-looking sergeant, and some blobs swathed in red burqas which (I assumed) represented hapless Iraqis whom Allah has placed atop Our Oil.
But this quickly yielded to my third disappointment: I couldn’t fire at anything. An indicator at the bottom of the screen kept flashing “Reload.” I had no ammo!
Oddly, this increased my respect for the simulator. I felt that I now better understood the plight of the young recruits in the real America’s Army, whom Rumsfeld’s Pentagon and Cheney’s Halliburton have stranded in Baghdad without body or vehicle armor.
To get some ordnance, I needed to create a “Personnel Jacket”—an account on the game’s website. The registration page there required me to choose a user name and to enter a valid e-mail address, without which I could not complete registration.
Here, I froze. I’m damned if I want to start receiving spam from military recruiters.
But the game’s website soothingly told me that “privacy is a big concern for us ... the Army will not know the names and addresses of players unless these players deliberately request information.”
“Within the Game,” it continued, “players operate under a nom-de-guerre that protects their anonymity. ... This veil of anonymity is only raised” if players click “web links through which players can connect to the Army of One homepage [where] you can explore Army career opportunities or contact a Recruiter.”
Again biting the bullet, I typed in a real, but disposable, e-mail address. Drawing on my knowledge of military culture from Vietnam and Iraq combat films, I tried to create a realistic user name.
That led to my next big disappointment—a major lapse in verisimilitude. The site told me that my carefully chosen user name (“fuckthis”) was “not a valid name.”
At this point, I confess that I gave up on America’s Army. Just as I hope Cal students and teenage video gamers will give up on the real thing until our military gets better civilian leadership. Enlistees deserve a commander in chief who will task them to valid missions (like defending the nation from real threats, keeping the peace, and building flood-control levees)—not betray their courage by sending them on a desert suicide mission in order to settle a petty family score.
Missions impossible (if I may coin a military phrase) rot downward from the top. A Pentagon survey last year revealed that 72 percent of Iraq-based troops felt their units suffered from low morale. Almost 75 percent rated their battalion-level commanding officers as poor. The Pentagon sat on those findings for three months.
But just as with the real thing, it’s not so easy to leave “America’s Army.” After I clicked “exit” from the menu, I was prompted to confirm: “Are you sure you want to exit?” Yet the bloated game had so bogged down my computer that I simply couldn’t maneuver my wobbly mouse pointer over the “Yes” button.
Recognizing this as the drug-compounded exhaustion depicted in grunt’s-eye films like Apocalypse Now, I resorted to drastic measures. I pressed Ctrl-Alt-Delete, and aborted the game.
Except I wasn’t really free. “America’s Army” was so memory-hungry that it took down much of my computer’s video memory with it. I was left with a psychedelic, high-contrast, color-impaired display. Like an estimated one-third of Vietnam War veterans, my computer was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
These simulated flashbacks helped the game win back some points for both realism and immediacy. The military’s own surveys show that a sixth of its personnel are returning from Iraq scarred by psychological disorders. Experts predict that this grim statistic will eventually match its grimmer Vietnam-era counterpart.
Thousands more enlistees have suffered physical injuries. And no video game could be expected to replicate the experience of the nearly 1,900 (and counting) servicemen and women who won’t come home at all.
In fairness to Col. E. Casey Wardynski, Steven “TUFFENUF” Elton, Robert “ScrewJack” Gibson, and their fellow game developers, “America’s Army” evidently has a genuine following—with some five million registered accounts. My cousin Adam, who produces video games, says gamers seem to love its Internet-based, multiple-player features.
So if you have the snappy 1.3 GHz processor and the 2 GB of disk space that this game needs to run acceptably, you might want to check it out. Just think twice before you sign on any dotted lines.
And if you’re a Cal student, you might ask your favorite Associated Students officer why the ASUC chose to distribute this Trojan Horse on behalf of military recruiters.