Years of writing about public relations and propaganda has probably made me a bit jaded, but I was amazed nevertheless when I visited America's Army, an online video game website sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). In its quest to find recruits, the military has literally turned war into entertainment.
"America's Army" offers a range of games that kids can download or play online. Although the games are violent, with plenty of opportunities to shoot and blow things up, they avoid graphic images of death or other ugliness of war, offering instead a sanitized, Tom Clancy version of fantasy combat. One game, Overmatch, promises "a contest in which one opponent is distinctly superior ... with specialized skills and superior technology ... OVERMATCH: few soldiers, certain victory" (more or less the same overconfident message that helped lead us into Iraq).
Ubisoft, the company contracted to develop the DoD's games, also sponsors the "Frag Dolls," a real-world group of attractive, young women gamers who go by names such as "Eekers," "Valkyrie" and "Jinx" and are paid to promote Ubisoft products. At a computer gaming conference earlier this year, the Frag Dolls were deployed as booth babes at the America's Army demo, where they played the game and posed for photos and video (now available on the America's Army website). On the Frag Dolls weblog, "Eekers" described her turn at the "Combat Convoy Experience": "You have this gigantic Hummer in a tent loaded with guns, a rotatable turret, and a huge screen in front of it. Jinx took the wheel and drove us around this virtual war zone while shooting people with a pistol, and I switched off from the SAW turret on the top of the vehicle to riding passenger with an M4."
The babes-and-bullets fantasy world celebrated in games contrasts markedly with the experiences that real soldiers are facing in Iraq. A report by the Pentagon's own Mental Health Advisory Team—completed in January but only released last week—found that 54 percent of soldiers stationed in Iraq described morale in their individual units as "low or very low." In recent testimony to the House Armed Services Committee, U.S. Undersecretary for Defense David Chu, who is in charge of personnel recruitment for the military, admitted that "there is a reduced propensity to join the military among today’s youth. Due to the realities of war, there is less encouragement today from parents, teachers, and other influencers to join the military."
Chu said parents and other "older advisers to young Americans" whose views on military service were shaped by the Vietnam War have become a chief obstacle to military recruiters, adding that he was also "lamenting the failure" of the media to report all of the "positive successes" of the military along with the news of bombings and growing insurgency.
In reality, as Editor and Publisher reported the day before Chu gave his testimony, the news media has actually been failing to report the horrors of war, as "few graphic images from Iraq make it to U.S. papers." And as Newsweek war correspondent Joe Cochrane observed just three days before Chu gave his testimony, one reason for the lack of positive news from Iraq is that reporters no longer dare venture out from Baghdad's barricated Green Zone "unless they're embedded with U.S. soldiers. That wasn’t the case early last year, when foreigners could walk the streets outside the Green Zone, shop in local markets, and, most important to journalists, talk to the Iraqi people. Those days are long gone." And even inside the Green Zone, the situation is scarcely better: "Heavily armed troops guard government buildings and hospitals, menacingly pointing their weapons at any one who approaches. Soldiers manning checkpoints can use deadly force against motorists who fail to heed their instructions, so the warning signs say, and I have no doubt they’d exercise that right in a heartbeat if they felt threatened. All this fear and tension, and inside a six square mile area that’s supposed to be safe."
Cochrane says he has "always been something of an optimist" but reached his "breaking point" during his recent visit to Iraq. "Say what you will about whether the United States was justified to invade this country," he wrote. "We’re well into the game, and it’s too late to argue over who got the ball first. But prior to April 2003, there were no suicide bombers in Baghdad, there was 24-hour electricity and people went out at night. Now, if you drive into town from the airport, there is a legitimate possibility you will get killed."
Military officials have also developed an elaborate PR strategy for outreach to schools. In Fall 2004, the army published a guidebook for high school recruiters. Colin McKay, a public relations pro in Canada, took a look at it and thought it could serve as a useful reference for anyone needing a "step by step guide to building influence in a school setting. ... It's full of practical student activities (tactics), promotional opportunities for Army reps (brand building), and a detailed explanation of how to track school performance, recruiter visits and identify potential recruits (research and evaluation)." Specific advice included the following:
- "Be so helpful and so much a part of the school scene that you are in constant demand."
- "Cultivate coaches, librarians, administrative staff and teachers."
- "Know your student influencers. Students such as class officers, newspaper and yearbook editors, and athletes can help build interest in the Army among the student body."
- "Distribute desk calendars to your assigned schools."
- "Attend athletic events at the HS. Make sure you wear your uniform."
- "Get involved with the parent-teacher association."
- "Coordinate with school officials to eat lunch in the school cafeteria several times each month."
- "Deliver donuts and coffee for the faculty once a month."
- "Coordinate with the homecoming committee to get involved with the parade."
- "Get involved with the local Boy Scouts. ... Many scouts are HS students and potential enlistees or student influencers."
- "Order personal presentation items (pens, bags, mousepads, mugs) as needed monthly for special events."
- "Attend as many school holiday functions or assemblies as possible."
- "Offer to be a timekeeper at football games."
- "Martin Luther King, Jr's birthday is in January. Wear your dress blues and participate in school events commemorating this holiday. ... February ... Black History Month. Participate in events as available."
- "Contact the HS athletic director and arrange for an exhibition basketball game between the faculty and Army recruiters."
Grand Theft Privacy
The Pentagon's recruitment effort also entails massive information-gathering efforts aimed at both students and their parents. Under a little-publicized aspect of Bush's "No Child Left Behind" education program, the military has gained what the Chicago Tribune described as "unprecedented access to all high school directories of upperclassmen—a mother lode of information used for mass-mailing recruiting appeals and telephone solicitations." Before No Child Left Behind took effect in 2002, 12 percent of the nation's public high schools—some 2,500—denied the military access to student databases. According to the Washington Post, "Recruiters have been using the information to contact students at home, angering some parents and school districts around the country."
In addition, the Washington Post reported in June that the Pentagon has contracted with BeNOW, a private database marketing company, to "create a database of high school students ages 16 to 18 and all college students to help the military identify potential recruits." The new database is described on a Pentagon website as "arguably the largest repository of 16-to-25-year-old youth data in the country, containing roughly 30 million records." According to the military's Federal Register notice, the information kept on each person includes name, gender, address, birthday, e-mail address, ethnicity, telephone number, high school, college, graduation dates, grade-point average, education level and military test scores.
Questioned about the database, U.S. Undersecretary for Defense David Chu responded, "If you don't want conscription, you have to give the Department of Defense, the military services, an avenue to contact young people to tell them what is being offered. And you would be naive to believe in any enterprise that you're going to do well just by waiting for people to call you."
"Then why not simply restrict the data fields to name, address, telephone number?" a reporter asked.
"The information that goes beyond that comes off of commercial lists. Anybody could buy that information. We're not, this is not a government file. This is off a commercial file, commercial providers. So we're not intruding—And typically that information has come off of forms people have voluntarily filled out to a commercial source. So I don't see the—"
"They may not have intended it to be the property of the U.S. military," the reporter observed.
Privacy rights groups have been sharply critical of the database. According to a joint statement by a coalition of eight privacy groups, the database violates the Privacy Act, a law intended to reduce government collection of personal data on Americans. The database plan, they wrote, "proposes to ignore the law and its own regulations by collecting personal information from commercial data brokers and state registries rather than directly from individuals."
The Electronic Privacy Information Center, one of the signers of the joint statement, also issued its own separate statement. "The Privacy Act and the DOD's internal regulations require the agency to collect information directly from the citizen where possible," it explained. "However, the database would be largely populated from other sources, including from state motor vehicle department databases, school enrollment data, and commercial information vendors. The main commercial vendors that sell students' data, American Student List and Student Marketing Group, were both pursued recently by consumer protection authorities for setting up front groups that tricked students into revealing their personal information."
Privacy groups also warned that data collected by the Pentagon could be used for other purposes besides military recruiting. According to the Washington Post, "The system also gives the Pentagon the right, without notifying citizens, to share the data for numerous uses outside the military, including with law enforcement, state tax authorities and Congress." Defense Department spokesperson Ellen Krenke said the Pentagon does not do this, but the Federal Register notice says the military retains the right to do so.
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