Army enlists Hollywood to help harden its soldiers

A hostile crowd confronts the US Army commander. His troops are supposed to be on a peacekeeping mission. Instead, they're now trying to rescue a local child who has been injured by a US Humvee. Gunfire erupts over a hill. A helicopter circles deafeningly overhead.

What should he do? Teams of soldiers run up and demand orders. He barks out commands. Units disperse in three directions about to carry out the operation when....

Someone turns on the lights.

The soldier - though in fatigues - is standing in a small room surrounded by a 180-degree screen.

This is no regular movie or video game. It's the Army's latest high-tech tool to train tomorrow's soldiers.

Dubbed the Mission Rehearsal Exercise, it is the crown jewel of a new institute set up in this seacoast city to prepare soldiers for the rigors of war from the safety of a darkened screening room.

Call it Fort Dix meets Paul Verhoeven. The Institute for Creative Technologies has an eye-popping mix of voice recognition, artificial intelligence, and gee-whiz hardware that makes computer-generated humans look and act like the real thing.

Yet the unusual new training facility, opened just last week with much fanfare, is also raising a moral question: Does this sophisticated new technology used to train soldiers in any way make a statement about the impact simulated violence can have on human behavior - notably kids?

While proponents see no parallel, outsiders see at least some irony in the timing of the new center - in the midst of contentious Washington hearings over the impact of violent media on children.

"This juxtapositioning doesn't look good for Hollywood," says Robert Thompson of the Center for the Study of Popular Television in Syracuse, N.Y. "They're on the East Coast saying, '[Simulated violence] has no effect,' and the West Coast saying, 'Let's go make some soldiers.' "

To be sure, you're not going to see this game at the corner arcade. It's the result of a $44 million, five-year contract the US Army has struck with Hollywood and the University of Southern California.

As defense budgets shrink, top-notch simulations help train soldiers in a no-risk environment while saving money. The cost of a live-fire exercise for a single armored Bradley fighting vehicle is just under $5,000, points out Secretary of the Army Louis Caldera. "In a simulator, it's $11."

ICT aims to pull together technology and entertainment experts to get soldiers as close as possible to new missions like peacekeeping and refugee resettlement.

"We want to train these men for real situations," says Paul Hoeper, assistant secretary of the Army. "And that means emotional involvement. That's why we came to Hollywood, to get the kind of storytelling ability that would draw the soldiers in."

A quick tour around ICT makes a compelling case for the role high tech can play in training military personnel. The Advanced Leadership Training Simulation uses live computer and video links with soldiers in remote sites to create real-time exercises in military problem-solving. Using actors and scripts, real soldiers are thrown into a military crisis.

Off to the side of this situation room, the Light Stage is a futuristic dentist chair, surrounded by a swinging arm, full of strobe lights. The purpose: to gather detailed digital information about a human face that can be used to make realistic-looking people onscreen.

Although they're using software for shoot-'em-up games like Delta Force II and Commando Force, both the Army and ICT officials say the core mission of ICT is to train soldiers to think and act in complex situations, not to resort to violence.

"The Army is misunderstood," says Mr. Caldera. "We're working on a transformation of the Army concept." Because today's army faces more complex decisionmaking situations than gun battles, training involves more high-level tests of judgment for every soldier.

Yet military expert David Grossman points out that learning to kill is still fundamental to soldiering. He suggests parents take a lesson from the Army's use of simulated violence as a training tool. "The military has a vast amount of research that shows simulators teach people to kill," he says, pointing to flight simulators used in World War II pilot training. "There's no doubt in anybody's mind within the field ... that these are products that enable men to kill better."

ICT officials expect the uses of this technology to migrate into the culture and point out the long-term educational potential of the technologies, such as distance learning for schools. Some would like to see a few changes in Hollywood as well.

"I didn't get into this to write shoot 'em ups," says writer Larry Tuch, creator of the Mission Rehearsal Exercise scenario, and a former employee at Paramount. "This is about real people in real situations. I'd like nothing better than to take that into the rest of the world."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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