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Opinion

US military is meeting recruitment goals with video games – but at what cost?

Amid a soaring suicide rate among soldiers, it’s worth looking at how the Army’s aggressive video games distort our impressions of war.

By Jamie Holmes / December 28, 2009



Washington

For the first time since the establishment of all-volunteer forces in 1973, the US military has met all of its recruiting goals.

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This success can be attributed in part to the new video games and graphic novels aimed at America’s youth. It may sound like the US military has solved a major recruitment problem, but there may be a high cost.

In another first, suicides among US soldiers have hit a post-Vietnam War high for the fifth year in a row.

Though the record suicide rate cannot be traced to a single causal factor, specialists cite the psychological trauma of killing, an American culture of denial, financial difficulties, failed relationships, substance abuse, and post-traumatic stress disorder as main contributors to the trend.

Despite the five-year span, Army Vice Chief of Staff Peter Chiarelli admitted recently the US Army was still short the 300 substance abuse counselors and 800 behavioral specialists needed to cope with the problem.

Though the US military professes concern for the psychological health of its service members, this personnel gap is just one example of the strong evidence to the contrary. The current recruiting tactics aimed at America’s youth are especially concerning. Not only do the very tactics that have been boosting recruitment sanitize war and create false expectations, they prey upon the vulnerable imaginations of children.

Throughout 2009 the military has aggressively expanded its marketing campaign targeting teenagers. Efforts include the release of Version 3 of the taxpayer-sponsored video game America’s Army, two graphic novels that look and read like comic books, and a unique 14,500-sq.-ft. arcade – or “Army Experience Center” – in a Philadelphia mall that is filled with simulators and shooter video games.

One reason for the armed forces’ recruiting success is the economic collapse and the ongoing jobs crisis. But this year’s record recruitment can only be fully understood in the context of the remarkable shift in tactics that began a decade ago.

In 1999, the military had its worst recruiting year in 30, and Congress called for “aggressive, innovative” new approaches. Private-sector specialists were brought in, including the top advertising agency Leo Burnett, and the Army Marketing Brand Group was formed. A key aim of the new recruitment strategy was to ensure long-term success by cultivating the allegiance of teenage Americans.

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