IT USED to be that when little boys played soldier, parents would smile.

No one thought they'd grow up to live troubled lives. No one saw GI Joe as a monster, teaching their babies to equate patriotism with violence. No one considered great war movies like "The Sands of Iwo Jima" and "The Fighting 69th" propaganda designed to steal our little ones' souls. And Memorial Day meant more than just hot dogs, suntan lotion and sales.

Soldiering was an honorable endeavor when honor wasn't "nuanced." Now that idea is laughable, at least among some folks.

I'm not talking about people who believe that our enemies are one hug away from being bosom buddies. Their hearts may be in the right place, though their reasoning is flawed.

And I'm not talking about sincerely religious conscientious objectors, who believe all killing is evil, from capital punishment to casualties of war. They're consistent, if wrong.

I'm not even talking about sociopaths like the Weather Underground who, with murderous intent, set bombs at army installations. They, like those who bomb abortion clinics, are criminals, not activists.

The people I have in mind are the political opportunists who use their self-styled opposition to war as a smokescreen to attack the military. And some of the loudest critics are themselves veterans. Apparently, their service gives them street cred with the anti-war/anti-military movement.

A few of those vets have been on the front lines in targeting the Army Experience Center, the taxpayer-funded centerpiece of the Army Experience pilot program. Located at Franklin Mills Mall, the AEC incorporates high-tech virtual experiences, more traditional media and one-on-one interaction to reach young men and women who might be considering a life in the service.

But according to Veterans for Peace, as reported on their site, veteransforpeace.org, "The Army Experience Center at the Franklin Mills Mall sees patriotism in stirring up the primal, hormonal emotions of our vulnerable teenagers to recruit them to hunt down and kill other, equally duped kids in far-flung and strange cultures like Afghanistan . . . Places like the Army Experience Center are where our youth are roped into an imperial mission that they are dishonestly not being informed about."

Those peaceful vets apparently have a beef with the government they once swore to protect and defend. Characterizing recruitment efforts as an attempt to "rope" kids into an "imperial" mission sounds more like a communique from Fidel Castro than the words of American patriots.

This is exactly the type of hyperbole that many in the "peace movement" engage in regularly, trying to paint our men and women in the military as bloodthirsty killers let loose on the poor innocents in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.

And this is exactly the type of misperception that the AEC is designed to counteract.

According to Maj. Larry Dillard, the center's program manager, the fundamental purpose is to give young people a more realistic and authentic idea of what it means to be a soldier in the 21st century: "The virtual experience allows for transparency, and is more effective in communicating our message than still photos or written materials."

He's absolutely right. One of the most passionate criticisms about the AEC is that it dupes impressionable kids into thinking that war is exciting, antiseptic fun. That by playing with helicopter simulators a normal boy will be turned into a Rambo-like killer without a conscience.

John Grant, a member of the local chapter of Veterans for Peace, wrote in a recent op-ed that "there's an insidious, direct link between luring children of the video game generation into such a facility and the rapidly expanding reality of soldiers virtually piloting armed drones against targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan."

WHAT'S SO insidious?

There's no subterfuge in giving someone an accurate picture of the army experience.

Perhaps the critics are upset because, exposed to information, young people might actually decide to serve their country instead of believing the propaganda from groups like Code Pink and ANSWER, whose sole agenda is to dismantle the armed forces by crippling recruitment efforts with slander.

The men and women of our military don't deserve that. It is only because of their sacrifices that the protesters have the right to raise their voices. It is only because of their willingness to believe in something greater than themselves, a collective sense of duty and obligation, that we have a country where dissent is privileged.

Imagine the alternative. *

Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer.

E-mail cflowers1961@yahoo.com.