By John Grant
The Pentagon has launched a $13 million marketing experiment at the Franklin Mills Mall in Northeast Philadelphia. It's an effort to sell the Army as a brand, like Disney, and it could one day be replicated in malls all over America.
It's called the Army Experience Center, and it was recently confronted by 200 angry citizens from around the mid-Atlantic region, seven of whom were arrested. Their beef was the center's use of tax dollars to assemble what amounts to a sophisticated trap.
The center's violent video games and simulations of shooting human targets seduce vulnerable teenagers into an "us-versus-them" mindset. The goal is recruitment.
The Center takes up 14,000 square feet of mall space next to the Dave & Buster's game emporium. Dozens of video stations are available for adolescents as young as 13 to play a host of violent video games, such as "America's Army," which is designed around a mission involving simulated shooting at human targets with an automatic weapon.
Kids can strap into three large simulators and shoot human targets on huge, wraparound screens. There's an Apache attack helicopter, a Humvee with seven mounted machine-gun turrets, and a Black Hawk helicopter with four door-gunner positions. This gets excitable boys to bond with the military mission.
Questions about the history and context of conflicts are leapfrogged over, and kids get an adrenaline high linked directly to the Army and its mission in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army Experience Center is lulling these vulnerable young minds into an acceptance of the killing of others in far-flung places.
The retired and active-duty military staff at the Army Experience Center have claimed on NBC News and elsewhere that they don't employ a "hard sell." And, to their credit, the staff is always cool, professional, and "soft" on the sales pitch. But that's the point: Instead of a used-car-salesman approach, they rely on the electronic dazzle to entice kids already immersed in video-game culture.
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. For the properly desensitized individual, it's a small leap from playing video games to shooting real people via a video monitor.
In March, members of Veterans For Peace asked to set up a modest table near the center to pass out materials and talk with kids. We have not heard back.
The taxes that support the Army Experience Center come from a variety of Americans, many of whom - like me - are troubled by this means of recruiting young people. Society agrees that many of them are not developed enough even to drink a beer or drive a car.
This is not an argument against defending ourselves, or against employing violence when it's necessary. This is an argument for giving kids the information they need to make the best decisions for themselves. One thing we can do is instill in them a much more rich, complex, and cooperative view of human life on the planet - not the good-guys-blasting-bad-guys dichotomy drilled into them by the Army Experience Center.