By Silvio Laccetti

War clouds hover, low and dark, over every American town, and they cast their pall across the planet. Such is the ubiquity of the wars fought by the boys (mostly) of virtual reality. But when 14-year-olds wage cyber-wars on PlayStations and Xboxes, what can we learn from their experiences?

Fourteen: perhaps the most explosive age for boys, whose developmental growth, in erratic hormonal detonations, echoes the chaotic, irrational forces of combat. According to the great theoretician of warfare Carl von Clausewitz, transforming men into soldiers requires deep-seated psychic explosions. So what is happening to these immature virtual warriors as they reel and rampage through their war games?

To find out, I recently observed a group of North Jersey 14-year-olds at war, some of them members of my extended family. They make up a cyber-clan of more than a dozen and are hoping to expand their online membership.

Their clichéd screen names - such as DaFunman, DaTechman, DaBadman, and DaNiceguy - obscure the amazing cultural diversity of these Web warriors. Among them I found black and white, Asian and Hispanic, Arab and Jew, Christian and Muslim - a multiethnic, multicultural unit mirroring the inclusiveness, and perhaps the tolerance, of their middle school. Significantly, though, there are no girls in this clan!

With parental permission, the boys play martial video games such as Call of Duty, Bulletstorm, Dead Space, and Medal of Honor. They can play as individuals, on teams, or in free-for-alls. And, via broadband connections, they can also play with individuals and teams from around the world.

I observed warfare involving three teams of two, with each team in separate but adjoining rooms. Stationed in the hallway, I could hear all the chaos of battle - explosions, shouts, moans, and curses as players were eliminated from the game. I thought of Clausewitz's "fog of war" causing plans to go awry, especially for those players who were new to the games.

These simulations of combat are very graphic. In fact, Veterans for a Strong America has warned that they may trigger post-traumatic stress symptoms in those who have experienced actual combat. Indeed, a number of the 14-year-olds I watched reported heightened anxiety during and after their mock combat experiences.

Theorists of 21st-century warfare have described a rise of asymmetrical conflicts that pit weak forces against powerful adversaries, as in insurgencies, guerrilla warfare, and terrorism. Others see the future of warfare as being marked by struggles between civilizations, such as Western liberalism vs. Islamic fundamentalism. Either way, the war games of virtual reality may be providing early training for future combatants, prefiguring the psychic explosions within future soldiers.

However, even as they train for warfare, the boys of virtual reality also offer some hope for peace. Their multicultural, multiracial, multireligious clans may find that there is no line in the sand between "us" and "them" - a distinction hugely critical to war of whatever caliber. A group experienced in such inclusive virtual reality could find it more difficult to fight people like themselves in veritable reality.

Warfare springs from difference. We have seen recently in Tunisia and Egypt that the military won't fire on the people when there is no sense of us-vs.-them. In Beijing in 1989, a popular uprising was crushed by troops from outlying regions of China - troops who would fire. The next Chinese uprising will not be crushed so easily.

The Jersey clan's global expansion means that it might soon meet itself in various places around the world. Patrick A. Berzinski, a New York communications specialist, sees hopeful potential in recent events. "In an age when social media embolden masses of citizens to rise up against the gun barrels of entrenched, brutal regimes," he said, "it is conceivable that peer-to-peer communication will become the most powerful means in history to forging a common human identity, defying all forms of statist indoctrination."

Behind the clouds of virtual war, there may be a light that nourishes unity, community, and a common human identity.