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The Pentagon's Obsession with Toys

In his famed 1961 farewell address, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned of a dangerous intertwining of private corporations, the armed forces, and the federal government for which he coined the term"the military-industrial complex." By then, the Pentagon had long been exercising script control over most war films made in Hollywood and the CIA was running covert operations in Vietnam through a front program at Michigan State University, but Ike wasn't focused on minor supporting players like the entertainment industry or academia. In the intervening decades, however, both have grown ever more central to the Pentagon's mission. No longer is the Ivory Tower's participation limited to advisory programs and research for future weapons systems or Hollywood's contribution a series of Why We Fight propaganda films or triumphalist John Wayne flicks.

In the late 1990s, the otherwise dreadful soundtrack for Godzilla, that blockbuster-flop of a movie, featured a track,"No Shelter," by rebel rap/rockers Rage Against the Machine that trashed both the movie ("And Godzilla pure muthafuckin filler, To keep ya eyes off the real killer") and a consumer-driven militarized Hollywood, writ large:

What ya need is what they sellin'
Make you think that buyin' is rebellin'
From the theaters to malls on every shore
Tha thin line between entertainment and war

The line had by then grown thin indeed. Today, it hardly exists at all. The military is now in the midst of a full-scale occupation of the entertainment industry, conducted with far more skill (and enthusiasm on the part of the occupied) than the one in Iraq. Perhaps the"front" where the most significant victories have been scored in the military's latest media-entertainment blitz is the one where our most vulnerable population – children -- resides. Through toys, especially videogames, the military and its partners in academia and the entertainment industry have not only blurred the line between entertainment and war, but created a media culture thoroughly capable of preparing America's children for armed conflict. This is less a matter of simple military indoctrination than near immersion in a virtual world of war beyond John Wayne's wildest dreams.

"Can someone please call my father?..."

Last holiday season the Forward Command Post, a bombed-out dollhouse from hell, rankled many consumers who objected to a toy that seemed to glorify civilian casualties and so prompted an outcry that caused JC Penny to withdraw it from sale and KBToys to stop stocking the item. This year's target is likely to be the"Battle Command Post Two-Story Headquarters," a brownstone-turned-battle bunker. At 2 ½ feet tall complete with fully stocked gun-rack, it's a militarized dollhouse large enough to dwarf your child (but also with a basement hospital –perhaps a nod to peacenik parents and liberal loudmouths.). Tiny action figures would disappear in its airy expanses, but if your child has a collection of 12" high G.I. Joe figurines then he's in great shape. And he'll be well prepared to take out the"Talking DOA Uday," a specialty doll with a two-sided head that spins 360 degrees (à la The Exorcist) transforming Saddam Hussein's son Uday from a smiling face into the bloody mangled one popularized in U.S.-issued photographs. And just when you thought it couldn't get worse, it does. In an unabashedly Orientalist faux-Middle-Eastern accent, the doll cries out:"Someone must help me. I . . . I am still alive only I am very badly burned. Anyone! Can someone please call my father? I am in a lot of pain, I am very badly burned so if you could just… (gunshot). You shot me !! Why did you… (3 gun shots)?" (Click here to see it and, while you're there, click on the sound clip for Talking Uday.)

In a recent article on war toys at Salon.com, Petra Bartosiewicz noted,"Since 9/11, a new generation of war toys has emerged -- action figures and accessories pegged to U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq," and then asked,"Are they harmless patriotic playthings, or a shameless attempt to market combat to kids?"

These toys, however, represent primitive means of marketing militarism, clunky methods of a bygone era when a child had to check out war American-style at the local movie theater and then go home and fight battles with toy soldiers on the floor of his room with fortifications made out of any object at hand. Today, the video screen is available to anyone; war play is a controller's button-click away; and the U.S. military is capable of bringing war into a child's home in ways that put action figures and play-sets to shame.

Play all that you can play

In 2002, the Army launched"America's Army," a training and combat -- they balk at the term"shooter"-- style videogame that it made available online and at recruiting stations free of charge. Developed at the Modeling, Virtual Environment and Simulation Institute at the Naval Postgraduate School with the assistance of such entertainment and gaming industry stalwarts as Epic Games, NVIDIA, the THX Division of Lucasfilm Ltd., Dolby Laboratories, Lucasfilm Skywalker Sound, HomeLAN, and GameSpy Industries, it cost taxpayers some $6-8 million, but was a huge success for the Army. It hit the very youth demographic the Army was targeting for potential recruits as well as their younger siblings.

Rated 'T' for Teen!"America's Army" teaches military training, weapons, and tactics by allowing players to"experience" Army life -- from the on-screen"rigors" of boot camp to blasting away at enemy troops. It is now one of the five most popular videogames played on-line, boasting over 2 million registered users. This October, the Army will introduce an update, making the combat simulator even more realistic and introducing the elite U.S. Special Forces ("Green Berets") into the mix.

Chris Chambers, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, a former Army major and the deputy director of development for"America's Army" admits that the game is a recruiting tool. However, in response to criticisms that its scenarios of blood, violence, and killing are excessive, he says,"The game is about achieving objectives with the least loss of life." He notes as well that it"doesn't reward abhorrent behavior, it rewards teamwork." To highlight the point, Chambers notes that a player who frags (assassinates) his drill sergeant instantly materializes inside a jail cell. Killing non-U.S. personnel, however, is perfectly acceptable as long as it's done the Army way.

The Navy-produced"America's Army" is only the tip of the military's video iceberg. While the game may be a recruiting device masquerading as a toy, there's nothing clandestine about who was involved in its creation. Much less evident is the Army's role in"Full Spectrum Warrior" (FSW) – a videogame for the recently unveiled Microsoft Xbox system that will be released to the public early in 2004. FSW is a realistic combat simulator that allows the gamer to act as an Army light infantry squad leader conducting operations in"Tazikhstan," a fictional nation, nestled between Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China. Following the lead of America's present commander-in-chief, the game leaves out all gray areas, casting Tazikhstan firmly within the axis of evil due to its fanatical strongman Mohammad Jabbour Al-Afad, a former guerilla leader of Mujahideen fighters. His"hatred of the western world is well known" and he has turned his nation into"a haven for terrorists and extremists," especially"Taliban and Iraqi loyalists." In short,"Tazikhstan" is a one-stop shop for evil-doers.

But FSW is not just any old military-themed video game. It was developed under the watchful eye of military personnel who teach at the Army's Infantry School at Fort Benning, and is actually a revamped version of"Full Spectrum Command," a PC-game/combat simulator used by the military to teach the fundamentals of commanding a light infantry company in urban environments. Thus, unlike other shoot-em-ups that use violent imagery and military themes strictly for entertainment purposes, FSW has been designed specifically as a combat learning tool.

So just how did military instructors create a videogame that teaches gamers the fundamentals of Army strategy, tactics, and weaponry? The answer lies in Marina Del Ray, California, at the Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT), a center within the University of Southern California system. ICT is a $45 million joint Army/USC venture begun in 1999, designed to link up the military with academia and the entertainment and video game industries.

Full spectrum dominance

In addition to creating"Full Spectrum Command" and"Full Spectrum Warrior," ICT is involved in a"full spectrum" of other military projects from"Advanced Leadership Training Simulation" a partnership between ICT and entertainment giant Paramount Pictures designed for training soldiers in crisis management and leadership skills, to"Think Like a Commander…," a collaboration between the US Army, the Hollywood filmmaking community, and USC researchers designed to"support leadership development for U.S. Army soldiers" through software applications.

Believe it or not, the Institute for Creative Technologies also draws on the talents of a host of Hollywood's top creative minds to dream up futuristic weapons, vehicles, equipment and uniforms for the Army. Through ICT, production designer Ron Cobb (Star Wars, Aliens, Total Recall) lent his creative skills to a program to design the Army's super soldier of the future, the Objective Force Warrior (OFW). The OFW is to be unlike any other soldier the Army has ever sent into battle, having been"built" from the ground up like other sophisticated weapons systems. The OFW concept relies on constructing an integrated system of weapons, armor, camouflage, and electronics that will monitor a soldier's vitals signs, the outside environment, and an on-board temperature regulation device. Think of it as a first step toward Hollywood's sci-fi dream of the cyborg soldier -- an integrated human/machine combat system that, says the military, will transform a man or woman into a"Formidable Warrior in an Invincible Team." And, owing to its Tinsel-town roots, it looks the part.

In June 2003, General Dynamics won the contract to complete"preliminary and detailed design" for the Objective Force Warrior project for $100 million. Yet, even before General Dynamics had its contract, toy-maker Hasbro, perhaps best known for its G.I. Joe line of action figures, had already received the specifications of the OFW concept. Why Hasbro? Perhaps because the Army is reportedly patterning its new quick-loading assault weapons on the design of Hasbro's immensely popular Super-Soaker water gun.

The interconnectedness is confusing, isn't it? So let's recap: ICT's Hollywood team put together the concept for the Army super soldier of the future and its video-game corps developed the military simulator"Full Spectrum Command" that has now spawned"Full Spectrum Warrior," a video game produced by the military-entertainment-videogame complex at ICT for Microsoft's Xbox system. And Microsoft isn't just adapting Army video concepts either. It turns out that this sort of"gaming" is a genuine two-way street, for Microsoft is also the core software provider of wearable computers for an Army program now in production, the Land Warrior, a proto-super soldier package to be introduced next year which, just to square the circle, is scheduled to be replaced in the 2010s by the Objective Force Warrior.

Microsoft also appears to be embracing the OFW concept, because its futuristic combat game"Halo" features soldiers who look strikingly similar to the Army's future super soldiers. Dropping down an age level, Hasbro may also embrace the Objective Force Warrior concept for its toys as they have evidently been given advanced access to the OFW plans. Whew. Got that? So now from tots to video-playing teens to teen soldiers playing video to soldiers turned into cyborg warriors, we know what"full-spectrum dominance" actually means.

Such cooperation -- or is the word"interpenetration"? -- wasn't always the order of the day. Hasbro's video-game line now boasts a tank combat simulation called M1 Tank Platoon 2 that was developed by a company known as Microprose. In the late 1980s, Microprose introduced its predecessor, M1 Tank Platoon, but, for security reasons, its creators were barred by the Army from even setting foot inside an actual tank for research purposes.

By 1997, however, the military had seen the light. The Marine Corps inked a deal with a company named MÄK technologies to create the first combat simulation game"to be co-funded and co-developed" by the Department of Defense (DoD) and the entertainment industry. A year later, the Army signed a contract with MÄK to develop a sequel to its commercial tank simulation video game"Spearhead" for use by the U.S. Army Armor School as a training tool and by the Army's Mounted Maneuver Battle Lab for weapon experiments and tactical analysis. The military has been gaming ever since.

Children at work, do not disturb

In 2001, the DoD pressed another video game"Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six: Rogue Spear" into service to train military personnel in how to conduct small unit military operations in urban terrain. Recently, a sequel to"Rogue Spear," Tom Clancy's"Rainbow Six: Raven Shield," was drafted to test the Army's Objective Force Warrior concepts.

Perhaps ICT was a bit put off by the Army's choice of"Raven Shield" over their"Full Spectrum" video games, but it has now hooked up with the CIA to develop a game to help Agency"analysts think like terrorists" according to a recent article in the Washington Times. CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield explains,"For out-of-the-box thinking, we are reaching out to academics, think tanks and external research institutes that are critical in the fight against terrorism" -- though a military official derided the project as"a ridiculous and absurd scheme."

Of course, the military just might be jealous of the fact that CIA counterterrorism officials who traveled to ICT headquarters were given VIP tours of Hollywood movie studios, or perhaps they're bothered by the way the Agency recently landed television-secret agent Jennifer Garner of ABC's highly rated CIA drama Alias to star in its recruitment videos. Says the CIA's liaison to the entertainment industry Chase Brandon,"If Jennifer ever decides she doesn't want to wear dark glasses of the celebrity status, she can put on dark glasses and be a spy. She's got what it takes." In the meantime, Garner's co-star from the movie Daredevil, Michael Clarke Duncan, is lending his voice to a Sony videogame set to be released this fall,"SOCOM II: U.S. Navy SEALs," produced with the assistance of the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Command. Not surprisingly, Alias itself, complete with Garner's voice has been turned into a video game (to be released this December).

"SOCOM II" and"Alias" will be joined on store shelves in early 2004 by"Kuma War," developed by newcomer Kuma Reality Games in cooperation with the Department of Defense. This is being billed as the first shooter game that will allow players to recreate actual military missions, such as the raid that killed Saddam Hussein's two sons -- with each combat assignment introduced by television footage and a CNN-style news anchor. Like any good military-industrial company, Kuma has linked itself to the military through the Pentagon's revolving door of employment: a retired Marine Corps Major General serves as one of its corporate chiefs. Further, Kuma boasts a board of military veteran advisors"whose job it is to make sure the missions [they] put out are as realistic as possible."

But the interaction between the toy industry and the military doesn't end there. Video games are being used not only to train present and future soldiers in Army tactics and concepts, but also to help soldiers learn how to operate other military"toys" with minimal training. Case in point: the Dragon Runner, a small remote-controlled car-like vehicle designed to travel inside buildings and spy for Marines waiting outside. Developed by researchers from the Naval Research Laboratory and Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute working with the Marine Corps' Warfighting Laboratory, the toy-like Dragon Runner is guided by a six-button keypad, modeled after Sony's PlayStation 2 videogame controller. Major Greg Heines, a Marine attached to the Warfighting Lab project, says it was chosen because,"that's what these 18-, 19-year-old Marines have been playing with pretty much all of their lives, [so they] will pick up [how to drive the Dragon Runner] in a few minutes."

But perhaps the central player in providing the Pentagon's boys with their high-tech, lethal toys is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Founded in 1958, in the wake of the USSR's Sputnik launch, to make certain that the U.S. was never again caught flatfooted on military-applications technology, DARPA specializes in outside-the-box high-tech projects. It reports directly to the Secretary of Defense and operates"in coordination with, but completely independent of, the military research and development (R&D) establishment." It should come as little surprise then, that MÄK Technologies, Inc, which produced the first Pentagon-sponsored video games and the creators of"SOCOM II" both have a DARPA legacy that stretches back to the 1980s.

These days, DARPA is gearing up for a new project that promises to further entwine the various parts of the military-industrial-entertainment complex -- the"Grand Challenge," an off-road race between Los Angeles and Las Vegas by"autonomous ground vehicles" (translation from DARPA-speak: unmanned, self-driving trucks and sport utility vehicles). To the team that wins this March 2004 race, which will take the robotic vehicles over a 250-mile off-road course (the exact route of which won't even be revealed to competitors until two hours before the start of the race) and is mandated to last less than 10 hours, goes $1 million dollars, dreams of future DoD contracts, and the knowledge that they, says DARPA, will be playing"a vital role in helping to shape the future of America's national defense."

To all the participating teams, made up of a motley array of"Advertisers and corporate sponsors, Artificial intelligence developers, Auto manufacturers and suppliers, Computer programmers, Defense contractors, Futurists, Inventors, Motor sport enthusiasts, Movie producers, Off-road racers, Remote-sensing developers, Roboticists, Science fiction writers, Technology companies, Universities,[and] Video game publishers" go increased interactions with other key players in the military-industrial-entertainment complex.

According to Don Shipley, a DARPA spokesman for the Grand Challenge, the idea behind the race was to"attract fresh thinking on the subject [of creating unmanned combat vehicles and] to get beyond the Lockheeds and the Grummans." But what the contest has actually done is link up big name defense contractors with academic centers, independent inventors, techies, and entertainment professionals.

At the race itself, a Cal Tech team, sponsored by Northrop-Grumman, Ford Motor Company, IBM, and ITT, among others, will face off against a team of scientists and engineers dubbed American Industrial Magic, with backing from Hewlett Packard, and a vehicle named after Jennifer Garner's Alias alter ego Sydney Bristow. At a recent competitors' conference for race participants, members of these teams were joined by folks from such defense giants as Raytheon, Lockheed, Boeing and Northrop Grumman; entertainment industry types from Indigo Films, Dezart Cinematic, Authentic Entertainment, Sierra Films, and Wired Magazine; techies from firms like CISCO Systems, SoftPro Technologies, Rockwell Scientific, Adobe Systems Inc. and Intel; and representatives from such academic institutions as the University of Michigan, Auburn University, University of Washington and Ohio State University and, of course, government/military players from DARPA, the Air Force and the Naval Surface Warfare Center

While helping along the creation of advanced fighting vehicles of a sort that once might only have inhabited movies like Star Wars, the great DARPA race of 2004 is likely to forge yet more complex collaborations among entertainment and high-tech companies, the military, and the older branches of the military-industrial complex, connecting them all in ways that must leave Ike spinning in his grave. With military spending locked in (even without the supplemental requests the Iraq war is sure to inspire) at nearly $400 billion in 2004, with a $10-plus billion videogame industry, a toy industry that brings in $20-plus billion each year, a transnational entertainment and media industry that tops out annually at $479 billion, and with no outcry from the public over the militarization of popular culture, who knows what the future holds? Can the day be far off when DARPA gets a producer credit for an ABC TV combat reality-series and Kuma Reality Games is granted office space in the Pentagon?

With the lines between entertainment and war blurring totally, more and more toys are poised to become clandestine combat teaching tools, while an increasing number of weapons are likely to be inspired by toy culture or its makers. What of America's children in all this? How will they imagine the world through the dazzling set of military training devices now landing in their living rooms, crafted by Hollywood and produced by videogame giants under the watchful eyes of the Pentagon?

This article first appeared on www.tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, a long time editor in publishing, the author of The End of Victory Culture, and a fellow of the Nation Institute.

Copyright C2003 Nick Turse