War Games

The cozy relationship between perpetual war and total entertainment

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The average civilian can be forgiven for thinking that wars happen on battlefields. For an American public long intoxicated on a heady cocktail of jingoistic action films and gaudy halftime shows, the site of conflict is the stage on which the war is performed. What’s more, military tradition has also long revered battlefield sagas. Names like Agincourt and Ypres carry a quasi-mystical significance, with all the attendant details of time, place, and command decisions lovingly burnished into sentimental incantations.

Via such rites of remembrance, the sites of battle become grotesquely consecrated by combat. If having a war means Americans shooting at a non-American enemy, then the war happens somewhere between where the bullet leaves the barrel and its eventual point of impact. The ground between comes to represent the entire war itself.

But war, particularly modern war, isn’t so neatly circumscribed. With a 2017 budget of nearly $600 billion, the Pentagon has the resources to insidiously project itself over the entire planet. In fact, modern American warfare—which chiefly relies on a global web of high-tech surveillance that directs the movements of forward-operating troops stationed on an ever-expanding assemblage of “lily pad” bases—has reduced historical time and place to the status of afterthought; the equivalent of a sig file notation.

The specter of the military-industrial complex that Dwight D. Eisenhower warned about in his 1961 farewell address has metastasized into something even the former chief of the European theater in World War II couldn’t begin to imagine. After spending the better part of a century faithfully mimicking the civilian global supply chain that moves cheap consumer goods and raw materials along webs of commercial transit, the Pentagon also deepened its financial entanglements with America’s largest corporations. The resulting Leviathan of force no longer really requires the modifiers “military” or “industrial,” journalist Nick Turse, for one, has simply taken to referring to it as “The Complex.” The Department of Defense’s fingerprints are on everything from the internet to candy bars, from professional sports to consumer electronics.

Still, the steady annexation of civilian capitalism by its military counterpart is more than simply a matter of quantity and scale. There’s a qualitative difference to the complexity of modern war: how its perpetuity disrupts our traditional sense of wartime, its leading role in both fomenting and (belatedly) mitigating the effects of climate change, and the military-industrial complex’s unmistakable transformation from a political problem into a near-ontological crisis. The most pertinent writing about contemporary war focuses on its strange, multi-dimensional sprawl into areas not traditionally associated with combat. Tim Lenoir and Luke Caldwell’s The Military-Entertainment Complex is required reading for anyone curious about just how insidious the Pentagon’s raids on our collective imagination have become.

Simulacra and SIMNET

The line between sports and war has always been uncomfortably thin. It’s a cliché of aristocratic military lore that Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton—but like many clichés, it contains more than a kernel of truth. In our frenetically digitized mass society, meanwhile, we casually understand that combat presented as harmless fun in the guise of sports, video games, and television probably goes a long way in softening the military’s image. But in plumbing the deeper nexus that connects our dizzying varieties of competitive leisure to the deadly serious business of combat, Lenoir and Caldwell do more than call out the clumsy PR initiatives of today’s Pentagon. While of course noting the crucial conflicts of interests in, say, the Pentagon’s notorious payoffs to the National Football League, Lenoir and Caldwell write that the real work of sanitizing Pentagon operations for public view resides in making the work of war seem mundane and familiar: “Routinizing war is important for a globalized capitalist empire,” they write, “and . . . implicit in this process is the understanding of war as a project with not only military but also ideological and political dimensions.” In particular, they observe, video games and television are indispensable to the challenge of “habituating civilians to perpetual war.” How this relationship between modern entertainment and war has developed over time and grown baroquely syncretized via the new economy of omni-digital gratification forms the fascinating nucleus of the book.

For an American public long intoxicated on a heady cocktail of jingoistic action films and gaudy halftime shows, the site of conflict is the stage on which the war is performed.

In stunningly short order, the Pentagon set about exploiting the obvious training implications offered by console gaming. In 1980 the Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) set about appropriating the Atari game Battlezone and repurposing it as a revolutionary new training system called Bradley Trainer. That program’s success next prompted the engineers at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to create the Simulator Network project (SIMNET, in Pentagon-ese). The breakthrough concept in SIMNET was to sidestep the costs of building physically realistic simulators—which had initially proved more expensive than the vehicles they were meant to simulate—by scaling the program to console users.

Here was one of the first self-conscious iterations of the military-entertainment complex—and Lenoir and Caldwell highlight the recruiting gains encoded in the innocuous-seeming logic of the Pentagon’s new virtual gaming platform. SIMNET operated on “selective functional fidelityrather than full physical fidelity”—i.e., experientially simulating a cockpit rather than recreating a cockpit replica. And that was just the first-order breakthrough: “The vehicle simulator was viewed as a tool for the training of crews as a military unit, thus emphasizing collective rather than individual training.”

By 1990, the nascent personal gaming industry was working on a revolving-door basis with the engineers at DARPA. Talent, money, and (especially) ideas now moved promiscuously back and forth between a growing industry hungry for the attention of consumers and a Pentagon looking for renewed purpose in the waning days of the Cold War.

Library of Congress / K.M. Bara

The Great Simulation and Modern Memory

As this civilian-military synergy hardened into the post-Cold War status quo, simulator software morphed from a savvy bit of cost-saving hackery into a virtual raison d’être. Presiding over this shift was the recalibration of Pentagon strategy known as the “Revolution in Military Affairs.” The RMA, like the simulation boom, was partially a response to shrinking budgets—it was, however, much more than a cost-containment tactic. RMA—which incidentally was rooted in the Cold War speculations of Soviet strategists such as Nikolai Ograkov—was a reorientation of American military force away from the giant land wars of the past and toward ever greater reliance on high-tech gadgetry. Not only are key tech innovations such as precision-guided missiles and laser-targeting software cheaper than carpet bombing, they’re also less wantonly destructive of human life, making them an easy sell to political leaders and civilian supporters. The lead thinkers behind RMA promised to cut down on the massive numbers of casualties entailed in fully industrialized “total wars.” But in order to close the sale, Pentagon officials needed to direct their resources to the real-world prototypes for a new generation of virtually engineered and executed warfare.

The new doctrine found its ideal test lab in the First Gulf War. In that long-ago conflict, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster—now better known as President Trump’s obsequious (but now dispatched) National Security Advisor—deployed a new battery of sophisticated digital gadgetry to disable Soviet-built Iraqi tanks in what came to be known as the Battle of 73 Easting. It was such a resounding success, Lenoir and Caldwell tell us, that “[a] few days after the battle the military decided to capitalize on the Battle of 73 Easting to bolster future SIMNET training.” That’s right: in a prophetic sort of positive feedback loop, digitally enabled battle was now furnishing the raw material for digitally simulated military training. Data was gathered on the battle. Participants were interviewed. The 2nd Cavalry helped DARPA recreate the battle vehicle by vehicle. SIMNET eventually turned the Battle of 73 Easting training simulation into a sort of inverse Kobayashi Maru—the fictional Starfleet simulation notorious for being impossible to defeat—in which, despite a series of different programmed outcomes, it’s almost impossible to lose.

It was, in short, a model of digital-age vertical integration: exactly what the military wanted. And to speed along this happy synergy, the strictures governing DoD procurement policies were relaxed. Here, too, an adjustment to financial procedure concealed a much broader, and far-reaching, cultural shift. “The shift in procurement policy led to a loosening—even erasure—of the boundaries between military contractors and the commercial sector,” Lenoir and Caldwell write. “As a result, many important technologies in the area of networking, simulation, virtual reality, and AI moved from behind the walls of military secrecy into the commercial sector; and, even more important, technology began to flow freely from the commercial sector, particularly the game industry, into the military.”

The conduit was now so wide open that by 2004 we had such games as Full Spectrum Warrior, “a successful product of a collaboration among the military and game and film industries,” and America’s Army, in which SIMNET founder Jack Thorpe “saw . . . the same potential offered by Ender’s Battle School and envisioned a perfect military Battleplex providing a lifelong learning environment for combat decision leaders guided by proactive pedagogy and combat simulators.”

Collateral Fantasies

The Military-Entertainment Complex sheds a great deal of useful light on this proto-history of the gaming industry’s formative collaborations with the Pentagon. But the book’s most compelling analysis hinges on Lenoir and Caldwell’s account of how popular video games gained fresh, and terrifying, cultural traction in the post-9/11 world. For all of the research and money spent developing and refining realism in the gaming experience, the simulation of combat in our new century’s cohort of battle-themed games is anything but realistic. Real war is boring and terrifying, clichéd and disorientingly mysterious. There’s an Amy Schumer skit where she plays a “very realistic” war video game in which her female avatar is sexually assaulted and then deals with the ramifications of the attack. Now that is realistic. A game where you wake up at 5 a. m., run a few miles, and then mostly fill out paperwork all day would also be realistic.

In other words, realism isn’t always fun or flattering to the military—so it is often an early casualty of military-themed game development. Lenoir and Caldwell write that “the commercial games we are focusing on here aim at the production and commodification of affect channeled into the creation of the ‘epically real’ game experiences.” And such reified, yet deeply unreal, experiences are themselves “heavily dependent on representations of sophisticated military technologies but only loosely connected to contemporary real world military actions and rules of engagement.”

To understand that the military and private gaming industries exist in “an opportunistic nexus of coinciding interests,” which, in turn, revolve around “the commercial exploitation of military experiences that produce strong affects and assumptions far more than the communication of specific forms of knowledge,” is to understand just how far down the rabbit hole the military-entertainment complex has gone. Video games have become both the subtlest and the most effective kind of military propaganda: one that avoids direct ideology and instead creates an aesthetic framework in which the player/subject is rewarded for embracing technological and graphic sophistication in lieu of coherent narrative and complex moral considerations.

It’s propaganda so slick that the military buys it as well—getting high off its own supply, as it were. “Rather than directly benefiting from these games in the form of increased enrollment,” Lenoir and Caldwell write, “the military finds many of its operation assumptions about RMA confirmed as the only sensible way to engage wars of the future. These games, therefore, give shape to a contemporary war imaginary in which peace becomes harder to find than the conduct of perpetual war.”

The Fog of Television

Gaming takes up the bulk of the argument in The Military-Entertainment Complex, but Lenoir and Caldwell also highlight the ways in which the legacy media of TV and film have likewise buttressed the Pentagon’s propaganda aims in post-9/11 America. They develop an illuminating analysis, for example, of the Bush-era terror-porn franchise 24, which “gives voice to the many predictions of RMA theorists and advances the technologies of the RMA as solutions to the rampant threat of terrorism.” The show is another example of the bowdlerized aesthetic of “epic realism,” far more concerned to traffic in brutal sensory affect than in anything resembling narrative honesty or moral complexity. 24 never pauses in its breathless and sensational hyping of the terrorist threat to give viewers an opportunity to reflect on or debate anti-terror policy, nor (to understate things exponentially) does it deepen anyone’s understanding of the complexities of global geopolitics. Instead, “24 made several formal innovations designed to produce a specific affective response in viewers: a frenetic experience of tension, anxiety, and intense, fast-paced action.”

Senior Pentagon brass met with the producers of 24 to beg them to stop depicting torture so frequently and in so flattering a light.

Keen to jolt viewers with its own version of its epic realist aesthetic, TV rapidly adopted the same strategic, synergistic alliance with the Pentagon that had long compromised the gaming industry. This dynamic was neatly captured in a bit of hyperrealism that could never be sanitized for network viewing: at one point, Lenoir and Caldwell write, senior Pentagon brass met with the producers of 24 to beg them to stop depicting torture so frequently and in so flattering a light. “The real interrogators,” the authors write, “claimed that the show’s support of torture as a necessary expedient in the War on Terror was already problematically infiltrating the worldviews of current and next-generation interrogators and asked that the production team eliminate or reconsider their use of torture in their narratives.” Needless to say, the authors note, the plea to tone down the voyeuristic torture scenes in a hit primetime show was “to no avail.”

Rewired for War

As they unpack these gruesome case studies in the annals of combat-driven wish-fulfillment fantasy, Lenoir and Caldwell seek to lay out what they call the “technological unconscious”—the visceral, other-than-rational identification of the weapons and tactics of the RMA with the hyper-mediated version of war packaged for private consumption on our game consoles and DVRs—without oversaturating The Military-Entertainment Complex with jargon or obscure digressions. For such a knotty and theory-friendly field of inquiry, The Military Entertainment Complex contains a blessedly minimal quotient of speculative abstraction. Indeed, what makes the book so terrifying is that it describes the everyday experiences of people far from areas traditionally associated with America’s Long Wars—thereby implicating our own anodyne lives in the steady militarization of our common world.

The American military is one of the biggest fossil fuel users in the world. Therefore, it’s also one of the biggest polluters in the world. Not only do we find war in our politics, in our legal system, and in our newspapers—war has also embedded itself in our ecosystem, contributing to climate change on a vast geologic scale. The way that we wage war is imprinted in the broad arc of history as well as on our individual synapses, routinized in a digital landscape that seems, Sorcerer’s Apprentice style, to live beyond the control of the people and institutions that created it. In laying bare this process, The Military-Entertainment Complex has urgently directed our attention to a new cultural battlefield in the struggle to preserve and sustain civic-republican values amid a raging torrent of lethally self-reinforcing collective fantasy. Borrowing the lexicon of an early generation of military propaganda, you might well call it the struggle for hearts-and-mindshare.

Scott Beauchamp is a writer and veteran who lives in Maine. His work has appeared in The AtlanticRolling Stone, and the Village Voice, among other places.

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