The American Army’s “gritty Disneyland”

I felt an awkward sense of embarrassment this week, on behalf of a US army veteran. Ex-paratrooper D.B. Grady thought that this Modern Warfare 3 advertising campaign – titled “The Vet and the N00b”, starring a rugged Sam Worthington and a clueless Jonah Hill – was a crass trivialisation of the realities of military conflict.

And he’s absolutely right.

In fact, the entire Modern Warfare series is a crass trivialisation of the realities of military conflict.

The possibility that young men and women might aspire to travel to war, having derived their expectations from pwning noobs over Xbox Live, should be a genuine concern to the military. It would be opportunistic, and misleading for the military to accept recruits on that path – kids excited about calling in rocket strikes, scoring extra for headshots, and bringing in AC-130 support at the end of a particularly successful killstreak, but with no comprehension of the gravity of what Grady calls “ten years of constant war, of thousands of amputees and flag-draped coffins, of hundreds of grief-stricken communities”. These are the realities of Grady’s war. And doubtless – they are the realities of serving infantrymen. To send young people to war without an understanding of these realities, and worse – an expectation of an entirely different reality – would just be lying.

Unfortunately for Grady, that opportunistic, misleading approach was wholeheartedly embraced with the development of the America’s Army franchise – a game series developed as a recruitment driver by the US military in 2002. For those who haven’t played the game, it is distributed as freeware (with 100% of its funding stemming from US government), is now in its 3rd build, and is undoubtedly a recruitment tool intended to piggy-back off the success of multiplayer first-person shooter franchises like Call of Duty.

I feel embarrassed for Grady, in that he makes an entirely reasonable point, and one which should be taken seriously. While Modern Warfare might be an entertaining game, it clearly doesn’t reflect the lonely, painful, dangerous reality of conflict. These realities should be (perhaps seperately from entertainment) communicated to potential recruits, at least in the name of full disclosure.

However, herein lies the brilliance of the “Vet/Noob” advertising campaign. By showing characters making “game decisions” rather than “real-war decisions” (Hill: “should I have used the knife?”), by showing characters reincarnated and learning after their multiple deaths (rather than lying at the roadside, clutching at wounds in agony), and by showing surreal, ridiculous events (the mid-air, zero-gravity shootout on a plane – amazing), we are presented with what is clearly “an advert for a game.” What Grady calls the “Disneyland”, fantasy aspect to the campaign is actually what makes it so much less crass than the America’s Army project. Jonah Hill’s 1337 skill at the advert’s end just serves to highlight the yawning gulf between Modern Warfare and modern warfare. We are being shown a world where a portly teen, probably the real-world personification of Eric Cartman,  is a one-man army. The ad is pure escapism.

What would be crass would be to show footage from the game, as Grady would have preferred of MW3. What would have been even more crass would have been to do so, as part of a recruitment campaign, portraying the game as indicative of the realities of conflict. The crassness would have just been heightened if the game was distributed freely online, and intentionally coincided with recruitment, perhaps offering recruitment links within the game’s website. Something like this, perhaps. That would be the most crass thing I could imagine.

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