How our military builds monsters (and our duty as parents to protect our kids)

Former U.S. Army soldier Josh Stieber served in Iraq but was horrified by the violence the U.S. military was carrying out in Iraq. He videotaped an interview in which he describes how the U.S. military systematically breaks down soldiers' inhibitions against killing Iraqis.

Raw Story reports on the interview: “Stieber said he was alarmed in basic training when the chants ‘even joked about killing women and children.’ …The common mindset was that Iraqis were always referred to as "Hajis” in a pattern he said dehumanized people, making it more difficult for soldiers to empathize with civilians."

STIEBER: One that stands out in my mind is—it goes, “I went down to the market where all the women shop/I pulled out my machete and I begin to chop/I went down to the park where all the children play/I pulled out my machine gun and I begin to spray.”

JAY: That’s as you’re marching.

STIEBER: Right.

JAY: So this is, like, an authorized chant, you could say.

STIEBER: Yeah. I mean, the training, they focus on the physical aspect, or, you know, they say that’s the challenging part, but then they slip all these psychological things in along with it.

One comment on the article claims:

When I was in the US Army we sang some cadences that contained the following partial lyrics: “Three little boys playing with some jacks / .556 rounds going through their backs…” … “The cutest thing I ever saw / was a little puppy with a broken paw / (repeated) / I lured him him with a piece of meat / and then I broke his other feet…”

Coincidentally, earlier this week, I received an email from a friend:

One of the sickest aspects I’ve read about is kiosks and stores at malls where recruiters set up video games and simulators. I guess they get teenagers to come in and play games that look very realistic. So you get this arcade game feel, like the classic game where you shoot ducks with a pellet gun. Except it looks like you’re walking around some Iraqi city shooting likeness of Saddam Hussein who pops up from the ruins like clockwork. So kids get to think it’s fun (I guess).

To which I replied:

I’m guessing you saw the “Frontline” that recently covered the video game arcade military recruiting centers? Powerful, depressing show.

The military was also very aggressive in using our tax dollars to create very sophisticated games that portray military life in a glamorous way and giving them away for free.

My friend then told me:

There’s a game called Call of Duty or Call to Duty or something like that. My teen nephew has it on his XBox and I played it over the holidays… on his big screen with these fancy wireless feedback controls and stuff while we were visiting. I have to admit I even had fun playing it. The realism is amazing. Scenes look just like what you see in Iraq and Central Asia. I read a bit about the creation and they even digitized various ruins (what the US has laid to ruin) to the inch for realism. But of course it’s sanitary. You just kill “terrorists” and hit replay when you run out of ammo or whatever. Gunshot wounds are realistic according to the type of arms. For instance the high powered rifles make heads explode with a proper head hit. And the blood spray stays on the wall. The realism goes on and on.

I just think if I got caught up playing it, despite my disgust for the real war effort in total, how it must influence so many young people starved for entertainment. What a shame.

I replied with my thinking about the proper and improper use of video games, a subject I hope every parent today is thinking carefully about:

1) Frighteningly, we all apparently have the capacity to become monsters (see: Stanford Prison Experiment, and Milgram’s obedience experiments. We can learn to resist this tendency through knowledge, culture, self-awareness, etc.

2) External influences can push us toward being monsters. Frequent playing of realistic war video game simulations may encourage the development of such a mindset. (I don’t think the military would spend so much producing such games unless they were an effective recruiting tool.) Clearly, the military has mastered the psychology of breaking down soldiers' individualism and moral constraints and strengthening group-think and “‘us’ vs. ‘them’” thinking (even to the point of de-humanizing “them”). It’s appalling to hear how soldiers through the ages have referred to the indigenous people living in the whatever nation they’re currently occupying.

3) Teens are especially susceptible to the influence of such games because teen brains are in such flux. Younger kids too because kids are establishing brain patterns that tend to harden over time.

4) As long as a kid is doing well in school, has friends, plays some sports, etc., I doubt video games will warp their mind too much. I played plenty of video games as a teen on my old Atari, and it didn’t affect my school. But the games were quite unrealistic back then and not at all about killing people. And they were quite social. I played computer football for hours with my brother and dad. That was a bonding experience equivalent to playing ping-pong with them. But the kids who play the games obsessively, to the point that they lose interest in the rest of life, are seriously troubled and likely to wind up in the military. Enjoying single-person shooter games could well encourage that.

5) I’ve most intentionally refrained from buying a video game machine or putting games on my computers because I know it’s a huge time black hole. Doing so requires placing long-term interests above short-term interests. And that’s hard for many people. I focus my mind on personal growth. If an activity doesn’t involve becoming a better programmer or Mandarin reader (or helping others, esp. my kids, do the same), I lose interest. But many focus on entertainment.

6) There are games out there that are social or develop talents in music, knowledge of history, etc. I’m not opposed to video games per se. We’re at the beginning of a huge convergence between video games and education. It’s about the content of the game. There are good books and bad books. There’s good music and bad music. There are good video games and bad. If you exercise your authority as a parent to set limits, choose games, and cajole your kids into valuing more productive pursuits, a video game machine could possibly be a useful tool. I actually just yesterday installed two collections of free educational games for young kids on my (Linux) laptop. I’m starting to investigate them, and some seem like fun, educational games Daryl would enjoy. He already enjoys TuxPaint, which I consider a good creative outlet. I’ve seen some cool educational programs for the iPad that let kids learn how to spell. Strategy games can stretch a mind in positive directions. I wouldn’t buy an attack helicopter game or an ultimate fighting game. But video games will play a large role in our kids' learning. In a video game, you can simulate mixing dangerous chemicals you could never mix in a lab, for example. Or build games that immerse kids in how our bodies work at the cellular and molecular levels.

My nephew is really into video games. My approach with him has been to basically ignore him when he’s playing video games. I’ll ask whether he wants to read a book or throw a football or go to the park. If he were playing some kind of multi-player football game or soccer game or educational game, I’d join in. But I don’t want to even try the shooting games, and I don’t want to implicitly condone/encourage him by playing them myself. There are plenty of fun things to do in life. I choose not to play games whose objective is to kill other people.

Yingmei and I did, YEARS ago, play that game where you drive around a city and cause all kind of mayhem, stealing cars, etc. Grand Theft Auto. That’s it. Anyhow, it was innocent fun. None of us was about to run out of the building and grab someone’s car. My impression is that the games have become increasingly gory and violent since then. And I fear that the kids who are growing up playing lots of games involving sex and violence will be affected in negative ways. So I try to discourage it. And I’ll certainly control it with my kids, but not to the point of making it into forbidden fruit. I’ll probably talk through my concerns with them when they’re old enough to understand. But, in moderation, I don’t think these games do serious damage. But these simulations are increasingly powerful and immersive, so I suspect kids who play a lot have increasing difficulty differentiating between reality and fantasy and/or let their fantasy lives leak over into destructive real-world behaviors.

Posted by James on Friday, May 14, 2010