Years of writing about public relations and propaganda has probably made me a bit jaded, but I was amazed nevertheless when I visited America’s Army, an online video game website sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). In its quest to find recruits, the military has literally turned war into entertainment.
America’s Army offers a range of games that kids can download or play online. Although the games are violent, with plenty of opportunities to shoot and blow things up, they avoid graphic images of death or other ugliness of war. Instead, they offer a sanitized, Tom Clancy version of fantasy combat. One game, Overmatch, promises “a contest in which one opponent is distinctly superior . . . with specialized skills and superior technology . . . OVERMATCH: few soldiers, certain victory” (more or less the same overconfident message that helped lead us into Iraq).
Ubisoft, the company contracted to develop the DoD’s games, also sponsors the “Frag Dolls,” a real-world group of attractive, young women gamers who go by names such as “Eekers,” “Valkyrie” and “Jinx” and are paid to promote Ubisoft products. At a computer gaming conference earlier this year, the Frag Dolls were deployed as booth babes at the America’s Army demo, where they played the game and posed for photos and video (now available on the America’s Army website). On the Frag Dolls weblog, Eekers described her turn at the Combat Convoy Experience:
You have this gigantic Hummer in a tent loaded with guns, a rotatable turret, and a huge screen in front of it. Jinx took the wheel and drove us around this virtual war zone while shooting people with a pistol, and I switched off from the SAW turret on the top of the vehicle to riding passenger with an M4.
Military officials have also developed an elaborate public relations strategy for outreach to schools. In fall 2004, the Army published a guidebook for high school recruiters. Specific advice includes the following:
“Be so helpful and so much a part of the school scene that you are in constant demand.”
“Cultivate coaches, librarians, administrative staff and teachers.”
“Know your student influencers. Students such as class officers, newspaper and yearbook editors, and athletes can help build interest in the Army among the student body.”
“Distribute desk calendars to your assigned schools.”
“Attend athletic events at the HS. Make sure you wear your uniform.”
“Get involved with the parent-teacher association.”
“Coordinate with school officials to eat lunch in the school cafeteria several times each month.”
“Deliver donuts and coffee for the faculty once a month.”
“Coordinate with the homecoming committee to get involved with the parade.”
“Get involved with the local Boy Scouts. . . . Many scouts are HS students and potential enlistees or student influencers.”
“Order personal presentation items (pens, bags, mouse pads, mugs) as needed monthly for special events.”
“Attend as many school holiday functions or assemblies as possible.”
“Offer to be a timekeeper at football games.”
“Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is in January. Wear your dress blues and participate in school events commemorating this holiday. . . . February . . . Black History Month. Participate in events as available.”
“Contact the HS athletic director and arrange for an exhibition basketball game between the faculty and Army recruiters.”
Grand Theft Privacy
The Washington Post reported in June that the Pentagon has contracted with BeNOW, a private database marketing company, to “create a database of high school students ages 16 to 18 and all college students to help the military identify potential recruits.” The new database is described on the Pentagon database as “arguably the largest repository of 16-to-25-year-old youth data in the country, containing roughly 30 million records.”
According to the military’s Federal Register notice, the information kept on each person includes name, gender, address, birthday, email address, ethnicity, telephone number, high school, college, graduation dates, grade-point average, education level, and military test scores.
Privacy rights groups have been sharply critical of the database. According to a joint statement by a coalition of eight privacy groups, the database violates the Privacy Act, a law intended to reduce government collection of personal data on Americans. The database plan, they wrote, “proposes to ignore the law and its own regulations by collecting personal information from commercial data brokers and state registries rather than directly from individuals.”