“We refuse to be educated for a defense that deforms the defenders and that which they defend.” So read the banner we carried with us as we marched with 200 peace activists to face-off with police and military personnel at the Franklin Mills Mall in Northeast Philadelphia on Saturday, Sept. 12.
We were there to shut down the Army Experience Center (AEC), the Pentagon’s $12 million experiment in the use of video games and modern media to indoctrinate youth into the military’s culture of violence.
The AEC looks like a giant classroom nestled in the heart of the heavily-trafficked mall, but instead of desks, the room is filled with cutting edge TV monitors, video game consoles and hypermodern “mission simulators,” each one a tool in the Pentagon’s fight for the hearts and minds of the United States’ malleable youth.
On any given day at the AEC, young people ages 13 and older gather to play the Pentagon’s in-house war games: each participant gets a taste of the “army experience,” although the death, destruction and pain of war are conveniently sanitized, and no one ever leaves the AEC with post traumatic stress disorder. Pre-pubescent boys are locked in a macabre orgy of mediated violence. The veteran soldiers who staff the recruitment center look on, encouraging the gathered youth as they kill “enemy combatants” on the TV screens and promising them similar thrills if only they join up. These are our country’s modern recruitment techniques—violence is fun, war is only a game, and even children can get a piece of the action.
In 1955, in the wake of World War II and the Korean War, the American Friends Service Committee published its seminal peace manifesto titled “Speak Truth to Power,” saying this of modern civilization: “Acceptance of the doctrine of violence is so widespread that man is becoming hardened to mass extermination, and indifferent to mass human suffering. Indeed, man’s indifference to violence is almost as disturbing a symptom of our time as his readiness to practice it. This is an age of violence.”
And what can we say of humankind today? The stifling heat of the Cold War has subsided, but we are faced with a new and more mysterious enemy—the Terrorist—and once again the youth of this nation are being educated for a defense which will surely deform them, just as it long ago deformed whatever it is we are supposed to be defending.
Standing next to us in the crowd at the AEC on Saturday were veterans who had seen first-hand the violence of war; the hyper-technic realist aesthetic of the AEC games was an astonishing affront to their lived experience. They knew that video games could never approximate the reality of war. How can we—as a nation, as a culture—so carelessly and cruelly render the suffering of war?
We wanted it to stop, and so 200 peace activists, including members of Iraq and Vietnam Veterans Against the War, World Can’t Wait and the Granny Peace Brigade, stood outside of that inhumane and aseptic space where kids learn how to kill. We were angry and alive and our loud, messy anger—blaring over bullhorns and plastered on posters—was in service of humanity instead of the culture of death promoted by our country’s political and military machinery.
After hours of protesting, six protesters and an independent journalist were handcuffed and taken away, and the rest of us were pushed onto the street by a wall of approaching policemen. We were silenced, but we’d had our say. Seven people paid dearly for our right to speak: they were charged with “criminal conspiracy” and “failure to obey a police command” and spent the night in jail. But who is surprised? The government prefers a passive populace to dissent.
Our culture is militarized. The government glorification of violence—whether in the news media or by way of the violence-exalting video games which it funds (America’s Army, the Halo series, etc.)—coerces us to accept the unprecedented levels of destruction unleashed by our global dominance. The critical theorist Herbert Marcuse called this the “pre-established harmony”: the U.S. government produces both the culture of violence and the violence itself, which join together in a vicious cycle that precludes the possibility of peace. Our social cohesion is dependent on the enemy at our door; waging of war stabilizes our society.
The omnipresent culture and the tools of war—which haunt us from cradle to grave—eradicate our hopes for peace, deform our imaginations. Still, we refuse our government’s terrorization of our imaginations, its colonization of our minds. We marched to the AEC, sat down on the ground and told them to “Shut it down!” And we remembered Dr. King’s admonition, hoping it was not in vain: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”