War Games

New Media Finds Its Place in the New World Order

The military isn't just about high-tech warfare anymore. It's also investing millions of dollars in high-tech entertainment. One national theater chain recently showcased a big-budget military promotional film, beamed in via satellite, to boost national morale. Now, the army is courting new recruits through state-of-the-art war-based video games. Post-bust, it looks like new media is quickly finding its place in the New World Order. Get ready for the next generation of wartime propaganda.

For about a month beginning in mid September, attendees of Regal Cinemas chains in Los Angeles, Denver, Knoxville, and New York (local venues included the UAs at Union Square and 64th and Second) were treated to a bit of unabashedly patriotic agitprop, courtesy of the U.S. military. Sporting the blockbuster title Enduring Freedom: The Opening Chapter, the five-minute short is the first military-produced promotional film to hit commercial theaters since World War II.

Cut with TV-commercial rhythm and set to a symphonic score that veers from ominous to schmaltzy, this mini-movie flies through a ratta-tat-tat barrage of images from the world-spanning war on terror. Jointly financed by the marines and the navy with a $1.2 million budget, Enduring Freedom follows the actions of anti-terrorist squads stationed in the Indian Ocean and Kabul, Afghanistan, as well as soldiers on domestic bases. Thanks to director Klaus Obermeyer Jr. and the rebelliously named, Santa Monica-based production company American Rogue Films, Enduring Freedom rocks guy-friendly extreme-pop attitude. But there's a soft side too: Images of teary-eyed, flag-waving military moms evoke vintage early-'90s support-our-troops yellow-ribbonism. The only overtly violent footage is an opening clip of a jet ramming into a WTC tower—home video blown up to create a mocking low-resolution echo of Hollywood blockbusters—shamelessly used to renew fear and thereby justify everything else seen in the film.

"It's not a question of if we go to combat," barks one recruit, "it's a question of when." While it gets off on slick shots of predatory warplanes and lime-green night-vision recon, Enduring Freedom blunts its techno-jingoism with jockish "Army of One"-type sloganeering by unwaveringly self-actualized soldiers. Another he-man grunt declares with pointed vagueness that the military "is prepared to do what needs to be done." Iraq is never mentioned, but the screenings' fall timing makes it impossible to see this as anything but a teaser trailer for Gulf War II.

Regal Cinemas Vice President of Communications Lauren Leff reports that Enduring Freedom was shown free of charge as a pilot for Regal's Digital Content Network, a satellite-delivered pre-show program that will ultimately serve extra advertising before features. Leff claims that this particular film was chosen to test the system "because it was shot in high-definition."

"The piece doesn't ask anyone to make a judgment or take an action," one of the film's creators, Lieutenant Colonel James Kuhn, told the Los Angeles Times. "It's just saying, you're a taxpayer, here's a meaningful look at the military." A pleasant thought: This is what we're up to, but don't bother saying or doing anything about it. While the film avoids the flat-footed hard-sell tactics of '40s-era newsreels, it favors a more contemporary marketing tactic: a calculated appeal to feelings over facts. Billions of defense dollars are put on display in a commercially digestible spectacle of reassurance. You can all feel safe, the film says, because our military technology is so huge and totally cool. (Forget that the World Trade Center was taken down with box cutters.)

But not all viewers found the film to be so comforting. After the L.A. Times ran an item citing complaints about the short—including an angry mother who objected to war footage before the G-rated Christian children's film Jonah: A Veggie-Tales Movie—Regal abruptly stopped showing Enduring Freedom. Though a follow-up article in the paper described American Rogue Films as "furious" that the film had been pulled early, Leff says that the test period had simply ended. The film may reappear in early 2003 when the complete 4000-screen network is up and running.

But of course, the war on terror doesn't just call for placating, feel-safe PR. Our all-volunteer force needs to persuade a new generation to enlist. Enduring Freedom's production budget is only a fraction of the $7.5 million that the army spent on its latest Gen Y recruiting tool, America's Army: Operations. A free PC game available from GoArmy.com since July 4th, America's Army has so far met with remarkable success. Some of the numerous articles covering it have reported over 2.5 million downloads in its first two months, and its cutting-edge design has garnered several gaming industry awards. A first-person "tactical shooter" that runs players though highly detailed boot-camp training and several contemporary missions, it was developed by the Naval Postgraduate School's MOVES (Modeling, Virtual Environments, and Simulation) Institute in Monterey, California, as part of its new Videogame Research and Development Facility, also known as the War Games Lab. The Lab's many academic and corporate partners include MIT, UC Berkeley, Dolby, and Lucasfilm.

Like Enduring Freedom and old-time war newsreels, the real-world hook of America's Army is achieved by offering privileged glimpses from the front lines. Some of the backgrounds in the game are lifted from video footage of Afghan landscapes, and the site includes a "Stories of Afghanistan" weblog by an actual American soldier who "is also capturing ideas, facts, and footage that may be used in future iterations of the America's Army game."

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