Left to Their Own Devices

In dubious battle: The military's love affair with technology, from video game to secret weapons

The first question that comes to mind on reading Ed Halter's From Sun Tzu to Xbox: War and Video Games is: How did a military that's so handily made a mess of its real war make one of the best computer war games for kids ever? The title of the 2002 game was America's Army, downloaded from GoArmy.com a whopping 2.5 million times in its first two months of availability. Intended as a recruiting aid, it's been a failure. While it seemed to be a fun digital war experience, the army's limp tally sheet indicates the game didn't persuade a legion of young people desperate to get out of town after graduation to sign up. (One concedes America's Army is a better enticement to volunteer than the free "boonie hat" offered in army commercials this year.) Nevertheless, Halter (a Voice contributor) describes how America's Army was an online blockbuster, a thrilling experience for its makers and gamers, unattached to the reality of the war on terror.

Steeped in a deep history of gaming and simulation, Halter's expert tome is primarily about a long-standing American obsession with technology, which he illustrates by examining the adoption of video-game culture by the military. The U.S. military is enthusiastic for things which are transformational, such as tactics and training billed as capable of making it over into something it isn't: an instrument for winning wars without fuss. And that makes it a sucker for gimmicks and gadgets, one definition for computer games.

Computer gaming is touted as something akin to a Swiss Army knife by its creators. It can do all things: Multiply force because the soldier trained thusly is a better war fighter, simulate equipment, or provide a mechanism by which the boots can be indoctrinated into the culture of the military by moving training into off hours as fun. But the working proof is paper thin.

Mario Bros. meets Saddam.
image: Courtesy of Thunder's Mouth Press
Mario Bros. meets Saddam.

Details

From Sun Tzu to XBox: War and Video Games
By Ed Halter
Thunder's Mouth, 334 pp., $16.95

Imaginary Weapons
By Sharon Weinberger
Nation Books, 266 pp., $26

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But its evangelizers and cheerleaders are eloquent. Halter includes a fatuous quote from one knob at Salon who, when writing on America's Army, breaks into patriotic song over its potential for building an instrument of "dedicated young men and women, their weapons merged into an information network that enables them to cut out with surgical precision the cancer that threatens us all—heat-packing humanitarians who leave the innocent unscathed, and full of renewed hope. In their wake, democracy . . . "

As Halter's book reveals, the gifted developers are very much in love with their intellects and the sound of their technologically informed voices. Take the army's Michael Macedonia, who "in conversation may quote Herbert Marcuse or Plato" and who issues slogans like "the object is not to entertain you, but to train you." Of one thing, we can be sure. Three months of training on the road to the Baghdad airport would fix the man's wagon.

Sharon Weinberger's Imaginary Weaponsis another tale of military technology—one more disturbing than Halter's. It's a fascinating investigation into the investment in the hafnium bomb, a device that entranced the military because salesmen promised a weapon with the bang of an atomic bomb in the size of a golf ball. As with Halter's book, one defining feature of the story is the military's enthusiastic pursuit of the dubious. In Imaginary Weapons, this is tied to the philosophy that the U.S. cannot afford to be taken by "technological surprise" by any adversary. This idea has fostered blind unreason and a penchant for pursuing any and all weapons projects, no matter how irrational.

In any case, "hafnium isomer" is a radioactive material that barely exists. It is expensive and difficult to make in even microscopic amounts, yet scientists receiving Pentagon funding became convinced it could be a wonder weapon in the war on terror. The hafnium bomb would be useful for sterilizing biological terror weapons hidden in underground bunkers. Another motivation was the logic—straight out of Dr. Strangelove—that America must not fall behind in a hafnium bomb gap to terrorists or rival nations. That there was no proof of any of this did not matter.

Even though reputable and independent teams of the nation's top physicists declared repeatedly that the science of the hafnium bomb was rubbish and the project impossible, outside oversight and common sense failed. The culprits in this were the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) under Tony Tether and the scientists from Texas who were the hafnium bomb's main adherents. Tether, like the self-confident boffins in Halter's book, is immune to poor reviews. It takes respected scientists chipping away at him for years to bring down the Pentagon's hafnium dreams, at which point he begins to flee from the reporter of Imaginary Weapons. In a better world, Tether would have been fired years ago.

The sense of outrage that Imaginary Weapons inspires isn't from the idea of a hafnium bomb, no matter how horrific it may have sounded. It could no more have been made than sand can be transformed into gasoline. But it suggests a systemic illness in the military, one in which people who deliver pipe dreams based on nonsense—gadgets that train rather than entertain, a golf ball than can demolish a city—are sought after as long as they can continue to make them.

 
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