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The Portland Press Herald

Is Our Army Glamorizing War and Violence to an Audience of Children?

Leigh Donaldson

Can a child distinguish between real and virtual violence? Our Army seems to think so.

Even though the Army Experience Center, located north of Philadelphia, purports to merely be an educational facility that uses interactive simulations and online learning programs about careers, training and educational opportunities within the armed forces, this $12 million investment seems more geared to teaching kids how to kill and destroy things.

"If it's a state-of-the art anything, it's state-of-the-art adolescent boys' wet dreams," according to Penny Coleman, author of "Flashback."

The 15,000-square-foot structure apparently includes strings of Xbox 360 pods and individual gaming stations and a UH-60 Black Hawk, an AH-64 and a Humvee. The touch-screen installations where one can view jobs with the Army pale in their light.

All this is at no cost to the visitor and with only a 13-year-old age limit.

Here, the Army wants the American public to know that the military experience is a valuable one, even though many of the virtual reality experiences and simulations involve blood and gore.

Though they work hard at avoiding the portrayal of violence, we are still talking about killing, maiming and physical destruction.

For example, the Army's official game called "America's Army" is, according to Coleman, "unapologetically about realistic, deadly combat - minus the blood. A hit registers as a puff of red smoke. Four puffs and you are 'engaged.' Concerned parents can further sanitize the violence with controls that cause dead soldiers to simply sit down."

There is even such a thing as the 1st Infantry Division apparel collection, an official licensed line of clothing, on sale at Sears, made in China and available in boys' sizes. Could we stop it already?

And believe it or not, there was a provision in "No Child Left Behind" legislation that forced schools to allow access to recruiters who would provide contact information for students as young as 11.

But does the absence of blood and guts mean that young people can make a distinction between reality and fantasy and simply have fun playing games? In some cases, perhaps, but not in most.

The psychology of murder is profound and these games, as they're called, tend to desensitize the participant to violence.

Many studies indicate a direct correlation between exposure to media violence, especially interactive video games, to increased childhood aggression.

A Stanford University study reveals that over a 20-week period, third- and fourth-graders who limited or eliminated television and video games showed a 50 percent decrease in verbal aggression and 40 percent in physical.

But kids will often be attracted to violence games, especially when they are couched under the label of "fun."

Historically, our heroes in books, movies, TV shows and so on have been outright killers. Rarely is the peacemaker held up.


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Most sports, including boxing, martial arts and football, are glorified, legal versions of past gladiator-type aggression.

Technology has made it easier to distance oneself from the true horrors of warfare. Perhaps it began with swords, then firearms.

Now we can zap the enemy with electronically controlled missiles and nuclear weapons that further distance us from seeing the tragic consequences of our actions.

The attacker never has to face the victim.

Somehow we may have been convinced that war and armies are a necessary evil. Therefore, because we must always fight to protect ourselves, shouldn't we assemble the best Army we can get?

So, let's get the volunteer soldiers ready as early as possible, at no cost to them.

Opponents to this way of seeing things will legitimately argue that the military has and continues to be a great career option for many citizens.

Others will say that playing violent video games has no effect on the mind of a child or adult. Kids have played war games and fooled around with guns for ages and not become murderers.

But, wouldn't a better alternative to children enjoying shooting at people and blowing up buildings be games that encourage the use of their minds, skills and physical dexterity to engage in activities that promote the sanctity of life and peace?

Violence has never been an effective solution to the world's problems, many of which were created through violence.

Cruelty can easily become a human addiction, especially among the young.

Inflicting pain and suffering should never be an American sport.

Our common enemy has always been greed, fear and outright stupidity. Peace is not a bad thing to teach our children.

Their lives should not be a recruiting center for death and destruction.

Let's help them, with our taxpayer dollars, to stand up for that even if it kills us.

Leigh Donaldson is a Portland writer whose book "The Written Song: The Antebellum African-American Press in The Northeast" is due for publication in 2009.

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