I'm a video game geek, so as I sat through movie previews a few weeks ago, I was sure I was watching Nintendo ads.
There on the cinema's screen was a supersleek plane flying over a moonscape while communicating with an orbiting satellite. In the next moment, a multicolored topographical map, orders being barked - and in my own mind, memories of Call of Duty graphics. And then, finally, two guys in front of a computer console, and the jarring punch line: "It's not science fiction; it's what we do every day," said the bold type, followed by a U.S. Air Force symbol.
Before giving the audience a chance to digest the slogan, it was on to another montage, this one of helicopters and explosions with 1970s music playing in the background. A preview for a Steve McQueen-themed game, I thought. Then, though, the familiar kicker: "The drones fight terrorism and protect America, and in the process, they keep the frontlines unmanned," said the voiceover, adding, "This isn't science fiction; this is life in the United States Navy."
The ads preceded "The Hurt Locker" - a dramatized movie about soldiers who defuse roadside bombs in the midst of Iraq's horrifying carnage. And even with its fictionalized dialogue, the film was far more honest than the U.S. military's fantastical sales pitch. Join the armed forces, the ads suggest, and you don't have to experience the blood-and-guts consequences of combat. Instead, you get to hang out stateside, entertaining yourself with a glorified PlayStation.
During this, one of the bloodiest months in the Afghanistan war, the spots promote a somewhat comforting, if disturbingly misleading, message - one aimed at potential soldiers and the public at large.
For the former, the goal is reassurance. As Bush-era attempts to conflate bellicosity and patriotism were undermined by persistent body bags, military recruitment has become more challenging. In response, the Pentagon hopes to make prospective volunteers believe their tours of duty will be as safe as a night on the couch.
For the general public, the objective is sedation. New polls show the country strongly opposes the Afghanistan and Iraq wars - but military officials want to preserve the possibility of an escalation in Afghanistan and a permanent deployment in Iraq. So the Pentagon is seeking an opiate to placate the war-averse populace. What better anodyne than a marketing campaign implying wars are fun video games?
Certainly, the ads aren't pure science fiction. As the armed forces build more unmanned drones, Popular Science magazine reports that recruiters are indeed looking to add new remote pilots. The science fiction is the specific assertion that "the frontlines are unmanned." Claims like that are deeply destructive, beyond their obvious insult to the thousands on those very frontlines.
It's a good bet more than a few enlistees will expect their service to be video game tournaments, only to find themselves dodging real bullets in a Baghdad shooting gallery.
More broadly, the American psyche's slow progress toward an increasingly peaceful disposition could be stunted by the propaganda's powerful paradox: While sanitizing ads play to the country's growing disgust with militarism, they could ultimately lead us to be more supportive of militarism. How? By convincing us that violence can be just another innocuous expression of adolescent technophilia.
If we end up thinking that, we will have once again forgotten what all wars, even the justifiable ones, always are: lamentable human tragedies.