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Peddling War to Children

Robert C. Koehler

In the gap between a boy’s passionate fantasies and the smell of dead bodies in a mass grave marches . . . America’s Army.

“He wonders if God is punishing him because before he joined the Army he thought of war as something fun and exciting.”

couldn’t wage our current wars without the all-volunteer military whose
recruitment goals get fed every year by idealistic young people, who
continue, despite all counter-evidence bursting off the front pages, to
buy into the romance and excitement of war and armed do-goodism that the
recruiters, with the help of a vast “militainment” industry, peddle
like so many Joe Camels.

words quoted above are from a psychologist’s PTSD evaluation of a young
soldier named Brad Gaskins, whom I wrote about several years ago; he
was one of the soldiers in the first wave of our 2003 invasion of Iraq.
He went AWOL after his second deployment.

were used to push the bodies into mass graves,” the psychologist wrote
after her interview with him. “The bodies would fall apart, the smell
was unforgettable. He felt badly that the bodies were treated with such
disrespect. There was no effort made to identify the dead so that their
families could know what happened to them. He was expected to handle
many of the dead bodies which were significantly decayed and often
‘oozing goop’ into the ground.”

far as I’m concerned, this is the only appropriate context in which to
talk about the gaming industry, which has been on my mind since I read
the other day about the possible resurgence of an unpublished video game
called Six Days in Fallujah. The video game had been promoted last year
as an “interactive documentary” about the second battle of Fallujah, in
November 2004, and had generated excitement in the gamer community, but
was killed just before it was due to be released by the Japanese
company Ko­nami because its reality-based action made it too
controversial — it crossed over a public relations line and dishonored
the troops who had actually fought in Fallujah, apparently.

course, it also dishonored the thousands of Iraqi civilians who were
slaughtered there, not to mention the ones who are now battling cancer
and leukemia and other plagues of an environment polluted by the
aftermath of war — and not to mention the large number of post-invasion
children born with birth defects, thought to be caused, or partially
caused, by the residue of depleted uranium left behind by U.S. weaponry.

nobody in the gaming industry, or the media that covers it, evinced a
concern about that, or noted that Six Days in Fallujah and all the other
war games that children and adults play are merely sophisticated
e-versions of cowboys and Indians: the dance of good and evil played out
in a consequence-free context. The good guys are always “us” and the
bad guys of the moment are often merely our victims.

any case, this controversy dredged up for me some far larger issues,
such as the cozy relationship between the military-industrial complex
and our multitrillion-dollar entertainment industry and, beyond that,
the strange and sick relationship between the Pentagon and American
boyhood, as manifested by the taxpayer-sponsored website,
which since 2002 has been one of the Army’s most effective recruiting
tools. The site sanitizes and romanticizes war for kids 13 and up, with
the aim of reeling them in young.

recoil fiercely at this site. It strikes me as the very essence of
America’s own arrested development: We command the world’s largest
arsenal and throw our weight around with an adolescent swagger. Neocons
famously declared “high noon” with Saddam Hussein. If militarists had to
face long-term or even short-term accountability for the damage they
wreak, war would be obsolete in an eye blink.

I think about, I think about my own boyhood and the
endless games of “war” the kids on my block played. We killed one
another endlessly with pretend guns made out of sticks; and we died,
over and over, with the highest theater possible. We jumped off one
another’s front porches into the bushes, doing our swan dives of death.
We imagined dying by every possible grade of weapon, up to and including
hydrogen bombs, whose mushroom clouds leapt from the front pages of the
newspapers that arrived on our doorsteps.

also had real fights with one another occasionally, and there was
nothing pretty about them — but what is startling and fascinating to me
is that real fighting bore no emotional relationship with pretend
fighting and dying. The pretend stuff was part of a natural process of
becoming, of growing up; it was, I am convinced, play in a spiritual
sense, as we communed with heroic glory and reached for our futures.

has nothing to do with real war, but the adults with a self-interest in
its perpetuation continue to sell it to the young as though it were.
What an obscenity, it seems to me, to exploit the yearning of the young,
and feign a solidarity with it, in order to perpetuate a system that
will in all likelihood simply chew them up.


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Robert C. Koehler

Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. Koehler has been the recipient of multiple awards for writing and journalism from organizations including the National Newspaper Association, Suburban Newspapers of America, and the Chicago Headline Club.  He’s a regular contributor to such high-profile websites as Common Dreams and the Huffington Post. Eschewing political labels, Koehler considers himself a “peace journalist. He has been an editor at Tribune Media Services and a reporter, columnist and copy desk chief at Lerner Newspapers, a chain of neighborhood and suburban newspapers in the Chicago area. Koehler launched his column in 1999. Born in Detroit and raised in suburban Dearborn, Koehler has lived in Chicago since 1976. He earned a master’s degree in creative writing from Columbia College and has taught writing at both the college and high school levels. Koehler is a widower and single parent. He explores both conditions at great depth in his writing. His book, "Courage Grows Strong at the Wound" (2016). Contact him or visit his website at

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