Help save the youth of the world
Help save the boys in uniform
Their mothers and their faithful girls
Billy Bragg, Help Save the Youth of America
Bang, Bang, You’re Dead
Lisa Barnard’s complicated and intriguing multimedia project Virtual Iraq is an exploration of just how far the possibilities for recruitment, training and post trauma treatment, through the use of virtual reality, have been developed in the USA. Flatworld is a military funded research and development project, based at the Institute of Creative Technologies (ICT), a research centre also funded by the military to create training applications using virtual reality in advanced technologies. Skip Rizzo, lead psychologist on the programme, describes it as ‘the unholy alliance between Hollywood, the military and academia’. In a powerful ‘talking head’ monologue, filmed by Barnard, Rizzo explains the rationale that drew him to work with ICT as a behind the scenes mission to ‘take all of the great stuff funded for military purposes and redirect it towards civilian applications’.
He seems a man genuinely driven by a desire to help both military and civilian trauma victims but also seems to feel the need to explain and justify himself to Barnard in her interviews of him. He is a product of the 60s and early 70s and consequently manages to get away with the line ‘I think that we can all agree that war sucks!’ without sounding too ridiculous.
The main focus of Rizzo’s work is to develop the use of virtual reality technology for the treatment of servicemen and women affected by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition that causes the sufferer to experience reoccurrences of a traumatic experience with the slightest of triggers – say a particular smell or the sound of a door slamming. He works primarily with exposure therapy, a cognitive behavioral therapy technique for reducing fear and anxiety responses through controlled exposure to the very experience the sufferer’s automatic reflexes are trying to help them to avoid. It could be described as a little like rubbing a blister until it becomes a callous. The landscapes of Iraqi towns and cities are being painstakingly built in virtual reality, complete with tanks and helicopters, dead soldiers and dead civilians, which help to faithfully recreate the sight of a soldier’s trauma. Many of the scenes, corpses and body parts used in this virtual world are made from photographs sold to ICT by the servicemen and women on the frontline – a handy source of extra income for those with a stomach for the grizzly subject matter and an eye for detail. They have also developed a series of smells to further enhance the experience and bring it closer to the original (real) experience. These are housed in a unit designed to release them at the appropriate moment. The smells, from jars labeled Cordite, Body Odor, Weapons Fire, Mideast Spice [sic], Diesel Fuel, Burning Rubber or Burning Flesh, can be issued to enhance the visual experience of the virtual reality headset worn by the patient (see front cover image). These units are being made portable for the front line, allowing soldiers to be treated on site – the rationale being that the further away from the battlefield a soldier is taken, the worse the prognosis.
Rizzo’s phrase, ‘we don’t want another Vietnam on our hands’ is a creditable sentiment and his work to take military funds and make something useful to everyone has to be applauded but this laudable endeavour, for me, is heavily offset by the more sinister aspects of ICT’s project work. There can be very little in the world as cynical as a government strategy to entice a country’s youth into military service, but this is also part of the US military’s remit to ICT. Central to this is Sergeant Star who was developed by ICT as a recruitment device for the US army – a virtual reality war pimp pushing the opportunity to enter the fray to the youth of America. He is shipped to farm shows and local carnivals to ‘talk’ to the potential recruits.
On first viewing Barnard’s footage of Sergeant Star is comical. In the film he ‘talks’ to Josh Williams, the lead demonstrator for the Mixed Reality in Development Group at ICT.
Josh Williams: ‘Sergeant Star, are you there?’
Sergeant Star: ‘Just give me a minute to pull myself together.’
Star appears from the dark as a skeleton and quickly assumes the form of a burly, square jawed, white soldier.
JW: ‘That was quick.’
SS: ‘It’s one of the many advantages of being a virtual character.’
Star passes his hand through his arm to prove another advantage.
JW: ‘Why don’t we talk about the army?’
SS: ‘Hooah! I love to talk about the army!’
JW: ‘Where are you from?’
SS: ‘Fort Knox, Kentucky. It’s where they keep all the important stuff, like me and the gold.’
JW: ‘Can I jump out of a plane if I join the army?’
SS: ‘Hooah! There are plenty of opportunities to jump out of an airplane if that’s what you wanna do.’
JW: ‘What does Hooah mean?’
SS: ‘Hooah can mean I copy, roger, good, alright, message received, yes, you got it, amen!’
JW: ‘ How long is basic training?’
SS: ‘Well, for nine weeks during basic training you will huff and puff as you get physically and mentally stronger – but it’ll be worth it… And who knows, you might end up looking as good as me.’
Sergeant Star turns to profile and shows off his tight buns, flat stomach and barrel chest. He looks the viewer up and down with an almost mocking smile.
The comedy and the camp presentational style of Star soon wear thin as the ethics of a virtual character selling a career as dangerous as joining the infantry begin to break through the showmanship. The real twisted genius of the scenario is that Star inhabits the virtual environment the targeted age group are so comfortable in – an environment in which they feel safe and have probably fought many raging battles. The association between video games and Sergeant Star cannot be overlooked or underestimated as almost every child in America must have fought against aliens, Nazis, mutants and Middle Eastern insurgencies and walked away unharmed. The tactic of using entertainment media in this way is not limited to the US military; in the UK, army TV adverts show the intrepid recruits saving hurricane victims, lifting children to safety, canoeing down tropical rivers and scuba diving in blue seas. The films are always beautifully shot – they are realistic but retain the high production values of a Hollywood blockbuster – and the experience of army life is pitched as an exciting alternative to working as a supermarket shelf-stacker or trainee bus driver. The only danger would seem to be the possibility of laughing yourself to death or keeling over through excessive job satisfaction. The British army also operate their own You Tube feed to distribute these films to the media-savvy generation that they are targeting, fitting seamlessly in with videos of skateboard tricks and dancing cats – war looks like a great deal of fun in this context.
Virtual reality is also used for training purposes in Flatworld, and in this context an Iraqi character called Ra’id is the villain to Sergeant Star’s hero. Ra’id is part of a ‘cultural and cognitive combat immersive training’ programme, used to teach soldiers the level to which ‘cultural nuances’ can affect the outcome of an interrogation. The trainee interrogator will stand in a room, propped with Middle-Eastern paraphernalia, and address a screen that Ra’id appears on. The assumption must be that Ra’id is probably the perpetrator of a bombing in the market place and there are holes in his story for the eager trainee to catch him out on. It all seems to revolve around the type of cart he was seen pushing to market – was it a pottery cart or just a cart? It is intended to teach the soldier the value of understanding ‘cultural nuance’ when approaching a suspect with an understanding that the ‘culturally savvy’ interrogator will catch out the hapless Ra’id. The suspect will be so flattered that the interrogators have taken the time to ingratiate themselves with his wife and understand his religious beliefs that his guard will slip.
Soldier: ‘What were you doing in the market with a cart?’
Ra’id: ‘Pottery cart? I have no pottery cart!’
Soldier: ‘Who mentioned any pottery cart? Gotcha Ra’id!’
Let’s hope that there are a lot of pottery cart based incidents to justify all this expense and that all Iraqis work on the same set of principals and emotional triggers as Ra’id. Otherwise it could all seem like a waste of money and a further endangerment of lives.
Barnard’s project does not aim to direct you towards the ridiculous aspects of Flatworld or to point out the serious moral questions its existence raises. It achieves more than this by simply removing Flatworld from its context and holding all of its contradictions still to be viewed. And who knows where all this will end? An ideal outcome would be to move to completely virtual wars, where spotty faced stoner boys cause ‘shock and awe’ and fight for ‘hearts and minds’ across cyberspace from dingy bedrooms.
Mom: ‘What you doin’ in there Brad?’
Brad: ‘War, I ain’t fighting no war!’
Mom: ‘Who mentioned any war? Gotcha Brad!’
Well, you can dream can’t you?